The expansion of mobile access has been a common refrain in international development for years now. It plays an important role in supporting human development, from economic and educational opportunities to political freedoms and human rights. Increased access to mobiles has been linked to positive social outcomes in dozens of countries.
It's hard to believe, but six years ago this month FrontlineSMS was quietly released into the world. There was no press release, no fuss, no fanfare and certainly no funding. "Project SMS" was conceived earlier that year, renamed "FrontlineSMS" a few weeks later, and then cobbled together on a kitchen table in Finland over the summer. For a long time promoting and supporting it was simply a hobby as I continued my life as an ICT consultant. It's an understatement to say that I'm surprised at where we are today. Over fifteen staff across three continents, thousands of users in over 70 countries around the world, and a tool which has found a home for itself in almost all fields of international development. None of that was ever part of the plan back in October 2005.
I'm equally as proud of the roots of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. I've been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven't. There's much that's wrong in the sector, but also a lot that's right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There's very little I'd do differently if I started it all over again.
As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.
These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here's just a few:
Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead - and at the heart - of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive "anything is possible" attitude, making sure we continue to put people - and their needs - ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally - constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.
As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.
We announced a few weeks ago that FrontlineSMS is 'rising to the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.' Now, after a rigorous vetting process, FrontlineSMS has been selected from a pool of hundreds of entries from over 35 counties to become 2011 Semi-Finalists! Named "Socially-Responsible Design's Highest Award" by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.
FrontlineSMS was recognized for our work to bring the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, by harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. Our software works without the internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download. Results from a recent FrontlineSMS user survey help to illustrate our efforts to design software to work for "100% of humanity." In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said,
"I was using Frontline SMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organise various school events and programs."
At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. We see FrontlineSMS as part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good.We focus on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.
While the core platform is use-agnostic, our team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example, our sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized too. In our user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.
For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.
As one of the 21 Semi-Finalists, FrontlineSMS will be featured as a top tier project in BFI’s Idea Index for the remainder of the program cycle. Semi-Finalists will be reviewed and discussed by 11 distinguished jurors including Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.
Finalists will be announced in May and the winner, runner up, and honorable mention will be announced at the conferring ceremony in New York in early June.
About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information visit: http://challenge.bfi.org/
*Our FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people