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.
In my previous post, I argued that established, traditional newsrooms tend to be most comfortable accepting citizen reporting or user-generated content during a large-scale, widespread emergency event. In these circumstances, newsrooms often accept photo and video submissions from the public, or even seek them out on Instagram, Vine or Twitter. Professional journalists or editors may curate tweets or blog posts to summarize the experience of citizens. They may also make a public request for input from those affected, or to clarify incoming information.
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.”
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.
Citizen reporters broke much of the news, though they still needed broadcast media to help spread it. In some cases, citizens were able to capture iconic photos of events. Others were able to tell compelling stories about how the emergency affected their lives, including obeying the "stay in place" request by government officials during the manhunt. It has been widely reported how quickly social communities also got information wrong, including falsely accusing suspects. But I've seen a nearly equal number of reports showing how quickly these communities were able to self-correct their own misinformation.
UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross landed in Morocco last Wednesday. While the international community anxiously waits to see where his next round of negotiations go, here's a peek into the lives of those affected most by the outcome - Sahrawi refugees. For once, a little hope for the future coming from the Sahara...
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a bit obsessed with words. Not just words themselves, but how we use them, what that shows us about how we think, and what it means when their definitions creep. It’s a side effect of having been trained as a lawyer and a journalist, I think. Or at least, that’s what I blame it on. Either way, it’s gotten me thinking about something. We have to change the way we talk about solving problems. Let me explain.
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:
The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched a new website, Capacity to Innovate.org, which examines lessons from a number of organizations including Ushahidi and Internews, and encapsulates them in three short reports which are well worth a read. FrontlineSMS is featured in the 'Learning From Experimentation' report, available from the website. Here's an excerpt, but we really recommend the whole report as a very readable and thought-provoking set of examples.
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.
Yesterday, our Founder Ken announced some exciting changes to the way we’re doing things at FrontlineSMS. Today, we’d like to tell you just a little bit more. It’s a tremendous and exciting honor to be a part of FrontlineSMS. The FrontlineSMS team and community are growing at an unprecedented rate, driving innovation in mobile technology all over the world. Over the course of the last year and a half, our team has grown by 400 percent, started four new projects, and completely redesigned the core software. The FrontlineSMS community has grown to include thousands of users, finding innovative applications of the software to drive social change in more than 80 countries. Today’s team covers three continents and supports 2,500 forum members, hundreds of active users, and partners all over the world.
Although our team and organization are growing and changing, our mission remains the same: FrontlineSMS uses mobile technology to facilitate social change. While our evolution reflects the growth of SMS as a communications platform and its increasing professionalization, we’re guided by Ken’s focus on last-mile communities, locally appropriate technology, and easy-to-use tools. We’ve built a hybrid organizational structure that will continue to distribute free and open-source software to thousands of users, while building new, more sophisticated tools that meet growingly complex needs.
One of the major lessons we’ve learned from FrontlineSMS users has been how many barriers to communication are human, as opposed to technological. Effective mobile engagement depends on program design, professional capacity, infrastructure, culture and any number of other factors. To help users overcome these challenges, we’ve developed a wide range of consulting and support services that help connect industries to the communities they value most.
Since Ken invited us to join his senior management team in 2010, we have worked together to bring our core values and focus on the last mile into a larger vision and more ambitious approach for our organization. In 2012, we’ll be releasing four new FrontlineSMS products, including Version 2 of the core platform, a completely redesigned application that’s faster, easier to use, and more capable of handling complex tasks. Our users will be able to do more with larger volumes of SMS data, as we add automated data processing and visualization tools, and customize the application for specific sectors. We will continue to grow our library of free, accessible, field-focused resources on the best ways to use our mobile technologies to foster social change.
On a personal note, we’d like to thank Ken, the FrontlineSMS community, and our growing team for their innovative leadership and dedication. Ken has been a visionary mentor to both of us as we’ve grown into these roles over the last 18 months. There’s no question that he’s built more than software and a community - Ken has helped drive the way that we think about communicating. The FrontlineSMS community is, and has always been, comprised of organizations and problem-solvers who are inventing the future of mobile, one idea at a time. We couldn't be more excited to lead FrontlineSMS into its next stage of growth or more fortunate to have such inspirational guidance. More than anything, we look forward to what comes next and discovering it together.
Thanks and Best Wishes
Laura and Sean
FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was interviewed by The Ericsson Business Review last year, and this interview has now been made available online. The interview focuses on how we often define innovation too narrowly, and why “development issues such as education require us to start with the problem, not the technology”. A summary is available on the Ericsson “Networked Society Blog” here, and the full interview is available in pdf format here. You can find an extract of the interview below:
What role can mobile technology play in development?
