data collection

SMS inspiration: A view from the Central Independent States

I'm beginning this week in the small landlocked eastern European country of Moldova, talking to representatives of IREX-supported organisations running telecentres and internet access points across the region. We just had a short session on FrontlineSMS, explaining how it works, and starting to come up with ideas for how to use it. Even though we talk every day about how users innovate way beyond our wildest dreams, I somehow still wasn't prepared for the deluge of brilliant ideas coming from the floor! Here are just a few, which the group have generously allowed me to share as inspiration for others thinking about how to incorporate SMS into their work:

  • In a wide geographic area, liaising with partner NGOs, colleagues, and even the authorities - even if it's just to SMS and point out an important email you sent that day. Where the Internet hasn't yet really taken hold, people often don't check their email accounts every day.
  • To let people know about trainings and workshops, or ask them to get involved in campaigns and actions
  • To create a feeling of community between schools and kindergartens across a wide area
  • To let students know when their scholarship money is ready for collection
  • To send information to newly arrived migrants in Kazakhstan, where migration is a high-profile issue; informing  them of the law on registration, the contact details of their embassies in-country, and how to get a visa, a work permit, or citizenship
  • In a big country, the potential as a research tool and information-sharing tool is huge
  • Updating parents about their child's academic performance and behaviour at school.

Participants were also very realistic about the obstacles to using SMS. In countries where SMS bundles aren't common, costs can quickly mount up. In some countries, people often have multiple SIM cards to use across multiple networks as a cost-saving measure - subscription-based services can be a challenge here. And users realised quickly that they had to plan for the service they are considering offering to really take off, so that they would have to resource administrative support for it - but some, such as those proposing parent information services for schools, also saw that they could generate an income to cover this from a small subscription fee for the service.

A final note of caution from me was that in some of these countries, SMS are routinely monitored for political activity not favourable to the government. Where this is the case, organisations need to be aware that mobile services - or even the mobile network - can be quickly shut down, or bulk messaging heavily regulated and the SMS themselves can put both the service provider and the people they are interacting with at risk.

Over the next couple of days I'll be working with individual users on their operational and practical challenges - including types of network, operating costs and staff time - and I'll post further reflections here when I can.

CityCampLondon: thoughts on SMS and appropriate tech

This weekend has been spent at CityCampLondon, in a fog of coffee and beer, on Brick Lane and at the Kings Cross Hub, thinking and talking about using tech to make London better. I wanted to post a slightly more coherent version of my thoughts here.

At the Mobile in the City panel, I reflected on the UK's digital divide, which I've posted about here before, but took it further to suggest that the same factors preventing people from getting online might militate against them having a smart phone. As of January 2010, there were 11.1 million smart phones in the UK, 22.6% of active mobile contracts. Over three quarters of us still use 'dumb' phones. And while 31% of us browse the internet on our phones, 18% access social media and 13.7% access the news, 90.3% use SMS, or text messaging. Ok, so smartphone adoption is growing by an amazing 70% year on year, but I would argue that it's likely that the most marginalised and most vulnerable in society will be the last to see the benefits. Put simply, there's still an excellent case for using SMS to interact and communicate with people we struggle to reach using other technologies.

An example of this would be people who are rough sleeping, or homeless. A friend told me that when she volunteered in a soup kitchen, the most common request was for her to charge the batteries of people's pay-as-you-go phones behind the counter. Three soup kitchens, and one soup VAN, have downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their regulars by text. Others are running helplines for teens, and domestic violence sufferers, or using SMS as an adjunct to treatment and support programmes for people with depression. People are collecting survey information, even reports of bird sightings. I'm searching right now for someone in the UK to house and maintain a simple FrontlineSMS hub to support activists monitoring evictions of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex (if you can help, let me know - no experience or tech knowhow required! Read more about this here.)

What these ideas have in common is that they aren't dependent on introducing new tech of any kind - just using technologies and communications media that people already have in their pockets, to enable them to do what they were doing before, but reaching further and doing better. The questions I've been asking people as we've gone through the third day here at the Hub Kings Cross are - who are you trying to reach? And what are they already using? Do you understand the social context? How boring I must sound.

