For a technology product, a 9th birthday is no small feat. It’s an even bigger feat for a technology non-profit. So, it's taken a lot of deliberation, but it’s time to announce something we’ve been working on for a while: Frontline is becoming a business.
For the past six-and-a-half years, FrontlineSMS has been something of a labour of love for me. Initially inspired by a decade of work with grassroots non-profits across the African continent, FrontlineSMS spoke directly to how I felt development should be done. Three years at university, dozens of field trips and countless discussions with development professionals convinced me that the future was bottom up, yet many of the mobile tools I came across in the early years of the discipline were quite the opposite. Tools, I believed, needed to be simple, appropriate, give control to the user and be built with those non-profit users in mind, and up until then little was. In 2003, when I started my career in mobile, it was clear that the technology held huge potential for the grassroots NGO community. As I approach my ten year anniversary that potential has largely been proved, but we're still some way off reaching our full potential. It's been an honour to be part of the growth, and an honour to have helped - in some small way - the work of countless dedicated NGOs as they battle to use mobile in their work.
Although the idea for FrontlineSMS came about after a series of conservation trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I had a hunch that conservation NGOs in other places faced the same communication challenges. I also felt that other disciplines - health, agriculture, education and human rights among them - were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people. Today those hunches bear out, with FrontlineSMS in use in over eighty countries in over 20 sectors of development. It's been an incredible few years, and over that time it's become clear that FrontlineSMS has much greater potential than I ever imagined.
I've always maintained that it's just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and as FrontlineSMS grew its way out of my one bedroom flat in Cambridge and my VW Camper home at Stanford University, it became clear to me that the project needed a whole new set of skills to take it to the next level. In one of my favourite blog posts - " The Rolling Stones School of Innovation Management" - I wrote about how the Rolling Stones needed three different managers over the course of their careers, each of who had entirely different skills needed at different times in their growth. Funnily enough, FrontlineSMS follows a similar trajectory with different needs at the technological, business and organisational levels. As I wrote:
"As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process".
Since the middle of 2011 I've been working closely with a new Senior Management Team at FrontlineSMS, working towards the announcement we're making today. Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald have worked tirelessly helping prepare FrontlineSMS to meet new challenges and prepare us for our next stage of growth. They and the team have welcomed new, talented staff, released in-depth user guides, case studies and resources, published two academic articles, started a consultancy, brought in new funds, released Beta versions of exciting new FrontlineSMS products, future-proofed the software with a new, extendable, browser-based version, established a new UK entity, opened US and Kenyan offices, and recruited two Boards of Directors. It's been a busy 18 months, and we're in great shape as we enter a new and exciting phase in the history of FrontlineSMS, with Sean and Laura at the helm. Going forward, Laura will be CEO of the kiwanja Foundation, which houses our free, open-source software and user support. Sean is CEO of the kiwanja Community Interest Company, which supports users with program design advice, houses our sector-specific projects, and manages custom extensions to the platform. You'll hear more about our plans for the future from them in the coming days.
As for me, I'll continue my association with FrontlineSMS as before, and will continue to support it enthusiastically in person at conferences, through my blog, through book chapters and wider writing, and in my role of Chair of the Board. As to what I'll do with some of my new-found free time, I'm also planning to get stuck into a number of new project ideas which have been bubbling away for the past two to three years, ideas which I've been unable to do anything with due to my full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS. Further details on these new projects will be announced on my blog over the summer, so watch this space!
It's an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I'm excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it. For some people, passing the baton on such a personal project would be something of a challenge. Knowing that the project is in safe hands has made the decision much easier for me. FrontlineSMS was always going to be bigger than one person. With a fantastic team behind it, it now has the chance to step up and meet the potential it clearly has.
Wishing you all the very best,
Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder
If you were to ask me to give you - in a microcosm - an example of what continues to inspire me about FrontlineSMS, it would be this.
On Sunday morning I woke, and checked in with the Forum. Okay, it was a weekend but we try to be there for our user-base - which these days is truly global - as much of the time as is possible. (The recent appointment of two FrontlineSMS:Heroes - power users, in other words - to provide additional cover when we're not always around, is testament to this). I saw a post from Stephen Sowa which didn't require too much thought - FrontlineSMS doesn't yet do what he wanted - but there was something he could try. After a couple of minutes responding I then had breakfast, did some gardening and spring cleaning, and got on with the day.
Later in the afternoon, during a break from mowing the lawn, I quickly checked into the Forum again and Stephen had successfully set up the three FrontlineSMS systems he needed for his training this week. A result all round.
A number of things motivate me about all this:
- Stephen found his way to our software, identified it's potential, read it up and downloaded it.
- Stephen successfully installed it, without help, on three separate machines.
- Stephen didn't need us for any of that, but when he did we had a fully open online Forum available where he could look for answers and post his question.
- After giving Stephen a bit of advice, he managed to figure out the rest for himself.
