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.
The University of Alberta, MARS lab and the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) have been using FrontlineSMS in a ground-breaking pilot to assess the impact of using SMS to engage women who are trafficked and exploited in Edmonton, Canada. They have very kindly collaborated with us on an in-depth case study, looking at how the system was designed and set up, its impact, and what's happening next.
We want to say thank you to all of our users and supporters for a tremendous and inspiring 2013. Your ideas, input, and investments helped us achieve so many accomplishments over the past year: we topped 100,000 downloads with FrontlineSMS. We launched FrontlineCloud. We received a Google Impact Award for our work with our partner Landesa to secure land rights for 80,000 families in India.
In the aftermath of devastating Typhoon Haiyan, we're working with networks of aid agencies to support the international response any way we can - but we know that the first and most important responders are already in the Philippines.
In the spring of 2012 the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge of Phnom Penh (IPC), Cambodia conducted a pilot study on a text message-based pharmacovigilance tool. Don't know what pharmacovigilance is? Not to worry, neither did I! According to the World Health Organization, "Pharmacovigilance (PV) is defined as the science and activities relating to the detection, assessment, understanding and prevention of adverse effects or any other drug-related problem." The IPC used FrontlineSMS as a tool to follow up with patients after they received vaccinations.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we love data. Like, a lot. If data had its own Facebook page, we’d ‘like’ it and if we took a picture with data out one night, we’d probably make it our profile picture. Data empowers, and we’re all about empowerment o/. In fact, to empower people is the why for the what we do. One thing we’re always wanting to know, of course, is how we are doing. Well we SMSed our friend data to find out – Welcome to the 2013 FrontlineSMS survey results post!
We are using Frontline SMS in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to send stories and lesson plans every day to elementary teachers in rural areas. The SMS story team includes international volunteers working with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the research project is funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Economic and Public Sector Program (EPSP).
Congratulations to Jimmie Ssena for being recognized as a finalist of the VNI Service Awards for his work with rural farmers using FrontlineSMS! Since its founding in 1997, the Nakaseke Telecentre has served as a knowledge portal for poor rural farmers in their district, working to use ICTs “for rural development, reduction of poverty and... a better livelihood of the rural poor.”
Congratulations to Pierre Omadjela for being recognized as a finalist for Cisco’s VNI Service Awards for his work in healthcare awareness using FrontlineSMS! The World Health Organization estimates 80,000 citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) died in 2010 from Malaria. The mosquito-transmitted disease is responsible for 40% of the mortality in Congolese children under five, and in a country where a quarter of the population lack access to healthcare facilities, promoting prevention has proven to be more effective than only treating infected patients. The President’s Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005 through USAID, provides malaria prevention and treatment in five provinces, which make up 26% of the DRC’s health zones.
'As part of our Masters program at Drexel University School of Public Health, we were afforded the opportunity to work on addressing public health concerns in the Gambia for six weeks in summer 2012. We would be working on a community-based masters thesis. Our project focuses on advancing mobile health concerns by improving dental health practices using SMS messaging, as well as enhancingvaccine inventory control at village trekking sites. Health workers could manage referrals, follow-up treatment, and reminders to patients using SMS.
The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched a new website, Capacity to Innovate.org, which examines lessons from a number of organizations including Ushahidi and Internews, and encapsulates them in three short reports which are well worth a read. FrontlineSMS is featured in the 'Learning From Experimentation' report, available from the website. Here's an excerpt, but we really recommend the whole report as a very readable and thought-provoking set of examples.
FrontlineSMS was featured in the Guardian on 30th October 2012 as one Africa's progressive apps, user-friendly programs doing everything from instant messaging to 'the first mobile cow calendar'. We're proud that version 2 of FrontlineSMS is 100% made in Kenya!
We spend a lot of time talking about the ubiquity of the mobile phone at FrontlineSMS. So much time, in fact, that we've now forbidden the use of the word in the office. It's not the word's fault, though, that it's been so difficult to get an accurate idea of exactly how many people, how many unique entities, have mobile phones. Mobile network operators hold on to that data pretty tightly, so we go with the best data we can find.
So radio is important—but not perfect. Although community radio stations often involve local residents in programming and long-term planning, getting real-time feedback from listeners can be challenging. Voice calls are expensive, and stations have a limited time to take calls from their audiences. This is where mobile telephony and text messaging can be a game changer, transforming radio listeners into active participants.
