“We are local. We live and love Cambridge.” An Innovative SMS setup at a UK Community Radio

By Peter Westman, FrontlineSMS:Radio Intern

Whilst FrontlineSMS is well known for being used in low infrastructure environments with little or no internet access and limited smart phone availability amongst audiences, we often hear cases of the software being used in contexts to complement many other technology options available. While Amy and I were in Cambridge in the UK a few weeks ago visiting colleagues at Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, we also had the pleasure of dropping in to visit Cambridge 105, a community radio that broadcasts live across the city 7 days a week.

The station is a not-for-profit organization that draws on its wide range of volunteer members for all aspects of production throughout the day. Cambridge 105 actively uses social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook as part of their audience engagement strategy. They are also using FrontlineSMS in a very innovative way in order to help listeners interact with the presenters using text message.

Audience participation is popular at Cambridge 105, particularly during the breakfast and drive-time shows. Axel Minet (photo right), who works at the station, described how one of the most powerful appeals of Cambridge 105 is that the issues discussed are locally relevant and personal to the community. The station’s leaflets even say: “We are local. We live and love Cambridge.” The station has shows which are particularly popular with their Cambridge listeners, share local news and even once helped a local pet owner to find a lost cat.

Listeners are often invited to request songs and dedications via text message which are relayed to the relevant DJ. Using the FrontlineSMS as a “back end” (i.e. DJs do not need to directly enter the application), Cambridge 105 have designed a unique system in order to ensure messages reach the appropriate DJ. They have developed a customized PHP script, which is used to create dynamic web-based content. This is synchronized with Google Calendar containing the DJ schedule. When an SMS reaches FrontlineSMS, a query based on the message’s time stamp is sent to the calendar which works out the corresponding e-mail of the DJ who is on air. The message is then forwarded to the DJ in their email account using a http trigger and presenters can access the content from the studio computer while they are presenting.

By widely publicizing the contact number for the station, the station is also looking to increase participation from audiences, particularly so that those without smart phones (about half of the UK) can contribute to their favorite shows while on the move. Axel pointed out the notices displayed in the DJ booth and around the station, which explain how audiences can contact the show. These notices serve as a reminder for DJs that they must remind audiences of ways they can participate and interact, and Axel stressed the importance of repeating the number throughout the show (not just the beginning and end).

It is especially important for community stations to be able to learn about their audience so that they can tailor their programming towards their listeners’ concerns. The station manager at Cambridge 105 is interested in analytics around interaction. Being a digital form of communication, SMS is a great way to monitor this and offer metrics to advertisers. Advertising is important for the survival of Cambridge 105 who offer local sponsorship packages targeted to a potential audience of 150,000 Cambridge based customers, making it an effective marketing medium. Moreover audiences don’t feel advertising is an invasion as messages more likely to be targeted to their local needs.

Axel observed that FrontlineSMS software offers both a flexible back end which can be customized for their specific needs, while also permitting presenters to collect useful feedback and information from their audience in a simple and unobtrusive format. You can find Cambridge 105 at and even listen online.

If you’re using Frontline as part of your programming, we’d love to hear from you on

Two Cities, One Event: SMS to Map – Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to Tell Your Story

Want to know more about using mobiles for social change, crowd sourced mapping, and how the two can combine? Keen to learn more about FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, and how these software tools can be used together to enable positive social change? If you have questions about these tools which you’ve never had the chance to ask then Monday 7th November is your chance, at upcoming event: SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story. This exciting event will take place in two cities on one evening; at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya, from 6-8pm EAT and then later on at Goldsmiths University of London, UK, at 7-9pm GMT. Both events will host presentations on FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, and will also hear from some community experts who have used these tools together in action for social change projects in various different countries and contexts across the world.