Okay, not all technical support turns out this well this quickly and this easily, and not all users have the technical skills Stephen clearly has, but what happened here represents everything that motivates me about FrontlineSMS. Engaged, motivated users, driving their own projects with full local ownership and us in a support role, as and when needed, if at all. It might not be how most m4d projects are run, but it's a process and approach I continue to believe in.
Earlier this year, Ashoka deployed FrontlineSMS in four African countries to help promote one of their Changemakers campaigns. In Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Senegal, members of the public were invited to nominate a great teacher - a champion of quality education - who had made a profound impact on their lives. Previous campaigns had used more traditional media. When Ashoka decided to try text messaging for the first time, they turned to FrontlineSMS. The campaign was a success. Ashoka said at the time: "We are very excited that we are using this technology. We are reaching out to an audience we couldn’t have accessed otherwise. We received over a hundred SMS in the first day and only one email". Since then, kiwanja.net and Ashoka have collaborated further, starting with the creation of the Social Changemaking with Mobile Phones Group in May.
With interest in text messaging continuing to rise, Changemakers raised the idea of creating a guide, based on their experiences, to explain to other organisations in their network how to get SMS campaigns up-and-running in the shortest possible time and with the minimum of fuss. There are numerous SMS guides and reports on the web, but few talk NGOs through a simple set of steps to help them physically set up their own messaging hub.
With the help of the Group we'd set up earlier in the year, and input from other FrontlineSMS users, Ashoka released the completed "SMS Quick Start Guide" last week.
Two further collaborative reports will be released in the coming months. For now, the "SMS Quick Start Guide" can be downloaded here (PDF, 1Mb).
In a sense, kiwanja.net is something of a deception. With so much going on so much of the time, it exudes the aura of a small, tightly-knit organisation, a team of people busily working their way through a range of mobile and ICT-related projects. If, back in 2003, I had called the site kenbanks.com as I originally planned - thank goodness it was taken - this confusion probably wouldn't arise today. Many people assume there are at least a couple of people behind kiwanja.net, nGOmobile or FrontlineSMS. The deception is well and truly driven home when I get emails asking to speak to someone from my London office. One day, my friend. One day.
The last couple of weeks or so - a few days either side of my return to Stanford, in fact - have been particularly productive. Here's a wrap up of some of the latest kiwanja.net News.
kiwanja.net was appointed a member of the Program Committee for the W3C Workshop on the Role of Mobile Technologies in Fostering Social Development. Scheduled for Sao Paulo in June, the Workshop aims to understand the specific challenges of using mobile phones and web technologies to deliver services to underprivileged populations in developing countries. A Call for Participation for the 2008 event went out at the end of February.
A talk on the uses of FrontlineSMS by grassroots health NGOs, and a live demonstration of the software, took place at Stanford University's Texting4Health Conference. This followed closely on the heals of FrontlineSMS's inclusion in a new UN "Compendium of ICT Applications on Electronic Government". The first in a series of volumes, this one focuses on the use of mobile technology in the areas of health and learning.
After a series of discussions which started last autumn came an appointment to the Advisory Board for Open Mind, a non-profit organisation which houses Question Box, a project developing a simple telephone intercom which connects rural people to the internet. After blogging about it a few days ago (see the entry below), Question Box was picked up by the popular Boing Boing website.
After successful outings with the Global Mobile Awards 2008 and kiwanja's own nGOmobile competition, 160 Characters appointed kiwanja.net a judge for the forthcoming 2008 Mobile Messaging Awards. FrontlineSMS, which was short listed for a 2007 Mobile Messaging Award, will be at the centre of a speech I'm giving in Cannes - where the 2008 winners will be announced, and where I'll be making the non-profit keynote address on the use of SMS by grassroots NGOs around the world.
On the subject of Awards, FrontlineSMS has been nominated in the "Equality" section of the Tech Awards, an international Awards program that honours innovators from around the world applying technology to benefit humanity.
kiwanja.net made its fourth appearance on the BBC World Service, this time talking about the recently announced winners of the inaugural nGOmobile competition. The interview, broadcast on Digital Planet, profiled the projects in Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan and covered more broadly the continuing relevance of SMS as a tool for grassroots NGOs in the developing world.
The Social Mobile Group on Facebook, set up by kiwanja in November 2006 (and which has just hit the 1,400 member-mark) was praised in a blog posting by Social Media Guy in an entry titled "Facebook Groups Done Right". The use of Rotating Group Officers, relevant discussion topics, the presence of an external site for non-Facebook users and a voluntary Members Directory were all highlighted as innovative ways of developing and maintaining groups on the platform.
Finally, "Design Traditionalist", a blog run by Alan Manley (a lecturer in product design in India) has named the kiwanja.net website among several others in its "Good site" section. As someone forced to do their own web design and development (it would normally be a job for the London office, right?) it's always quite pleasing when a qualified observer has a "positive interaction".
Maybe I won't make those changes after all...