After successfully using FrontlineSMS in the Tomorrow is a New Day (TND) project to monitor and improve radio dramas in the Niger Delta, SFCG Nigeria chose to use the platform in a completely different capacity in Jos, a city in Northern Nigeria. SFCG Nigeria is part of Search for Common Ground, one of the first and largest conflict resolution focused NGOs.
SFCG Nigeria is part of Search for Common Ground, one of the first and largest conflict resolution focused NGOs. To support the reconciliation and reintegration of ex-militants in the Niger Delta, the Tomorrow is a New Day (TND) project was implemented with the support of the European Union from December 2011- June 2013. The project was carried out with five local partners, who were instrumental in SFCG Nigeria’s ability to work directly with seven local communities in the Delta.
In the second of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns seven, our Founder Ken Banks reflects on one of the first users of our free, award-winning platform and the example that put us in the headlines for the first time. See a slideshow of our users showing off their work here.
"I'm often asked what my favourite FrontlineSMS deployment is.
"I don't really have a personal favourite - they're all interesting and inspiring in their own way. But if you asked me what I thought was organisationally one of the most important FrontlineSMS deployments, I'd have to say its use in the 2007 Nigerian Presidential Elections.
"I was at Stanford University on a Fellowship at that time and, although FrontlineSMS was ticking over quite nicely it wasn't having the kind of impact I was hoping for. I was even considering shutting it down - what a mistake that would have been.
"Suddenly, one weekend in April 2007, the mainstream media got hold of a story that an ad-hoc coalition of Nigerian NGOs, under the banner of NMEM (Nigerian Mobile Election Monitors), had monitored their elections using FrontlineSMS. As Clay Shirky has pointed out since, this was groundbreaking, and it was being done by grassroots NGOs on their own terms. This is exactly what FrontlineSMS was designed to do. As media interest picked up, downloads went up and donors began paying increasing amounts of attention. That summer the MacArthur Foundation stepped in with the first FrontlineSMS grant - $200,000 for a software rewrite.
"Without NMEM this would never have happened, and we wouldn't be where we are today. For that reason I'd have to choose it as one of my all-time favourite deployments. Thanks again, guys. What you did has indirectly helped thousands more dedicated, grassroots NGOs like yours, all over the world".
Starting today, we’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.
It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!
You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are
Here at FrontlineSMS we aim to make our software as accessible and adaptable as possible, and we’re always looking to respond to the needs of our growing user community. Through interaction with many users, we’ve found that some have successfully synched our software with mapping tool, Ushahidi. This set-up allows SMS to be submitted to the Ushahidi platform, enabling people to contribute reports to an online map using just their mobile phone. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi helps to empower organizations to both collect and share information in innovative ways; improving access, visibility and relevance of data for variety of projects, from election monitoring to mapping availability of health services. Not all users have found the process of synching the tools together straightforward, though, so we’re pleased to announce that FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi been working together to produce a clear step-by-step guide on this process, and this guide is now available.
FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are both free and open source platforms that have been used across the world to promote social change, improve communications and support the work of non-profit organizations. FrontlineSMS converts a computer, connected to a GSM modem or mobile phone, into a two-way communications system which enables users to send, receive and manage text messages. Ushahidi is a platform that aggregates information coming from different sources (web form, e-mail, SMS, social media) and visualizes this information on a real-time interactive map. Although using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi requires an Internet connection, those submitting reports via SMS needn’t be online. Using FrontlineSMS enables people to submit reports to a textable number, making it possible for people to contribute content to an online map even if they are not connected to the Internet themselves.
Using the two software tools in combination can have powerful and inspiring results. We have seen FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi used together in Nigeria as an electoral monitoring tool, in Egypt as instruments to map harassment on the streets and in the Democratic Republic of Congo to challenge incidents of human rights abuse. These examples help to demonstrate that SMS – as an ubiquitous and widely accessible communications channel - can help reach people that are otherwise marginalized or vulnerable. By then mapping SMS reports it is possible to show incidences by location; visually sharing information from those that may not otherwise be heard, and, in doing so, creating data that provides a powerful awareness raising and advocacy tool.
