Tomorrow has arrived, but not for everyone. A digital divide persists, even in seemingly connected countries like the United States, where some twenty percent of the population, or sixty million people, don’t have Internet access at home. Those on the wrong side of the divide—the poor, the elderly, the geographically dispersed— are already marginalized, and tend to have a more critical need for specialized legal services, whether to resolve a conflict, acquire a land title, seek asylum, or escape an abusive situation.
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!
This update is the twelfth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Anthony Papillion - Founder of OpenEMR HQ - shares the latest news on its use in his Oklahoma home town, where the software is helping provide relief to women suffering domestic violence "In late May of this year, I assisted a local crisis center in deploying a solution we've now dubbed "FamilyFIRST". FamilyFIRST is an SMS based system that allows victims of domestic violence to reach out to police, crisis counselors, and to document abuse incidents all via simple SMS messaging.
When the project first began, neither I nor the agency involved were sure how it would be received or if it would even be used. Educating victims to think pro-actively in crisis situation is a difficult thing. Their first reaction is to simply hide or get out of the situation if possible. This often means running without a purse or mobile phone.
So the agency decided to tackle the deployment in two phases: Technical and marketing. Technical, thanks to FrontlineSMS, was incredibly easy. By integrating the software along with a bit of custom software written by me, I was able to get a working system up and running bug free in less than a week. It includes message routing and archival, and is structured in such a way that the evidence stored inside of it has been deemed acceptable by the court.
Then, came the marketing side. Obviously, the agency didn't have a lot of money so doing a huge PR blitz was out of the question. So they went about spreading word about the system in local PSA's, victims groups, in seminars, and through area counselors working with the abused population. Because this was all very grassroots, they were able to accomplish this with a near zero budget and we were all totally shocked by the response it received.
In the last two and a half months, FamilyFiRST has processed over 4,000 messages from victims of violence, not only in our local area, but around the state of Oklahoma. Evidence stored in the system has been used to help successfully prosecute 9 offenders and has resulted in combined sentences of over 110 years being handed down in those cases.
All in all, the system is a success and it couldn't have happened without FrontlineSMS. Even though I'm a software engineer by trade, I wouldn't have had the time or knowledge to build such a robust system from scratch and FrontlineSMS reduced 'building the system' to writing a few pieces of tie-in software and setting up a database.
Our future goal for the system is to work with other agencies in deploying in in health care (our core competency), domestic violence, and education. Thanks to this experience with FrontlineSMS, I'm confident that a robust system can be built quickly, easily, and very affordably (under $700 USD).
Thank you Ken and all the developers of FrontlineSMS. You're helping to change the world, one download at a time".
Anthony Papillion Founder OpenEMR HQ www.openemrhq.com
(This post is also available on the FrontlineSMS community pages. Anthony's original FrontlineSMS guest post, which describes the thinking behind the project, is available here. Congratulations to everyone at "FamilyFIRST" for such a great, inspiring and hugely valuable initiative)
This is the seventh in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Anthony Papillion - Founder of OpenEMR HQ - discusses his initial thoughts on being introduced to the software, and outlines his plans for its use in his Oklahoma home town to help women suffering domestic violence
"I only recently became involved with the FrontlineSMS project as an addition to a national project my company, OpenEMR HQ, is doing with a small African country. But, since discovering the software, I've been busily thinking of good ways it could be put to use by organizations in my own community and I've come up with a few I believe are viable. Today, I want to share one of those ideas and how we're going to use FrontlineSMS as a tool to help combat violence against women in the United States, specifically, in the small community of Miami, Oklahoma.
Cause for concern
Every year, millions of American women face domestic violence at the hands of those that are supposed to love and protect them. These women often feel powerless and suffer continued abuse without ever reaching out because they either don't know the resources are out there or because they're scared nothing will be done to their abusers if they do come forward thereby encouraging even more abuse. Community crisis centers serve as a front line of defense in these situations often shuttling abused women out of dangerous situations and into safe houses, interfacing with police to make sure victims get the services and protection they need, and providing the much needed emotional support those who've escaped violent situations are so desperately in need of.
Unfortunately, none of those things can be offered until the victim reaches out and getting abused women to take the first step can be a large part of the battle. Many women don't think or have a safe way to catalog the abuse, don't know how to report it, and don't want calls to crisis numbers showing up on the mobile phone bill. The end result is the complete isolation of these women from any help at all.
As I've been playing around with FrontlineSMS, I've been thinking about ways it could be used to address these situations and I'm slowly starting to piece together a system called CPR that I hope to soon have deployed locally as a test bed for a larger, maybe statewide system.
The basic idea is to give women a quick, easy, and safe way to report and catalog abuse, and reach out for either police or crisis worker help, all without ever making a traceable phone call. Piecing together a system that consists of a laptop running FrontlineSMS, a mobile phone, and a few PHP scripts sitting on an Internet connection, I'm creating a system where women can send messages to various help authorities or just record instances of abuse for later use in court. For example:
C <A message that she wants to send to a crisis counselor> P <A message she wants to send to a police officer> R <A message she wants to be recorded for later use in court detailing an abusive incident>
Using the CPR system, women in dangerous situations can quietly and safely reach out for help when a phone call simply isn't possible. Using FrontlineSMS will allow both police and crisis agencies to have two way communication with the victim thereby ensuring the communication loop is never broken.
Building the vision
Since I'm still developing the system, I've not deployed an installation of it yet but I've been getting great feedback from various agencies I've spoken to. Eventually, I'd like to implement a way for victims to send pictures, video, and audio, and have it automatically attached to their case file within the CPR system for later use in court. That will come later and probably with some community help.
None of this would be possible without FrontlineSMS. While I am a professional software developer, I probably would never have developed a system like FrontlineSMS and the fact that it's available as open source makes it incredibly accessible.
I'll be sure to keep everyone up to date on how this project is coming along as it progresses. I'll also be sure to blog about how we're using FrontlineSMS in our Vision Africa project being launched very soon. Until then, feel free to send your feedback or make comments to this post. Thank you".
Anthony Papillion Founder OpenEMR HQ www.openemrhq.com
(This post originally appeared on Anthony's "CajonTechie's Mindstream" blog, and is republished with permission)