Another example: FrontlineSMS, an organization devoted to leveraging mobile phones for development. Unlike similar organizations, Frontline has devoted significant resources to radio initiatives. Frontline’s platform has been used by community radio stations like Radio Mudzi Wathu in Malawi, which uses Frontline SMS to solicit questions, comments, and ideas from listeners. During prime listening hours, Radio Mudzi asks its audience questions like “why do you think that HIV/AIDS is increasing despite interventions?” and asks them to text their responses. They then aggregate the responses, analyze them, and take them to local policymakers and aid workers.In addition to facilitating audience participation, SMS-oriented radio initiatives allow for unprecedented levels of audience research. After receiving feedback on any given issue, stations have a repository of information that they can analyze and look back on in order to better serve needs of audience. As they identify trends, needs, and concerns, radio stations can catalyze a profoundly fruitful cycle, using more relevant programming to drive audience engagement, thereby soliciting more feedback and dialogue.
So how can we encourage more hybrid radio/mobile projects? First of all, we need to adjust the way we approach technology intended for the developing world. When designing, funding, researching, or discussing technology for development projects, we need to stop being fixated on one technology or platform and instead consider how new technology can be integrated with existing needs, values, and networks.
Three weeks ago, FrontlineSMS launched its first new full release in over a year. Today, we're releasing version 2.0.2, which includes useful bug fixes and small tweaks to the functionality that make it even easier to use. You can expect regular releases from us from now on, with new features coming out every couple of months. Check out our launch blog post, and our Version 2 microsite, for more information about the software. In this post, we wanted to share more of the background to the decision to rewrite our software from the ground up, and some of the key principles that have informed our work over the last eighteen months.
In late 2010, we were working with Medic Mobile, Dale Zak, Ushahidi and others to build extensions to FrontlineSMS which would allow users to manage more complex contact records, map reports offline, and build in scheduled SMS to the platform. Version 1 of the software was tough for volunteer coders, or other partners, to extend. Without APIs, any alteration had to be hard-coded into the software, and plugins were hard to make inter-operable with one another.
The crunch point came when we asked Alex, our Lead Developer, how long it would take to build the kind of Contact Records Management (CRM) we wanted into the platform - he told me it would probably be quicker to start again. We realized that every time we wanted to respond to user needs and add a new feature it would be an additional delay and drain on our resources. Building extension code into the core software was always going to be a mammoth task. So we started looking in earnest at the possibility of redesigning the software for a new set of requirements.
At around the same time, we met Gabe White of Small Surfaces, a user interface design consulting firm in Kampala. With his help, we spent the first part of 2011 interviewing a wide range of existing FrontlineSMS users, and analyzing user survey responses and forum conversations to understand how FrontlineSMS could be improved. Key feedback was that users were used to a certain type of interface in communications platforms, thanks to widely-used services and applications like Gmail and Microsoft Outlook - they wanted to see an inbox, and be able to monitor their sent and pending messages in one place. If FrontlineSMS behaved like other communications platforms they were already familiar with, new users would pick up the basics of the platform more easily.
We had noticed from our 2010 user survey that only a relatively small group of ‘super-users‘ - very tech-savvy, for the most part, and often part of the ICT4D sphere - were using the more advanced elements of FrontlineSMS to reply automatically to messages, allow end users to join and leave groups using SMS commands, and transfer message content to web- or network-based services and databases. We wanted to make it easier for all of our users to branch out and use SMS in more powerful and professional ways. So the design of FrontlineSMS Version 2 is a commitment to helping users to discover more about the platform and use increasingly sophisticated functions. Activities are a simpler way of conceptualizing the keyword functionality that has always existed in FrontlineSMS. Keyword settings, and many other elements of the software, can now be set up using simple walk-throughs, prompting users to make the most of functionality available to them.
Many users commented that, over time, they were accumulating huge numbers of SMS and contacts, but were unable to perform simple operations (grouping, moving and deleting, for example) on multiple SMS or contacts at once. Similarly, without a sophisticated search function, users struggled to maintain control of the backlog of SMS, and find important communications quickly. Manipulating the data in another program required you to download the whole database each time. We have implemented fixes for all of these problems in Version 2. You can now manage multiple SMS and contacts at once, using check-boxes; control search outputs using date-ranges, group membership and other characteristics; and export the SMS received through specific activities at the click of a mouse.
A new developer team
Building all of this has been about a year’s work, all but the very first few weeks of which has been done in Nairobi, Kenya. Alex moved to Nairobi in the spring of 2011 to set up a larger development team, and over the last year we have welcomed David, Geoffrey, Joy, Roy, Sitati, and Vaneyck, with Hussain in London rounding out the team. All of them have contributed hugely to the process of designing, building, and launching version 2 and although some have, or may in future, move on to other things, they will always be part of the team that made this all happen. As we look beyond the launch and begin to plan additional features, we have a fantastic base to build on, from our very colorful offices in the centre of a growing Tech City in Kenya’s capital.