Events like CityCamp and OpenTech are great but can be all about the tool. My plea this weekend has been to put the end user first. I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited and make things, but there is a gap between innovation (coming up with a tool) and implementation at scale (widespread use and social impact), and the bit in the middle is the human element. Make things easy, both for end users and for the organisations trying to reach them - keep technology simple and recognisable, keep the need for training to a minimum, keep barriers to access AND to implementation low. This remains a challenge for FrontlineSMS as we head towards our sixth year, but one we're determined to crack.

The corollary to this is that too often these events result in new organisations trying to cover similar ground in a new way. How frustrating that established players are so seldom flexible enough to pick up new ideas and adapt their existing models to take advantage of them. The pitches we're hearing right now (I'm writing this from the shadows as braver and more brilliant people than I pitch NESTA and Unltd for funding to bring their newborn ideas into the world) are strikingly diverse in style and approach, and in the problems they seek to attack. If there's something I'm disappointed about this weekend, it's that more people from the public sector haven't stuck around to understand how simple technologies can transform how they interact with their clients.

Thanks to Dominic Campbell and the FutureGov team for a great event and for bringing together a diverse bunch for three days - and thanks for inviting FrontlineSMS!

Your stories are our bread and butter

Friday morning saw me zooming up Portobello Road in west London, cursing the tourists and looking forward to a large flat white with some new acquaintances - I was meeting with a couple of people have just started to use FrontlineSMS for campaigning. This is an increasingly common, and always delightful, part of my job. I generally pepper people with questions, exclaim 'that's interesting' every ten seconds, and scribble furious notes. Often, people ask for advice - what's the best way to fit this into our programme? How should we pilot? How much will it cost? The thing is, I'm not the expert, hence all my questions - but I know where to find the real pros.

FrontlineSMS are a diverse bunch, based all over the world, as our new Member Map is beginning to show. You're working on projects in all sorts of fields, from safe motherhood, to community cohesion, to citizen journalism, to minority rights activism, and all points between and beyond. And YOU are the FrontlineSMS implementation experts. We know the theory, and of course we know the software, but there's no substitute for experience when it comes to finding ways around the real world pitfalls and problems that users encounter. So if anything, I'm less an expert myself, and more of a matchmaker, linking people using FrontlineSMS in similar ways; or a librarian, remembering stories of past solutions and pointing them out to people encountering a similar problem.

So where do we find these examples? Well, face to face meetings are probably the richest way for us to find out what you're up to. We'll go anywhere! Send us an email and we'll hop on a plane, train or death-defying local form of motorbike transport and come see you. Failing that,  we often give examples from our guest posts, or from email correspondence with unfailingly generous people all over the world who have millions of things to do, and yet still find the time to sit down and tell us what they're up to.

We're also working with a couple of our users to write up glossy, jointly-branded case studies, which get into a bit more technical detail than a guest post can, try to show the impact FrontlineSMS has had, and even list local suppliers. The idea is that FrontlineSMS users should be able to use these documents themselves to explain the SMS portion of their project to their own donors and stakeholders. They'll also be an invaluable resource for others looking to implement a similar programme. Watch this space for the first case study in the next few weeks.

At a more basic level, we need more data about who's using FrontlineSMS - we need to know who you are, where you are, and what you're doing. People like numbers - what, where, how many. For this reason, we added a small tool to a recent version of FrontlineSMS that offers to send back anonymised statistics to us (more on that in a future blogpost, as they've only just started to come in).We'll also be running a user survey in September to try and get a better picture of how FrontlineSMS is being used. Finally, in 2011 we'll be working on allowing you to register your copy of FrontlineSMS.

All this information gathering has three purposes:

  1. We find that it's only when we get to know you that we start to hear what we should be improving, what not's working, what else we should add. All the new features we've added (Translation Manager, Forms, and the HTTP trigger) have been in response to your feedback. And it's only when you tell us that we know something's not working - users reported a problem with the software on Monday morning, and we had it fixed and a new version uploaded within a few hours.
  2. As I said above, you're the experts. Hearing from you means we can share more with other users, and help give people ideas for how to use FrontlineSMS in their own work.
  3. We can explain to our donors and supporters what FrontlineSMS is achieving in the world, which enables them to keep supporting us, and in turn, lets us keep doing all the things we do to keep FrontlineSMS evolving and keep the community flourishing.