The idea for providing an updated accessible resource based on how to synchronize the two platforms was raised at a collaborative event organised by FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi in late 2011. Entitled “SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story,”this event was held on the same day in London, UK and Nairobi, Kenya, and it explored how to use the two software tools together. The audience were also encouraged to think about the ways they could use these tools for social change in their own work.
We hope that offering further guidance on the process of using FrontlineSMS together with Ushahidi will help make the combination of SMS with mapping more accessible. We are keen to receive any feedback you have on this resource, or indeed any suggestions and experiences you would like to share based on your own use of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.
Thanks to Laura Walker Hudson, Amy O'Donnell, Stefania Perna and Kavita Rajah at FrontlineSMS for their input into this resource release.
We would also like to take this opportunity to offer many thanks to all others who have helped with this resource, including Linda Kamau, Linda Raftree, Anahi Ayala Iacucci and Megan Goldshine. And a special thanks to Heather Leson at Ushahidi, for all her work on this collaboration!
“Focus on the user and all else will follow,” has been one of our main mottos here at FrontlineSMS ever since the original version of our software was built in 2005. Yet it is undeniable that, as we gear up for a big year in 2012, the face of the FrontlineSMS user is more diverse than it was when we first started out. Ken Banks, the Founder of FrontlineSMS, has often said to the team here that he was excited when one person downloaded FrontlineSMS back when he first made the software available; at the end of 2011 the number of people who had downloaded FrontlineSMS passed the 20,000 mark.
As our user base continues to grow, our user-focused ethos is more important to us than ever. We strongly believe that our direction should continue to be guided by our passionate, innovative, and richly varied user community. That is why we would love to hear your views in our latest FrontlineSMS user survey. We want to hear your feedback on our user resources and our software, so that we can feed your opinions into our planning for 2012. Even if you aren’t using FrontlineSMS actively at the moment, your opinions still matter to us, and we’d love to hear any views and experiences you’d like to share about FrontlineSMS in our survey.
We have seen our software used in so many different ways – election monitoring, maternal health support, citizen engagement, education, coordination of humanitarian response, to name just a few – and in so many places – Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Cote d’Ivoire, Canada, the UK are just some of the locations we’ve documented use of FrontlineSMS in within the last year. This is both very exciting and somewhat challenging for us; we would like to ensure that FrontlineSMS software and user support continues to meet the needs of our users, whatever those users now look like. The fact that our user community is growing makes it even more important for us to hear feedback, so we can serve increasingly varied and changing user needs.
And we’d like to say thank you - fill in the survey, and you’ll be in with a chance of winning a limited-edition FrontlineSMS T-shirt. For the next four weeks we will also be choosing one lucky survey respondent each week to win an unlocked, FrontlineSMS-compatible USB GSM modem. In addition, we will choose another lucky prize winner to get a copy of the well-known book, SMS Uprising, signed by our very own Ken Banks. (All those who have filled out the survey already will also be in with a chance of winning these prizes). So, as well as the opportunity to feed in to our 2012 strategy you could win some very exciting prizes! All this for just 5 minutes of your time - what have you got to lose?
There are many faces we see regularly in our user community. Those who are part of a small community based group, seeking to keep people informed about valuable yet hard to access information. Those who are part of a large NGO seeking coordinate communication with disparate staff, monitor the effectiveness of their work, and hear feedback from the communities they serve. Those starting a sustainable business in a developing economy, and wanting a way to keep in touch with all key stakeholders in areas where there is little or no internet access available. And even those in economically developed countries, who are working to engage vulnerable communities via the accessibility of SMS.
Do any of these descriptions sound like you? If so it would be great to hear your views and experiences with our software and resources. If you don’t feel you are represented in the above list (which is certainly not exhaustive), then we need to hear from you too! If you’re using or have thought about using FrontlineSMS then please fill out our survey and let us know who you are!
Last year’s survey results helped us to shape the major release of our software due out in 2012 – FrontlineSMS Version 2 – and it also helped us to understand that our users want to connect with each other more, and learn from each others’ use cases. Hence we worked throughout 2011 to document more use cases on our blog and have engaged members of our community to volunteer with us as FrontlineSMS Heroes, too. Recently one of our Heroes, Tom Marentette, has helped start an exciting trend of user meet-ups, certainly something we will seek to continue to build upon in 2012.