We know we have a lot more to do. Some of version 1’s features, including the Frontline Forms interface and our Translation Manager, are still in the works. Some will come swiftly, such as Subscriptions Manager (which takes the place of the join/leave group keywords in version 1) and which is almost ready. Others are concepts we want to take some more time to get right; such as how Version 2 handles building Forms, and how it will display data collected on a mobile device and submitted through a variety of channels. You can read more about our planned features on our Upcoming Features page.
The whole FrontlineSMS team, including volunteers and fantastic partners like Gabe and the Software Testing Club, have put a tremendous amount of energy into Version 2; we are really proud of it and at the same time we feel like we’re just getting started! We couldn’t have got to this point without our users, who gave us the original inspiration, helped shape the design, and continue to contribute feature requests, testing and the drive to keep improving on FrontlineSMS.
We can’t wait to hear what you do with it.
FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was recently invited by Wired magazine to write an article for their "Ideas Bank" column. You can find an extract of the article below. The full version is available via Wired's website here.
Depending on how much of a sweet tooth you have, you might not rate chocolate-chip cookies, ice-lollies or crisps as Earth-shattering product inventions, but they do all have one thing in common. Along with microwave ovens, penicillin and Teflon, the ideas behind them came about entirely by accident. Despite this, a common perception of innovation remains one of men and women in white coats crowded over laboratory equipment and mainframe computers. Though this may be generally true for big-ticket items and big pharma, today you may just as likely trace a lot of the smaller -- but equally high-impact -- discoveries and inventions back to someone's garden shed.
The field of ICT4D - information and communication technologies for development - tasks itself with figuring out how to apply many of our everyday technologies for the greater social good, often in the developing world. Ironically, despite the tens of billions spent each year in official aid, some of the more promising ICT4D innovations also happen to have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did. Welcome to the world of the "reluctant innovator"...
I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator. In 2004 I found myself working on the fringes of Kruger National Park in South Africa, trying to help the authorities improve communications with the local communities. Mobile phones were beginning to appear there and we considered using SMS to send group texts to community members. The problem was that no group-SMS technology worked in those kinds of hard-to-reach places. A few months later, the idea for a text-messaging platform was born one Saturday night over a bottle of beer and Match of the Day. The result, FrontlineSMS, today helps non-profit organisations in over 70 countries communicate critical messages with millions of the most marginalised and vulnerable people.
To read the full version visit the Wired magazine website.
FrontlineSMS has huge potential as a tool for news-sharing, and this user guest post shows an example of this from a women’s news network in Sri Lanka.
By Ananda Galappatti, Minmini News
Minmini News is a local SMS news service for women in the Batticaloa District of Eastern Sri Lanka. Batticaloa is the poorest district of Sri Lanka, still slowly emerging from the destruction of a three-decade-long civil war that ended in 2009. Throughout the war, and following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Batticaloa's coastline, women played a crucial role in responding to the difficult circumstances that their families and communities had to endure. The same is true now, during the difficult recovery after the war. However, the important concerns and remarkable experiences of women in Batticaloa are rarely reflected in the mainstream media that reaches their towns and villages. The news they receive, it seems, is not produced with them in mind.
In mid-2010, a small informal collective associated with women's groups in Batticaloa decided to trial a model for sourcing, producing and sharing news relevant to women of the area. The small founding group decided to field test the model through two pilot-testing phases in 2011, with small groups of 15-30 readers, who also served as the sources of news. There was initially some scepticism from colleagues and friends about the added value of providing women's news by SMS. However, the data from the pilot phase showed that not only were readers overwhelming positive about the service, but that it exposed them to novel and useful information, and had some influence on their perspectives. Minmini Seithihal (translation: Firefly News) went public in August 2011.
The model tested continues to be used, and is directly based around sourcing news from the strong network of women community workers in different parts of the district. News information is collected fact-checked and written-up in text messages by a central 'news team' of one or two women. The prepared news messages can then be reviewed by an editor, and between one and three messages are sent out to readers (who subscribe to the service via text message) through FrontlineSMS each day.
Minmini News delivers a broad range of content to its readers. It provides information about public services relevant to women, including: details on government health clinics, special mobile services for basic official documentation or land registration, services for migrant workers and their families, or information about government schemes for persons with disability. Minmini News also covers local crises, such as floods or local conflicts between neighbouring communities. It also reports on services for gender-based violence and challenges faced by women in post-conflict recovery.