Mobile networks open up the possibility of reaching communities that would otherwise miss out on any meaningful connection with the rest of the world, and allow them to engage, make themselves heard and to be empowered by information.
You have been involved in many fruitful mobile-centered development initiatives. What separates the successful projects from the unsuccessful ones?
The single most important thing is starting with the problem and not the technology. It is quite common for people to grab the latest smartphone or iPad or whatever happens to be hot at the moment and try to figure out how it could be used in a development context. This approach can work, but most of the time it is destined to fail. If you go in with technology as your main objective, you will end up shoehorning it into contexts where it will not always work. The solution to a development question could be pencils or paper – it does not necessarily need to have anything to do with ict. I think that the correct sequence should instead be problem-people-technology. By “people” I mean the individuals at the grassroots who usually understand the problem better than anybody else.
To read the full interview, please click here.
a href="http://infoasaid.org/" target="_blank">infoasaid is a consortium of Internews and the BBC World Service Trust. The objective is to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities - the focus is on providing humanitarian information. The emphasis is on the need to deliver information, as aid itself, through the most appropriate channels. In this guest blog post first published on their website, infoasaid highlight some of the innovating approaches they are piloting to using FrontlineSMS in communicating with communities affected by crisis. ** This use of FrontlineSMS has also been reported on by ActionAid, the BBC World Service Trust and ReliefWeb. In addition, we included it in our National Geographic blog series, Mobile Message. **
Targeted, reliable information can help save lives in crisis-affected communities. As famine is declared in neighbouring Somalia, we’re helping ActionAid to improve vital communication with drought-affected populations in northern Kenya.
Open source mobile solutions such as FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone are enabling two-way communication with vulnerable communities.
A chronic problem
Isiolo County in north eastern Kenya suffers from chronic drought and food shortages. A population of about 143,000 mostly semi-nomadic pastoralists rely on their herds of camels, cattle, goats and sheep for daily food and much of their cash income.
Many of the communities in this semi-arid area have been continuously dependent on food aid from the World Food Program (WFP) since 2004. ActionAid has been heavily involved in both long term development and drought-response projects in the Isiolo area for more than 15 years.
It knows that better communication can help save lives.
Livestock information bulletin
Weekly information about livestock and food commodity prices in Isiolo market – the main reference market for the region – is sent through SMS messages (using FrontlineSMS software) to field workers in rural communities, who post the information on local noticeboards.
Given high illiteracy rates in the area, the project is also providing a recorded message service using Freedom Fone that allows people to listen to local Swahili updates.
The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend.The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend. The market information also allows them to achieve better prices for the animals they sell to traders – boosting cash household income.
Local news and information given alongside market prices also contain useful tips on issues affecting the well-being of animals. Items will include updates on rainfall, outbreaks of animal disease and de-stocking programmes.
Together, the two channels allow pastoralists living in isolated communities to access reliable and up to date market information. They also allow ActionAid to keep in closer touch with the village relief committees that handle food distribution to individual families.
250 basic mobile phones and solar chargers purchased as part of the project are also being used by village relief committee members who live in or near locations with network coverage.
The cheap and durable solar chargers are vital in areas without electricity. They can also provide a source of revenue (as they charge other mobile phones for a modest fee) that allow relief committees to purchase vital air time for their phones.
An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.
FrontlineSMS allows ActionAid to transmit electronic forms to field staff in Isiolo County via mobile phone. These are filled in electronically and dispatched immediately to the regional office through SMS messages.
These FrontlineForms are now being used to transmit time-sensitive reports on issues such as food distribution, food for work activity, malnutrition rates and local food prices. The information arrives rapidly in a standard format which is easy to analyse.
In the long term, this will help ActionAid to ensure its humanitarian aid activities in Isiolo are more effective and more responsive to the needs of the local population.
Communication as aid
In any emergency, be it natural disaster or man-made, long- or short-term, people's lives are turned upside down. Knowing what's happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help is crucial to their survival and recovery.
The goal of the 'infoasaid' project is to help humanitarian organisations integrate two way communications with affected communities into their emergency programmes. This in turn improves the effectiveness of aid delivery.
As the drought and famine crisis in the Horn of Africa deepens, such communication is more important than ever.
A new 'Communication is Aid' animation, produced by infoasaid, demonstrates the positive impact of two way communication with crisis affected populations.