Your stories keep us improving; keep us innovating; and keep the lights on in the office. Better still, they help inspire other users. Do you have a story to tell?

Mobile meets health on the margins

The timing of this article could not have been better, given the discussions last week on the merits of mobile-based "cloud computing" and the clarification of our position a couple of days later. Despite advances in mobile devices and data connectivity, the need for mobile tools to also be able to work in less than optimal conditions is still as strong and as relevant as ever, as this use of FrontlineSMS by Telecoms Sans Frontiers in Nicaragua shows us all too well. "TSF - No Bugs In This Software That Fights Disease" (re-printed with the kind permission of November 5th, 2009

"Since the beginning of October, Nicaragua is facing a huge rise of dengue cases, which has become a major public health concern in the country. The Health Ministry of the Central American nation (Minsa) has a crisis unit (SILAIS) which currently focuses its activities in response to both the dengue and H1N1 plagues. An Internet monitoring system has previously been set up to control the health situation in the country; nevertheless access to computer is often difficult in some regions where only few health centers are equipped.

TSF and FrontlineSMS TrainingDue to this serious situation, and the necessity to improve the collection of information, TSF, in collaboration with PATH (an international non-profit organisation that aims at enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycle of poor health) is reinforcing SILAIS’ capacities in Information and Communications Technologies.

In order to monitor the spread of the dengue in Managua and to conduct mobile health actions, TSF has been implementing for the first time a very innovative system based on a widespread, cheap and solid technology, GSM.

To set up the program, TSF uses FrontlineSMS software. Developed by a TSF partner NGO, FrontlineSMS is free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Thus, GSM technology is used to reach as many geographical zones as possible to control health issues in those areas. The server in SILAIS is connected with the 32 health units in Managua.

Each health unit has been delivered a mobile phone by TSF, so that they can send different kinds of information through SMS to the server. Hospital and health centers fill in predefined forms from their mobile phones and send them by SMS to SILAIS. Designed by PATH and the SILAIS, those forms provide data about the classic and hemorrhagic dengue cases, about the H1N1 2009 ones and the need for medicines when the stock nearly runs out. Once the forms received, the server stores information and puts them in databases in order to facilitate statistical analysis, on Excel format for example.

TSF provides two-way communication to health units enabling SILAIS to receive a daily report and gather messages from the health units and will have an updated situation in each center. At the meanwhile, SILAIS will also be able to communicate important information to them through SMS (such as an alert or a warning about coming meetings for example) or give them automatic answers to predefined questions sent by the health units.

Image courtesy Telecoms Sans Frontiers

By providing communication links between health structures and the SILAIS, TSF will allow the Health Ministry to have more accurate information about the diseases spread within Managua and quickly survey and assess the needs in affected areas. TSF helps health professionals use advanced methodologies such as smart phones and open-source software. Mobile devices are great tools to track and transmit crucial data in order to detect an epidemic threat at an appropriate time. Through this program, TSF participates in strengthening health systems in Nicaragua.

Following the installation of the system, on October 24th, TSF organized training for all the beneficiaries of the project. The health units and SILAIS staff were trained on the application’s functionalities and available services".

For a related article on FrontlineForms, the FrontlineSMS data collection tool used by TSF for the project, go here.

FrontlineSMS: Now with Forms

It's been a hectic few months, but we're finally there. Today we're excited to announce the release of the new FrontlineForms, an SMS-driven data collection tool which seamlessly integrates into our existing and growing FrontlineSMS platform. Sure, data collection tools already exist, but many require mobile internet access to function, degrees in Linux to get running, or PDAs or the kinds of phones that just aren't available to the masses in most developing countries. FrontlineForms runs on most high- and low-end Java-enabled phones, can be downloaded directly onto a handset over-the-air, doesn't require internet access beyond installation, and utilises the already-proven simple user interface of FrontlineSMS. In short, FrontlineForms compliments our existing focus on empowering the social mobile long tail with an entry-level, usable data collection tool.