In addition, Minmini News hashighlighted women's achievements, both large and small; within Batticaloa and beyond. It covered issues related to livelihoods, costs of living and accessibility of markets for women's products. It drew attention to local cultural activities and social interventions by women. Minmini News represented a series of life-histories of women whose lives illustrated the diversity of experience within the district.
In all its coverage, Minmini News has tried to highlight the meaning that the events or processes have for the lives of women - often drawing attention to individual stories to convey this. However, rather than provide explicit editorial commentary on issues, SMS stories are used to provide a series of factual reports for readers to interpret themselves. The stories themselves are sourced from the team of volunteer 'reporters', and also from readers.
Independent interviews with readers and women contributors to Minmini News showed that the service was appreciated, and that it had changed their relationships to consumption of and sharing of news and information. One reader said, "it is difficult for me or others to go out and get news in our environment. Now we all have mobile phones in our hands, so it is good to get news from where we are [located]. Without any expense, I am getting news [on things happening] around me." Another said she felt that women often found it socially more difficult than men to share their views or information publicly, and therefore, "were treated as second class [citizens]." Minmini News and its content, she felt, offered an opportunity for women's abilities to be highlighted and their views to be taken seriously.
In another remarkable case, after hearing a news story via Minmini News, a community worker assisted a family to file a report on a woman who had been missing in the Middle East for over a year. When she was traced, it was found that she had been severely maltreated, and she was repatriated for care and recovery at home. Many of the effects of Minmini News are more subtle, but it is clear women who are subscribing to the service feel that the way they are engaged with mainstream media has changed, and they are now more sensitive to issues related to women's lives and rights.
Minmini News seeks to operate at a minimal cost. The start-up equipment (an old laptop and 3G dongle) was donated by members of the news team, who also collectively paid for the cost of messages during the pilot phase. Since its public launch, the policy of Minmini News has been to finance the service through small voluntary or in-kind contributions from its readers. Whilst the news team donate their time and personal resources to support the minimal operating infrastructure, Minmini News readers contribute to the cost of SMS messages by 'reloading' (ie. topping up) the pay-as-you-go number used by the service. These contributions are effectively pooled so that all readers may benefit from what is paid. Those who can afford more, pay more so that others can receive the service. Others pay when or what they can.
Minmini News is now entering a new phase, with active recruitment of women readers in rural communities in Batticaloa. This brings new opportunities in terms of prospects for broader sources of news, but also challenges in terms of verification. Plus, the financing model that has worked very well with a 100+ readers in the first phase of the service will also be tested as the service scales up. Minmini News is will be looking to expand in future, fostering similar networks in other districts of Sri Lanka, through which relevant news from local women in other areas can be exchanged bilaterally between 'sister' services.
- - -
Here at FrontlineSMS we really look forward to staying in touch with Ananda and all those at Minmini News, and hearing how this innovative news service develops! o/
About the author of this post:
Ananda Galappatti is a medical anthropologist and a practitioner in the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in situations of emergency and chronic adversity. He is a co-founder of the journal Intervention, the online network mhpss.net and the social business The Good Practice Group. Ananda lives in the town of Batticaloa on the East coast of Sri Lanka, where he volunteers as an editor for Minmini News.
FrontlineSMS was recently the focus of an article from IIP Digital, a site for all the latest news from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information. You can find an extract below, and read the full article here. Latin American education leaders who gathered at a TechCamp workshop in Montevideo, Uruguay, late in 2011 learned this and much more from technology experts who demonstrated ways they could use cellphones to extend education to almost anywhere.
TechCamp is part of Civil Society 2.0, an initiative aimed at helping communities around the world gain access to practical and affordable technology to solve local problems. The needs of the communities determine the types of technology presented.
Because mobile access far exceeds Internet access in many developing countries, governments, nongovernmental organizations and communities are eager for effective ways to use cellphones to reach underserved areas on a large scale.
“You have this enormous communications platform, but the question is, what do you do with it, and how is it that people are interpreting it,” Sean McDonald, operations director for FrontineSMS, said. Students, many of whom already use the technology, provide a promising opportunity for determining what works.
“After you’ve taught something, how do you know after the student has gone back to their environment that the student has absorbed the information and it is making an impact?” he asked. “You can create questions and quizzes. The system will automatically grade the quizzes, and then map them to the contact, which you are able to track over time.”
FrontlineSMS is an open-source group messaging software platform that has multiple applications. In Montevideo, McDonald presented a version of the software called FrontlineSMS:Learn that is tailored for use in remote or distributed education settings.
To read the full article, please visit IIP Digital here.