There is a wealth of experienced speakers contributing to the event, including: Laura Walker Hudson (FrontlineSMS), Heather Leson (Ushahidi), Sharon Langevin (FrontlineSMS:Credit), Limo Taboi (Ushahidi), Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews Network), Linda Raftree (Plan International) and Claire Wardle (freelance trainer and researcher, currently working with the BBC College of Journalism). With this agenda the event will have something for novices and experienced techies alike! And if you'd like to come you can register here today!

FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi have been used together in many powerful and inspiring ways; to monitor elections in Nigeria; to map harassment on the street of Egypt; to track incidences of violence against children in Benin; to demonstrate and challenge incidences of human rights abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and these are just a few examples. FrontlineSMS provides users with the ability to send receive and effectively manage large numbers of SMS, and Ushahidi software enables information visualization, interactive mapping and information collection through crowdsourcing methodology. When used together the tools enable people to collect SMS data and then visualize it with powerful results, as the case study examples show.

The aim of this event is to provide a meeting space for the communities of those who use or are keen to learn more about both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi software. FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi technologies often appeal to similar audiences: those supportive of open source software, and those working for social change in contexts where people may struggle to get their voices heard via other means. We’ve also got a similar ethos towards prioritising the importance of understanding people who use our tools, and being committed to building and supporting our community of users. And as if that wasn’t enough cross over both teams of developers work from the same offices in Nairobi, too! Through facilitating this event we hope to build on existing collaborations and inspire more future uses of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi together.

The event itself will be co-hosted by FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, the iHub (Nairobi, Kenya) and Goldsmiths University (London, UK). Many thanks to the iHub for hosting the Nairobi-based event and to Goldsmiths University of London for sponsoring the London-based event, as well as to all others who have helped pull this exciting event program together. We all look forward to seeing you there next week!

For more info and/ or to register now visit: To follow the event on Twitter use the hash tag #smsmap We will be blogging about the event, and hope to make videos of presentations available after the event too

FrontlineSMS used for Inclusive Arts Project in UK

FrontlineSMS really is used all across the world. It is not only used in economically developing countries, but can be used as a tool to connect people in many different contexts. An example of this is the use of our software by interactive arts trio, Invisible Flock. Here Ben Eaton, lead creative at Invisible Flock discusses the way FrontlineSMS is used:

Here at Invisible Flock we make large scale interactive work that ranges from public art, to games, to digital work. We are based in the UK, and at the heart of all that we do is the desire to empower our audiences through participation.

In a way it feels peculiar to be using a platform that is designed and well-documented in its use for some very serious real world applications, however FrontlineSMS has quickly become a central tool in our work.

The reasons we use SMS messages as a platform are, from a design perspective, likely not that different from why the other organisations and NGOs employ them.  Our work seeks to engage our participants in a direct and intimate manner, allowing them interactions outside of the traditional space and time of art consumption.  This means you don’t have to be in a gallery on a Friday evening for you to take part in the work we create.  Using SMS permits us to interweave what we do into the daily lives of our participants in a manner that is both very personal and unobtrusive.

We have been using FrontlineSMS for a year or so and very heavily in the last four to five months. In our most recent piece entitled Your Government Has Gone To Sleep (YGHGTS), we waged a game of revolution in the Chapeltown area of UK city Leeds.  We invited residents to sign up to our game and, over the course of a week, we allowed them to become part of a revolutionary movement orchestrated by text message—in which they communicated with each other and took part in a series of small acts of peaceful revolution that re-examined the makeup of that community.

FrontlineSMS enabled us to quickly and easily create a reactive platform to manage and filter our conversations with players in our game.  We are always conscious, working in the field of interactive art, of the risk of exclusion due to a potential player’s inability to access the technology, and, as such, we shy away from using smart phones and platforms that are likely to actively isolate.  SMS messaging is ubiquitous and cheap and, as such, presents an easy manner for players to enter into our games and for them to continue with it.