Now the team here is wondering, what will this year’s survey tell us? You can shape the answer to this question by filling out our survey, and helping us better understand the diverse face of our FrontlineSMS user community! o/
This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here. By Florence Scialom, Community Support Coordinator, FrontlineSMS
"A group of Nigerian grassroots organizations and agencies have joined together to form ReclaimNaija, in an effort to provide the Nigerian electorate a way to report on the elections as they happen. ReclaimNaija documents how citizens are experiencing the elections by using FrontlineSMS to receive and send text message reports, and Ushahidi to visually map the election reports received. It is very exciting to see FrontlineSMS being used in this way, especially because one of the first public use cases of the software was during the last Nigerian elections in 2007. As Community Support Coordinator at FrontlineSMS I have had the privilege of speaking to Ngozi Iwere from Community Life Project, one of the promoters of ReclaimNaija, as well as others who have been involved in helping with and using the platform. I have learned about how Community Life Project are encouraging citizens from grassroots communities all over the country to use mobile technology to amplify the voice of Nigerian citizens, making their opinions impossible to ignore.
Amidst the confusion of date changes surrounding the Nigerian elections one thing remains clear; the people of Nigeria are ready to vote. The 2011 Nigerian elections got off to an uncertain start; with the National Assembly elections due on April 2nd 2011 having to be pushed back as a result of many problems, leading to the rescheduling of the whole two week election process. Amongst the commotion of date changes it is more important than ever for the Nigerian public to feel they have a way to speak out about any election problems they experience, and know they are being heard.
Over the years, elections in Nigeria have been surrounded by controversy. “Since the return to civil rule in 1999, all the elections conducted in Nigeria have been marred by massive fraud and violence,” says Ngozi Iwere.
It is clear speaking with Nigerian citizens about ReclaimNaija that people are keen to actively challenge the problems previously accompanying their elections. “On election days, citizens have been frustrated by a number of things; missing names, seeing ballot boxes stuffed or even stolen and other electoral fraud and yet being unable to do anything about this. This time however, is the time to speak out” says Femi Taiwo, a member of INITS Limited, a Nigerian company that helped set up the technical side of ReclaimNaija’s monitoring system.
ReclaimNaija was established to “enhance the participation of grassroots people, organizations and local institutions in promoting electoral transparency, accountability and democratic governance in Nigeria” Ngozi Iwere tells me. ReclaimNaija achieved this participation in large part through voter education forums for community and grassroots leaders spread across the 36 States of the country and the Federal Capital Territory. As Ngozi explains “engaging the leaders of community-based social networks ensured that information got across to a large segment of society, as we trained leaders to pass on the message to their membership and constituencies.” Thus popular participation has been central to ReclaimNaija’s monitoring platform.During the January 2011 Voters Registration Exercise, ReclaimNaija received 15,000 reports from the public over two weeks. It is important “to have an election monitoring service that aids troubleshooting to expose and document fraud” says Ngozi Iwere. The election registration process proved this; on receiving messages about problems such as lack of registration cards ReclaimNaija was often able to communicate with the electoral body, thus helping improve the efficiency of the registration process.
Providing the option to make election reports via text message has improved the scope of ReclaimNaija’s work, helping them to target grassroots communities more effectively. “It is very important to have an election monitoring service that utilises tools that the average citizen is very familiar with” says Ngozi, explaining ReclaimNaija’s choice to provide the option for citizens to make reports via mobile phone.
Reflecting on the penetration levels that have made SMS such a powerful communications platform, Ngozi adds, “According to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigeria has 83 million active GSM lines.” Although the platform offered citizens other means of reporting, such as email, voice calls, Twitter, Facebook and direct reporting on the website, Ngozi explains they’ve found that “SMS was the most utilised medium both during the voter registration exercise and the aborted National Assembly Elections on Saturday 2nd April.”
The system clearly continues to be a powerful way for Nigerians to communicate throughout the recent date changes. The National Assembly elections, originally due on April 2nd 2011 were pushed back twice as a result of many problems, including lack of voting materials and staff absences at polling stations. The whole election process has now been re-scheduled. The National Assembly elections went ahead on 9th April, and they are due to be followed by the presidential poll on April 16th and the governorship election on April 26th. Confusion over the election dates left some Nigerians suspicious about the validity of the elections.
“There has been a lot of scepticism surrounding the 2011 elections, even more so with the recent postponement,” points out Nosarieme Garrick, a Nigerian who has made use of the ReclaimNaija reporting system and also works for VoteorQuench.org, a social media effort to get young Nigerians engaged in the elections. Nosarieme has observed that some people are assuming that the problems are orchestrated attempts to facilitate rigging.
In line with this, one message received through ReclaimNaija during the first attempt at the National Assembly election said “more than half of registered voters here [in my voting station] couldn’t find their names… Is this an attempt to reduce the number of voters in Lagos?”
However, Nosarieme suggests that having a service like ReclaimNaija has meant people are able to act on their concerns. “Reclaim Naija is allowing eyewitness accounts from average citizens to be collected on the actual happenings during elections, and people understand that their reports are not falling on deaf ears.” Furthermore, although Nigerians were unhappy at the postponement, there is also hope around improving the voting process. Nigerian Femi Taiwo explains “if shifting the date was what it was going to take to get it right this time around… then the postponement was the right thing to do.”
Citizens have been able to report a wide variety of issues – including electoral malpractices, corruption and incidences confusion and unrest. One would-be voter, for example, sent a message on the day National Assembly elections were due to start, stating, “here at Umudagu boot, no staff or material or any sign there will be election. Hundreds of voters are loitering without accreditation and it is 9.00am.”
These citizen reports have become a valuable source of information for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who are responsible for running the elections, thus representing the voice of the people to the authorities. ReclaimNaija collate reports and send directly on to the INEC in real time.
“If the INEC hadn’t seen these reports they would not have known about the level of problems being experienced by Nigerians; there would not have been this kind of proof” says Linda Kamau, an Ushahidi developer was in Nigeria to see the launch of ReclaimNaija system. There is clearly great power in ensuring the voices of the Nigerian people reach the authorities running the elections.
ReclaimNaija has been a great success so far, and in no small part due to the power of using SMS. As Ngozi Iwere explains, using mobile phones “puts the power of effective monitoring in the hands of the people.” Yet it is the Nigerian people themselves who are central to the process, and the technology is a facilitator for their participation. Ngozi makes clear “there is a deep yearning for change among the populace and citizens see this election as an opportunity to make that change happen.”
This is the eighth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Mike Blyth - Computer Systems Coordinator at Serving in Mission (SIM) - discusses their use of the software among missions operating in central Nigeria
Jos, Nigeria has been in the news recently because of riots in November that killed hundreds of people. This was the second such episode since 2001, and the situation remains tense. Besides this, violent crime has increased rapidly in the past four years, with frequent robberies by armed gangs of up to 20 or more men.
Part of our response as a group of missions in Jos has been to strengthen our communications network, and FrontlineSMS has become a key part of that network. The mobile phone is the basic means of communication in Jos, where there are few if any functioning land lines, and where Internet access is still expensive and spotty. During the November crisis, we noticed that voice calls on the mobile network rarely connected, probably because of congestion, while SMS messages got through well.
It was shortly after that we started experimenting with FrontlineSMS, and we have so far developed a system with a number of features.
First, anyone can text the system and receive a response with the current status message. In a crisis, this could contain warnings, instructions, announcements and so on. Besides this 'on demand' capability, we keep one list of users who receive broadcast alerts.
Anyone can join this "text alerts" group by sending the request as a text message to the system. We ask people to send the message "JOIN" followed by their name. At this point, FrontlineSMS cannot automatically include the name when the phone number is added to a group (only the number is added), but we hope that feature will be included in the future.
We maintain other user lists such as compound security leaders, crisis management teams, and so on. Anyone can broadcast a message to the crisis management team by prefixing a text message with a code that causes FrontlineSMS to forward the message to all team members.
Finally, we use FrontlineSMS to send outgoing SMS messages through the Internet when it is available. They're sent via Clickatell, which routes them to the actual SMS network. Clickatell is very fast and inexpensive. We can send about 80 messages per minute this way, far more than is currently possible if we were to send messages directly via the mobile phone network.