Read more about the work of infoasaid on their website.
em>By Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder. Re-posted from www.kiwanja.net Since our founding in 2003, kiwanja.net has been primarily focused on serving the needs of the smaller, local, grassroots NGO community. FrontlineSMS is testament to that approach – a low-tech, appropriate technology which works on locally available hardware and without the need for NGOs to employ the services of teams of technical experts. We haven’t got everything right, and FrontlineSMS remains a work in progress, but we’re excited about where we are, how we got here and where we’re headed.
We were recently approached by Philip Auerswald, Editor of “innovations“, to write an article on that journey, and our approach to mobiles-for-development. The result was a tri-authored piece by three members of the FrontlineSMS team – Sean McDonald, Flo Scialom and myself. A PDF of that article – “Mobile technology and the last mile” - is available here.
About “Innovations”: “The journal features cases authored by exceptional innovators; commentary and research from leading academics; and essays from globally recognized executives and political leaders. The journal is jointly hosted at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship”.
Many thanks to Phil and the “Innovations” team for inviting us to contribute
By Amy O’Donnell, FrontlineSMS Media Project Manager
At an event held at the Royal Geographic Society, a diverse panel came together to discuss 21st Century Challenges with respect to digital technology in Africa, approaching the question: can technology offer realistic educational, economic and sustainable opportunities?
The BBC’s Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, chaired the event (as a last minute stand-in for Sir Bob Geldolf!) and he explained his impressions of technology’s impact in Africa. He recollected, “When I was in Mombasa I met some farmers, each of whom had a mobile phone even though they didn’t necessarily have water and power. They spoke about connecting with the rest of the world to sell their crops. On another occasion, from a data centre in Slough [in the United Kingdom], I was shown a screen showing transactions of Kenyan farmers who were transferring money via M-pesa.” M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money; this is mobile-phone based money transfer service first launched in Kenya. These powerful examples helped to kick off an evening which highlighted the changes technology is provoking in Africa.
One of the speakers was Erik Hersman, Co-Founder of Ushahidi, who describes a spirit of “business ingenuity born of necessity,” when speaking about innovation in Africa. Erik has launched the iHub in Nairobi as a space for innovative software development (where the FrontlineSMS development team operates) and is about to open the doors to the mLab (an incubation space for mobile apps and services).
The default device for Africa is a basic mobile, explained Erik, and “SMS technology is now.” He described how iyam.mobi builds SMS services such as directories; and others can build services off the foundation of this structure. Technology is developing at such a rate that, “If you blink, you'll miss it.” Although basic mobile phones are still the most ubiquitous and thus useful devices in Kenya, there is a predicted 843% mobile internet growth by September 2011 compared to 1 year previous. 60,000 Android-powered IDEOS phones have now been sold in Kenya.
Internet use in general is growing, with Erik pointing to 9 million internet users in Kenya as an example of this. A blog by Steve Song shows mapping of the exponential growth in undersea internet broadband cables across Africa. Steve’s site - manypossibilities.net- paints a dramatic picture of the reality of how rapidly this infrastructure is being put into place.
Hubs of technology are emerging across Africa; in big cities such as Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala amongst others, which have proven that critical mass and investment are needed. During his presentation Erik called for more money to be invested in risky start ups to encourage African entrepreneurs to take risks in developing more new solutions. He pointed out the mLab initiative called Pivot 25 which will show us what’s next in the mobile space. "Progress is never made by the pessimists; even we are too small to see the possibilities."
Other speakers at the event included Nicolas Negroponte, from MIT Media Lab who discussed the ‘One Lap Top per Child’ initiative and Herman Chinery-Hesse, who has been coined the 'Bill Gates of Africa,' and runs leading software developer company SOFTtribe limited and the innovative Black Star Line, which is described as an ecommerce market place like eBay.
All of the discussions at this event demonstrated how technology is creating rapid change, which is more accessible in Africa than some people might expect. Herman explained, “I studied manufacturing and when I came back to live in Ghana, I wanted to set up a factory but didn’t have the money. I had a PC and could write software and then I realised - that was my factory!” He also noted that "We have SMS in the bush, and Internet in the cities. We can innovate around that.”
From a FrontlineSMS perspective the key message of the event was empowerment of local people. Although approaching the issue from a wide variety of perspectives, the speakers were all aware of the ability of technology to empower people, particularly if built using local knowledge.
Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder, was interviewed in the lead up to this event and you can watch the video here
You can watch videos from the event itself here: http://www.21stcenturychallenges.org/challenges/digital-technology-in-africa/