We create interaction with FrontlineSMS by making heavy use of the keyword function, grouping participants into subgroups that represent either their progression in a piece’s story or their response to specific questions of tasks.  We allocate codenames to players that also serve as keywords that allow our FrontlineSMS setup to serve as a hub for players to communicate with each other whilst still remaining anonymous.

Perhaps most interestingly for us however is the integration of HTTP trigger commands into FrontlineSMS, as it enables us to create complex interactive responses to participants messages.  In YGHGTS, we used the keyword MANIFESTO to enable participants to input their own political manifestos to a website which updated every few seconds—allowing them to submit content and see it appear almost instantly on the monitor in front of them.  The beauty of FrontlineSMS is that with a keyword, an HTTP command, a simple five-line PHP script and a MySQL database at the other end, we can quickly set up an effective interactive environment.

The ability to use SMS messages to communicate out from FrontlineSMS to a wide variety of applications including physical objects in the real world makes it an invaluable platform in our work.  In the next few weeks, we are creating a series of autonomous interactive explorations of the city of Bradford.  We are using text messages to trigger and orchestrate journeys that take participants to multiple locations, receive phone calls and trigger events in the real world.

We use a software platform called VVVV to run our complicated multimedia environments and we use the inbuilt HTTP command capabilities of FrontlineSMS to integrate VVVV perfectly.  Above is an image showing the simplest setup, using a HTTP command sent from FrontlineSMS to VVVV to trigger playback of an audio file. The same process can then be reversed to control responses and trigger SMS messages from events monitored in the real world by the computer or hardware platforms such as Arduinos.

With this setup, FrontlineSMS becomes almost infinitely extendable, and surpasses its own inbuilt capabilities.  We are currently gearing up to launch a series of interactive journeys across a UK city, which will be our most ambitious project involving FrontlineSMS to date. At the height of the experience we are creating participants will be able to trigger content on a city centre big screen by sending a text message — a very real physical impact from a simple SMS, and all run through FrontlineSMS.

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Here at FrontlineSMS look forward to staying in touch with the Invisible Flock team as they continue to use FrontlineSMS in new and exciting ways! To find out more about Invisible Flock’s work visit You can also watch a video about some of their recent work here.

A positive message for diverse communities

Re-posted via the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

Who would have thought text messaging could be used to strengthen social change projects the world over? There are now six billion mobile phone connections globally, and many more people own a mobile handset than don’t. In large part due to this mass availability, mobiles are now being used to strengthen many non-profit initiatives.

FrontlineSMS is a social enterprise which enables projects to use the power of text messaging to their advantage, by providing free and open source software that gives the ability to turn a laptop and a mobile phone in to a mass messaging communications hub. Here in the UK, FrontlineSMS is being used by a nationally award-winning voluntary organisation called FolesHillfields Vision Project to strengthen their work building strong bridges between diverse communities in the city of Coventry.

The area that  FolesHillfields  works in is both “blessed by diversity, and struggling with disadvantage” ( This combination of factors can lead to tensions, which if not addressed can cause serious problems. When there is high competition for work in deprived areas people can often feel the need to blame those they perceive as separate to themselves; those who are living in the same area and sharing the same resources, but may be from a different country or religious background.

Diversity can clearly enrich societies, yet it can also be a source of tensions and animosity between people from different ethnic backgrounds, faiths, and areas of the world. Thus FolesHillfields works to counteract this kind of tension in Foleshill and Hillfields, two central Coventry neighbourhoods. The Project facilitates community events and activities which promote social inclusion by bringing different groups together to interact, listen to each other and develop an understanding of their differences and commonalities.

Often the Project will hold structured discussions in which people talk directly about their views on relevant topics, such as racism. Those present will be asked to actively listen to what each other are saying and give everyone a chance to speak, thus ensuring all views are heard. Some discussions focus on how local tensions relate to international issues, thus addressing the global context of any potential community tensions. In addition to these structured discussions the Project hosts lots of informal meet up opportunities for people to have lunch, do some gardening, and share tea together. These activities help to encourage a shared sense of social acceptance and understanding.

