Data-mining our download records - what download registration did, and didn't tell us about our users

By Kavita Rajah and Laura Walker Hudson FrontlineSMS software is used in such a wide variety of sectors that often people are surprised to hear that the inspiration for FrontlineSMS originally came specifically from conservation work. Throughout 2003 and 2004, FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was working to find ways to help authorities engage and communicate with communities in wildlife conservation in South Africa, without relying on the Internet. Ken realised he needed a system that could send, receive, and organize text messages through a mobile device and a laptop without needing the Internet, and from that the original concept of FrontlineSMS was born. The software was developed in the summer of 2005 and made available online that October.

Six years on, despite the very context-specific inspiration for the software, FrontlineSMS has now been downloaded nearly 27,000 times and is in use in over 80 countries, in 22 different areas of social change work. Until the recent release of FrontlineSMS Version 2, users were asked to fill in a form telling us who they were and how they were planning to use FrontlineSMS before being given a download link. Following up on this data gives us the links with users that lead to our case studies and FrontlineSMS in Action blog posts. We recently analyzed the whole dataset to learn more about how, why and where people seek to use our software. What we were able to glean from it was interesting. Among other fun facts:

  • The top 3 sectors in which FrontlineSMS is being used most are Education, Health and Civil Society
  • The country that has downloaded FrontlineSMS the most is the United States, followed by Kenya and then, India - we think that a lot of downloads from North America and Europe are intended for use elsewhere
  • Africa accounts for 35% of all downloads - more than any other continent. 25% of downloads are from Asia, and 17% from North America.

Interestingly, some geographic regions have large numbers of downloads in certain sectors. For example, West Africa has the highest number of downloads in Election Monitoring and Engineering, while Europe has the highest number in Arts and Culture. Asia has the highest number of downloads in the Media sector.

However, the limitations of this dataset got us thinking about how we gather information on our users.

Gathering data about how FrontlineSMS is used is critical for us on a number of fronts - it helps us to improve the software, enables us to report to our donors and the public about the impact of our work, and helps inspire others to use SMS in their work in new and more powerful ways. Although the download data was useful, it could only give us a snapshot of a user's intention at the time they downloaded FrontlineSMS - it was difficult to link this with data about actual use, from the statistics-gathering module in version 1.6 or later, or from our annual user survey, and many users didn't go on to use FrontlineSMS as they'd intended. The most informative element of the form was a freetext section which allowed users to give us potentially quite a bit of information about our plans - but is hard to parse and analyze and often included hardly any data. The only way for users to download anonymously was to give false or junk information on the form.

When we came to plan the release of the new software, we thought very differently. Version 2 of the software is a one-click download that asks users to register when they install. Information collected in this way is sent back to us over the web, when the system sees the internet - we'll be adding support for registration via SMS later. We are committed to allowing users to maintain their anonymity, as we know many are activists (if you are one of these people, you should read our Data Integrity Guide!). You will always be able to opt-out of in-app registration - although it means we get fewer registration records, we know we can trust the data we get. In future, we'll also be building better ways for users to keep in touch with us and each other, and share information about what they're doing with FrontlineSMS, using the website.

We'll keep analyzing the data and posting updates here - in the meantime you can read the analysis of our 2010 and 2011 user surveys here.

Monitoring Conservation via SMS: Pact Use FrontlineForms in Cambodia

Guest post by Amanda Bradley, Director of Pact’s Community Forestry Partnership Program in Cambodia

The Oddar Meanchey Community Forestry REDD project is the first of its kind in Cambodia. This project was initiated in 2008 when international consensus crystallized around a mechanism called REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), aiming to compensate developing countries that could successfully protect their existing forests. Since the loss of forests equates with approximately 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, protecting existing forests is seen as a significant part of the solution to global warming.

The key idea behind the Oddar Meanchey project is that if the thirteen participating communities can stop the deforestation in the 64,000 hectares of forest that they have been given rights to manage, then they will earn money through the voluntary carbon market. Over the course of the 30-year project, these credit payments will be used not only to strengthen forest protection efforts, but also to boost the local living standards of 10,000 participating households.

One of the most challenging aspects of the REDD project development is the design and activation of the project monitoring system. In order to comply with international standards, it is necessary to provide comprehensive data to prove that the project actions have resulted in reduced deforestation. In general, communities conduct patrols several times a week to monitor and prevent illegal logging, hunting, and encroachment. In order to streamline the process of data collection, Pact decided to trial FrontlineSMS’ data collection tool, FrontlineForms, with several community leaders to see if the system could be used to efficiently collect field data during forest patrols.

Pact’s first step was to design a simple Khmer language form that could be sent to community leaders to complete during patrols. We purchased several mobile phone handsets compatible with the system and Khmer language requirement (we used the Nokia 5130). Next, Pact’s team trained local leaders how to complete and submit a form. All of the community leaders had never used SMS (text messaging) before, so it took some time for them to get used to the idea of communicating this way, even though the text was in Khmer. However, as the trial progressed they were able to use FrontlineForms to send in information related to their forest patrols; including date, time and length of the patrol, number of patrollers, GPS waypoint for the starting point, fuel used, and presence or absence of illegal activity, wildlife sightings, and fire.

Overall, the trial was a success because it greatly reduced the time and effort to collect field data. Community leaders logged a total of 28 patrols. They said that they were happy to use the system, and appreciated the automatic response confirming receipt of their data. They also provided useful tips for further improvement of the system. For instance, they said that the Form needed to be adjusted to accommodate data for overnight patrols. They also learned that if patrolling in remote locations without telephone reception, they needed to wait until returning to the village before sending their Forms.

As a result of using FrontlineSMS, Pact was able to collect valuable data on the forest patrols which normally might take many days to compile. There is no longer a need for collecting and translating handwritten paper forms from all corners of the province. There are still some challenges - such as certifying data accuracy and avoiding double submission of the same Form - but as community leaders gain experience with the system, the submissions are likely to improve. Pact is now expanding our use of FrontlineForms to cover all of the communities in the project area. Pact will also gradually expand the number of Forms and variables handled by the system as communities become more familiar and comfortable with using FrontlineForms. Eventually, Pact aims to install an automatic alert for urgent issues such as illegal logging or fire to speed up response time from local authorities.

Use of FrontlineForms has the potential to save significant time and effort in data collection for REDD project implementation and reporting. And the more resources that are saved this way, the more credit payments available to support forest protection activities and community livelihoods.

For more information on Pact’s Community Forestry Partnership Program in Cambodia visit:

You can also check out this in-depth report from Pact about their use of FrontlineSMS, and the lessons they've learned so far.

If you would like to connect with Amanda and others using FrontlineSMS in Cambodia then you can go along to a user meet-up in Phnom Penh due on 23rd April. For more information on this visit our community forum. There is a Meet-Ups and Regional Networks group on our forum to help enable FrontlineSMS users to connect with each other, and share lessons learned. So if you're a FrontlineSMS user why not join our forum and start sharing today!