As the latest iteration of the Frontline product suite celebrates its first birthday, now seems the perfect time to sit back with a cupcake and reflect on the successes – and challenges – of the past twelve months.
Starting today, we’re making it even easier to engage, everywhere. We’d like to introduce you to FrontlineSync, our first, free Android app, available now on the Google Play Store. FrontlineSync turns any Android phone into a gateway - meaning that users can now use local phone numbers to send, receive, and manage SMS, and - for the first time - missed calls using FrontlineCloud and FrontlineSMS.
FrontlineCloud has been out in beta for just over a month, and we’re proud to have over 450 users signed up already, sending and receiving thousands of messages. The newest addition to the Frontline product set has had an incredibly warm and supportive reception on social media and in the many lovely emails we’ve received from friends, users and donors. To everyone who has retweeted, liked, emailed and signed up to look around, a huge thank you.
Worldwide, media outlets are increasingly mastering two-way communications channels. Radio and television stations are equipped to receive text messages, phone calls, and social media inputs. Staff can then decide to respond over broadcast, or back through the incoming channel. Yet these communications are often restricted to a single node; one community radio station, or a single television outlet, connecting to its own audience. There are often gaps in transmitting that information to other outlets who might also find that information relevant.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.
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!
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.”
A big thank you to Mike Adams, the INTL Coordinator, for sharing his experiences with FrontlineSMS and further schooling us on how radio can facilitate in saving lives! In times of disaster radio not only saves lives, it can also bring hope and critical information to the affected community. When the 2004 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, Indonesia, all the radio and TV stations went off air. Similarly, during the 2005 South Asian earthquake, the only radio station near the epicentre lost its tower and went off air. In times like these, people are in desperate need of news and information on how to get to safety and how to survive. However, the unfortunate trend seen recently is that when radio is so important, many times it goes off the air and does not come back until well after the emergency is over.
With shiny apps hogging the mobile spotlight these days, one could be forgiven for forgetting about SMS (“Short Message Service” or text messaging). But although apps often disguise themselves as universally useful, their data and hardware requirements preclude their widespread use in poor countries. Amongst the world’s poor, SMS is still king. Given the World Bank’s mandate to serve the exactly that population, and in response to demand from staff, I recently attended a 2-day Frontline SMS training here in DC.
The landscape of NTT is largely rugged and infertile with a short and intense wet season. In this environment subsistence farming, the predominant livelihood, is marginal with many communities experiencing periods of hunger through the dry season. The provision of services to the rural population is difficult because there the few roads are generally of poor quality and frequently impassible in the wet season due to flooding or landslides. For many accessing health services requires walking long distances and the use of public transport where available. It is not uncommon for people in need of emergency care to be carried by a group of villagers to a point where road transport is available.
'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.
SMS remains the most popular two-way communications platform on the planet. In most cases, it's inexpensive, casual, and discreet for users. It also represents one of the more profitable features offered by mobile network operators. And while SMS does face an increasingly fractured market, largely from the growth of messaging apps, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Here are 5 reasons why:
For the past month, I’ve been in Sudan working to set up the information flows and tech that will support SUDIA’s Community Communications System. From the tech and information management perspective, SUDIA’s System is interesting because it adapts to a low tech environment by integrating SMS and radio, and processing information largely offline. The System collects and disseminates information useful to communities that live along the migratory routes in Blue Nile State. It focuses on information that communities themselves can use to make their livelihoods more sustainable and more peaceful. In other words, the System is not aimed at organizations (Government or non-Government) that can use information to provide services or design interventions. Rather, it is aimed at communities helping themselves, and provides information that is useful to community leaders in organizing local community responses to livelihood challenges.
On September 7th 2012, our founder Ken Banks contributed a guest article to BBC Future, their website on technology, science, the environment and health, on the impact technology has on poverty eradication.
"Twenty years ago, if you were information technology-literate and interested in international development, your options were limited.
That’s how things were for me when, in 1993, armed with ten years programming and networking experience I began turning my attention to the developing world.
My efforts didn’t get me far. The information technology revolution we see today had barely started at home, let alone in many of the developing nations. If you weren’t an English teacher, a doctor, a policy maker, an economist or a dam builder, careers in development seemed somewhat limited.
How things have changed. Driven largely by the spread of the world wide web and the burgeoning mobile phone sector, opportunities to develop solutions to many of the world’s social and environmental problems have reached almost every bedroom and garden shed in the land.
The irony today is that arguably the greatest developmental tool we have in our hands isn’t a product of the tens of billons of developmental aid spent over the years, but a by-product of private sector investment. Putting the debate around costs and coverage to one side, the development sector has a lot to thank the mobile industry for.
In 1993 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By 1998 that had crept to four million. Today there are an estimated 735 million with penetration running at around the 70% mark. Not bad in less than 20 years."
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.