One major commonality amongst the diverse population in Coventry is that most people own a mobile phone. Therefore FolesHillfields Vision's organisers make use of FrontlineSMS to send out mass text messages to reach out and bring people together.

The free and open source software allows a single message to be sent to the hundreds of people the project is working with at the click of a button. The messages could be to remind people of key events, to inspire people to stay involved, or to send best wishes for many different types of holidays local people celebrate. For example, on the 21st March a text was sent to say ‘Happy Newroz’; the Iranian New Year. In addition FrontlineSMS allows the Project to split their contacts out in to different groups and text all of the women in the group, for example, with a reminder of International Women’s day celebration, or all of the volunteers with a reminder about the details of a particular event. “FrontlineSMS helps to strengthen the sense of community we are creating, and keep people involved and connected with what we are doing” says Mark Hinton, one of the Project’s founders.

FrontlineSMS software has been downloaded nearly 14,000 times and is being used in over 70 countries for many different purposes including provision health information, mobilizing human rights campaigns, and even monitoring elections. It is great to see effective use of the software here in the United Kingdom, to help support the important work of the FolesHillfieldsVision Project.

To find out more about FolesHillField Vision Project go to

Global learning at the speed of a text message

In a rapidly changing, globalised world education can help young adults to understand life beyond their own national borders. Here, in our thirtieth guest blog post, Alex Monk, School Linking Officer at Plan UK, discusses how FrontlineSMS is being used to support a project called Plan-ed. This project links schools across the globe, and thus helps deepen young people’s understanding of our world today.

“The Plan-ed School Linking programme has been running since 2008 and connects young people aged between 7 - 14 in the UK with their counterparts in China, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Schools exchange pen-pal letters, e-mails, videos and local artifacts. The Linking programme also allows children to share examples of work on mutually relevant topics such as climate change, successful enterprise and Children’s Rights. This helps the young people involved to learn about others their age living in different areas of the world; to recognise their similarities and appreciate their differences.

The Plan-ed project uses a variety of communication methods to help linking schools stay in touch, including sending post, video conferencing, interaction through their website, and more recently text messaging. Over the past six months schools in Malawi, Sierra Leone and the UK have been using FrontlineSMS to communicate with their partner schools. The schools use FrontlineSMS to send texts confirming receipt of posted letters and material. They also exchange text messages about ideas for new projects, and to organise travel for teacher exchanges as part of the linking project, and even to wish each other happy holidays.

The videos here show Headteachers from two schools who have been linked together as part of this Plan-ed project.

Orphent Kawonga (Zombwe School in Malawi) and David Lodge (Countess Anne School in the UK) have been on teacher exchanges to each others schools, to help strengthen their link. Here they discuss the benefits of the use of FrontlineSMS to support their link projects.

Ophent from Zombwe school on School Linking and FrontlineSMS from Plan UK on Vimeo.

David Lodge, Headteacher Countess Anne School from Plan-ed on Vimeo.

The benefit of using FrontlineSMS for the schools involved is that they have a way to regularly stay in touch with each other, and keep a record of their communications. FrontlineSMS has proved particularly helpful in the schools in Malawi in which the internet is not easily accessible, and the post can take a while to get through. Sending and receiving text messages is a quick and convenient way to stay in touch that helps the teachers maintain momentum in the linking school project, thus building sustainable connections between the schools.

Moving forward teachers in Malawi, Sierra Leone and the UK will continue using FrontlineSMS to support their connections with their Link schools. In addition, Plan-ed hopes to explore further ways to utilise FrontlineSMS. For example we are investigating the idea of using FrontlineSMS for more operational purposes; to help Plan-ed’s country coordinators stay in touch with the schools more regularly. It really is a great help to have a piece of technology such as FrontlineSMS, which helps facilitate quick communication in otherwise hard to reach areas of the world.”

For more information on Plan-ed visit: