SMS to Map

Reflections from Nairobi: FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi 'SMS to Map' Event

Last week FrontlineSMS held an event with Ushahidi, as previously reported on our blog here. The event was held in both Nairobi and London on the same evening, and the below is a guest post from Samanthat Burton who attended the Nairobi-based event.

"On November 7, 2011 a community of experts, techies and curious people gathered together for the event SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to Tell Your Story. This event took place in two cities over the course of one evening: at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya and at Goldsmiths University of London, UK.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend (and live-Tweet!) the Nairobi event. I also thought that people might be interested in hearing about the SMS to Map experience in more depth than 140 characters allow, so this post will give you a short overview of the Nairobi event and detail some lessons learned that stuck with me.


FrontlineSMS software allows users to send, receive and effectively manage large numbers of SMS messages. Ushahidi software uses crowdsourcing methodology to collect information, visualize data and create interactive maps.

Both tools are free, and when used together enable people to collect data using FrontlineSMS; and then visualize that data using Ushahidi. This can have powerful results, as projects where the two technolgoies have been used together for the promotion of social justice—such as mapping harassment in Egypt and tracking incidents of violence against children in Benin—demonstrate.


The SMS to Map events were designed to provide a space for communities and individuals using (or interested in using) FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to meet, discuss and collaborate. What’s especially cool about SMS to Map is that it took place in Nairobi and London on the same evening. This meant that participants in either city could follow the sister event online (via #smsmap Twitter hashtag), which provided a great way to connect with a diverse group of people from around the world with similar interests.

The Nairobi event was at the iHub, and was a fantastic excuse for me to finally get over there. Presenters included:

Limo Taboi, finance manager of Ushahidi, who described the software as “a tool to capture the voices of people who otherwise would not be heard.” - Sharon Langevin of FrontlineSMS:Credit, who shared information on upcoming FrontlineSMS development and piqued my interest in an upcoming initiative focused on media. - Anahi Ayala Iacucci of Internews Network, whose presentation of the Zambia Disaster Simulation case study is what I want to focus on next.

LESSONS LEARNED: Zambia Disaster Simulation

For me, one of the most compelling parts of the evening was the presentation by Anahi Ayala Iacucci on the Zambia Disaster Simulation.

In June 2011, Iacucci was involved in a crowdsourcing workshop series in Zambia. At the end of the series, they organized a simulation to show how applying crowdsourcing tools to a natural disaster might look on the ground.

Laucci described four lessons learned that came out of this simulation. These lessons struck me as applicable beyond just FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi—to M4D, ICT4D and maybe even international development as a whole!—so I wanted to share them with you:

1. Preparation is key. The Zambia simulation showed how important it was to do a simulation. During the exercise, the teams encountered a variety of technical and non-technical issues that impacted their effectiveness. This underscored how important it is to make sure that users have the skills to effectively use the technologies and creatively solve problems that arise—particularly if they will be working in a situation requiring rapid response.

2. No cost does not mean no effort or no strategy. Just because FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are free doesn’t mean that using them effectively is easy. For example, one of the major challenges that arose during the simulation was the sheer volume of SMS data coming in. When you’re gathering that much information, you need to have a solid strategy in place to manage it—and the human resources to put that strategy into place. Otherwise, you can end up with a lot of data and not a whole lot of action.

3. Security is all about knowing what you’re doing. It’s very high risk to use mobile technology in an oppressive regime: there’s always a way to track it. Take the time to consider all of the possible security risks and create a strategy to effectively manage them. The safety of your end-users and team should always be paramount. [If this point is of interest you can find out more in the FrontlineSMS User Guide on Data Integrity].

4. When people send you information, they expect you to do something with it. You need to make sure that the people you are asking for information understand exactly what happens after they send it to you. Communicate effectively to manage those expectations from the outset to ensure that people don’t expect you to do things that you don’t have to power to do.