According to my thinking, tools for the long tail need - among other things - to run on readily available hardware wherever possible, and be simple to install and easy to use. These innocent little criteria can create huge challenges, though. Writing an application which runs on all desktops (Windows, Mac and the various flavours of Linux), that interfaces locally with the widest range of phones and modems, and connects remotely with a data collection tool which runs on as many Java-enabled handsets as possible is a huge technical challenge. Many other mobile solutions concentrate on one desktop operating system, or a small family of mobile phones (sometimes just a single phone), which is all fine if you want to concentrate on users higher up the long tail. With our focus on grassroots NGOs, we don't.

FrontlineSMS Forms Editor

So, this is how it works. Using the new FrontlineSMS Forms Editor (above), users are able to create a form visually on their computer by dragging-and-dropping field types, giving them names and setting other parameters along the way. The form is then encoded and sent via SMS to any number of handsets running the FrontlineForms client, a small program which runs on a wide range of Java-enabled handsets. Once these handsets receive a new form, the Java client interprets the data, saves the form layout and displays a mobile version ready for the fieldworker to complete (see below).

FrontlineForms Client

The FrontlineForms client can hold many different forms at the same time, all selectable from a drop-down menu. As requirements change new forms can be built and distributed by simply texting them to the recipients handset through FrontlineSMS - they don't need to travel to the office to be added. Once out in the field the user simply inputs their data, and once complete multiple forms are combined and compressed, ready to be sent back to the FrontlineSMS hub, again as SMS. If at any time users find themselves working out of range of a mobile signal, the data is usefully held in "offline" mode until connectivity is restored.

The addition of data collection functionality to FrontlineSMS is a significant step forward for the software. From today, non-profit organisations in the developing world can experiment with anything from simple two-way group messaging campaigns to prototyping SMS-based information services, or start collecting data in the field, all through a single software application. The modular nature of FrontlineSMS means that users are able to deactivate functionality they do not need, but then easily reactivate it as they grow into SMS services. Future "modules" will include mapping functionality - powered by Ushahidi - and multimedia messaging (due later this year) allowing the transmission of pictures, audio, video and text. More specialist applications, including those being developed independently by the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, will also appear as optional modules.

According to Dr. Luis Sarmenta of the Next Billion Network and MIT Media Lab - whose students worked on pre-release versions of the tool as part of their own projects:

"Data collection from the field is one of the most common needs we see among projects in the developing world today, and enabling people to use mobile phones instead of paper would empower a lot of groups and people out there to do their work more efficiently, more effectively, and with broader reach. FrontlineForms seeks to provide this profoundly useful capability while remaining true to the goal of ease-of-use that has been the key to FrontlineSMS' success and value"

Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) were equally positive after spending several days putting the entire platform through its paces as part of a wider evaluation exercise. According to Grégory Rebattu, TSF’s Niger Representative:

"Crucially from our perspective, FrontlineSMS is extremely user-friendly, allowing partner organisations on the ground to rapidly deploy a data collection and dissemination system from scratch. This simplicity is crucial for organizations which may lack technical skills, and users can be up and running in a matter of minutes with the minimum of mouse clicks. The intuitive nature of the software also means that little technical support is required once they’re up and running"

FrontlineSMS Icon - Photo by Erik Hersman (White African), Kenya, 2008

Today's release of FrontlineForms gives many new and existing FrontlineSMS users access to entry-level data collection tools for the very first time. Those that find it valuable, and those whose data collection needs grow, can then move onto more scalable and powerful solutions such as those developed by DataDyne, an organisation we've been in contact with over the years and whose work is making a considerable impact in parts of the developing world. What FrontlineForms aims to do, over-and-above anything else, is give grassroots NGOs the opportunity to try out mobile data collection with the minimum of fuss, the minimum need for high-level technical expertise or equipment, and the minimum of funding.

These are exciting times for the FrontlineSMS community. The software has been allowed to develop organically, based very much on the needs of  users in the field, and it continues to power increasing numbers of social change projects around the world. If 2009 doesn't turn out to be the "Year of Mobile" everyone is talking about, we'll sure be doing our best to make it the "Year of the FrontlineSMS user".  o/

(Further details on today's FrontlineForms launch can be found on the official Press Release. A special thanks goes to Tess Conner for her work on media and PR, to MIT and Télécoms Sans Frontières for their feedback, to the team at Masabi for their commitment and contribution to the project, to members of the FrontlineSMS Communiity for their ideas and enthusiasm, and to members of the wider social mobile community for their continued support and encouragement. You know who you are)