Real life examples
Fortunately, we have not had actual rioting since we set up the system. However, there have been times when it has been very useful to send warnings and to raise the alert level. Here are some actual examples:
- @Alerts: Jos is tense, please avoid downtown today
- @Security: X and Y have been robbed tonight & report the robbers took their Toyota Land cruiser and muttered something about Hillcrest on the way out
- @Alerts 20Feb 655pm. Serious rioting reported in Bauchi. No problems in Jos. Obey curfew, avoid areas that could be troublesome
- 22 Feb 8am. *** Rioting on Friday Bauchi, churches & mosques burned. Now controlled. Keep on alert. Report signif news this num or ur security rep
- SecGrp: Some rumors are going around about unrest planned for Friday, .... Email or txt me if you know more. --Mike
The system has worked quite well. The most serious limitations to date have been problems with the modem and Internet, which have had a tendency to lock up, failing to receive messages, and have to be re-initialized manually. In addition, message delivery is sometimes delayed for hours, occasionally more than a day. This is a fault of the local network and has nothing to do with FrontlineSMS or Clickatell.
In summary, FrontlineSMS has served us very well as a way to communicate quickly by SMS. We would recommend it to others in similar situations.
Mike Blyth Computer Systems Coordinator Serving in Mission (SIM) www.sim.org
A common theme in my work, and in many of my conference talks, centres around a very simple message - appropriate technology. It's nothing new, and as a concept has been around since the 1970's with Fritz Schumacher's defining book, "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered". During my recent interview with Nokia's "New Horizons" magazine, however, it was interesting that the conversation was entirely appropriate-technology focussed. I was expecting questions about FrontlineSMS, my work on wildlive! and my developing-country technology experience. Instead, the interview was dominated by my focus on "needs-based", "human-centred", "grassroots" and "appropriate" technologies. Believe me, I was more than happy to talk about these things - I don't think enough people do.
It still surprises me - sometimes even saddens me - that we live in an era where there's a general tendency to over-engineer solutions. Not only is this a waste of time in my view, but it's a waste of money and effort. It also raises expectations. Believe me, there's plenty of this going on as we speak (sorry, read). I come across this at conferences where I meet hugely technically-abled people who spend their time trying to find homes for the very latest technical gadgetry. And because of where I work, and the circles where I mix, the home they are looking for is usually in a developing country. This only serves to exaggerate the problem.
Take the recent use of my FrontlineSMS system in the Nigerian elections. FrontlineSMS is not rocket science. It's so simple, in fact, that it slipped under most people's radars. One comment on Slashdot discussing its use highlights this over-engineering view well:
It's too simple. You guys don't know what you are talking about. Doing it all with one computer and an SMS modem? You can't future proof it that way. I want to see some mention of CORBA and SOAP. How can you have a system without middleware? Can you use dot NET? Everybody uses that these days. And what if I want to use it when I am already on the phone. Can't it have a WAP interface as well? I want to sell a thousand copies of this thing and nobody is going to pay a million bucks for something which doesn't use a single cutting edge technology
There is certainly no written rule that everything has to be cutting edge. Very little, in essence, is. Is Google cutting edge? There were plenty of other search engines around before they came along. All they did was see the opportunity, do it better and hit the target. Over the coming weeks I'm going to be spending a lot of time discussing mobile phone use, and web access, in developing countries. I'll soon be presenting a paper - the same one presented at W3C in Bangalore last December - at the 16th International World Wide Web Conference in Banff, and sitting on an expert panel at the same event. And my message will be the same as it has always been.
Although it should come as no surprise that there's a gulf between many developers and the realities of life in developing countries, there have been attempts to bring the two together. Some have worked better than others, but at least there's a realisation that a meeting-of-minds is needed. If you want a simple, effective example as to why, take a look at the handsets being used by the majority of rural people in developing countries (see photo, taken in India this January). Then have a think about how Java, Flash Lite, WAP and smart-phone applications would go down with these users. Okay, one day these technologies will become relevant, but right now I would argue that they're not. SMS is still the killer application, like it or not. And, on the subject of web access on mobile devices, I would also argue that we haven't quite mastered it ourselves yet. Generally-speaking the user experience still leaves a lot to be desired.
I'm not the only person who thinks this way. Far from it. And I'm looking forward to meeting the others, and our technically-minded colleagues, in Canada next month. Time to re-open the debate...