Overall, I thought that SMS to Map was a great way to bring together people who share an interest in FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and use of technology for positive social change. It was a dynamic and informative experience, and I’m glad that I was able to be part of it!"

Samantha Burton is a communications and research consultant, with expertise centered on the not-for-profit, international development and higher education sectors. She currently works with Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya, and has a great deal of interest (and an academic background) in putting appropriate ICTs to work for education and for international development.

This post was originally shared as part of TechChange's course on 'Mobiles for International Development'.

The Importance of Collaboration in Open Source Communities: FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi Event

By Florence Scialom, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator

On the evening of Monday 7th November, FrontlineSMS co-hosted an event with Ushahidi called 'SMS to Map - Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story' (#SMSmap for all those on Twitter). This event turned out to be an inspiring demonstration of the enthusiasm people have about using open source technology for social change. Held in both the UK and Kenya on the same evening, the event provided an excellent opportunity for FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to share ideas with both new and familiar audiences. Hopefully this will be the beginning of new projects, collaborations and, ultimately, this will feed into new resources that can help our community of users too!

The ‘SMS to Map’ event was a global affair; kicking off at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya, and later in the evening continued in London at Goldsmiths University. Both events heard presentations from FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, as well as from community experts who have used these tools together in action for social change projects in various different countries and contexts across the world.

Speakers shared examples of a variety of different projects which had integrated FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software, including the monitoring 2011 elections in Nigeria and mapping of harassment on the street of Egypt. Linda Raftree, of Plan International, did an excellent presentation to the London audience about a project which tracks incidences of violence against children in Benin using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. Also at London's event Claire Wardle, who works with the BBC College of Journalism, engaged the audience by talking about her experience of using Ushahidi for mapping the UK tube strikes. Claire’s presentation helped to demonstrate the potential utility of tools such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS to be used in a many different contexts you wouldn’t immediately expect.

In Nairobi, the audience heard from some of the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi staff based there, as well as from Anahi Ayala Iacucci of the Internews Network, who has used FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together and trained on integrating the tools. Nairobi's event also had a live tech demo showing how to synch the two software tools which had some last minute technical difficulties - as live demos always tend to! - but nonetheless worked successfully in the end and allowed the audience to learn some practical tech skills.

Overall, the 'SMS to Map' events in both London and Nairobi provided a way for people to learn more about both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software, and encouraged people to think about the ways they could use these software tools for social change in their own work. Through facilitating this event, we hope to build on existing collaborations and inspire more future uses of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together. If you are using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together and would like to share your use case with us, and / or suggest resources you would find useful please contact and / or

You can check out some content from the ‘SMS to Map’ event below.

The live blog stream from the #SMSmap event, produced using ScribbleLive.

Pictures of the #SMSmap event on our Flickr site.

You Tube video of Laura Walker Hudson and Heather Leson welcoming people to Nairobi's 'SMS to Map' via video, and explaining the importance the collaboration between open source software providers:

I would like to take this opportunity to give huge thanks to all those involved in helping us with the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi 'SMS to Map' event. A special thanks goes to Cast London at Goldsmiths University for sponsoring the London-based event and to the iHub for hosting the Nairobi-based event too. We could not have held these events without their kind support.

I would also like to thank the many individuals who helped make the events happen including Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network) and Hamilton Juma aka Tosh (iHub Community Manager) for their excellent hosting of the iHub event, Dan Mcquillan (Goldsmiths) for his amazing support arranging the London event, and all of the FrontlineSMS & Ushahidi staff and volunteers who helped out.

And of course all of the wonderful speakers including Linda Raftree (Plan International), Claire Wardle (BBC College of Journalism), Linda Kamau (Ushahidi), Sharon Langevin (FrontlineSMS:Credit), Limo Taboi (Ushahidi), Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network), Heather Leson (Ushahidi Director of Community) and last but not least Laura Walker Hudson (FrontlineSMS Director of Operations). Many others were involved but I don't have space to mention them all here, so just a huge thanks to everyone else who contributed!