open source

Celebrating the History of FrontlineSMS

Last week was an historic one for FrontlineSMS, as we launched Version 2 with successful events in Nairobi and Washington, D.C. FrontlineSMS has come a long way since October 2005, when our founder Ken Banks launched the very first open-source SMS management software. In a blog post last week, Ken shared Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS. Inspired by Ken's post, here is a history of FrontlineSMS in nine bullet points, ahead of our global Version 2 launch event in London this evening.

  • In 2005, is registered on 6th March, and the beta is released in October. On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).
  • 15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organization. Days later FrontlineSMS has its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.
  • In 2006, FrontlineSMS begins receiving donor support and fellowship and the following year, the kiwanja Foundation is created to house the growing project.
  • In 2008, FrontlineSMS becomes open-source. Josh Nesbit begins working with FrontlineSMS, working intensively with a clinic in Malawi to apply FrontlineSMS to the management and patient care challenges they face, significantly increasing the number of patients seen by health workers, while saving time and money. This narrative, coupled with the work and advocacy that Ken was doing, drives FrontlineSMS adoption and usage considerably.
  • In 2009, our Lead Developer Alex joins us – and we began to measure software downloads and build a sector-specific brand with FrontlineSMS:Medic (which has since become Medic Mobile). We win a Silicon Valley Tech Award, and secure funding from OSI, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. By the end of 2009, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded 4,605 times.
  • In 2010, FrontlineSMS adds FrontlineSMS:Credit, FrontlineSMS:Learn, FrontlineSMS:Legal and FrontlineSMS:Radio. Our Founder, Ken Banks, is named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. The Omidyar Network makes us one of their grantees. By the end of 2010, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded 12,395 times.
  • In 2011, in response to requests for project support and consulting work, we open a social enterprise which will ultimately support the work of the Foundation and support a different group of users, as well as provide support and technical expertise to specific sectors. During this year, we win the Curry Stone Design Award for social design pioneers and are runners up for the Buckminster Fuller Sustainable Design Award. We receive funding from the Knight Foundation and renew our relationship with the Hewlett Foundation. In 2011, Ken becomes an Ashoka Fellow and wins the Pizzigati Prize for software in the public interest.

  • As of December 2011, FrontlineSMS, without having released any new software since summer 2010, has been downloaded over 20,000 times. That number soon grows to over 25,000.
  • In 2012 we’ve already released two open beta releases - PaymentView and FrontlineSMS:Learn - and Version 2. Later this year, you’ll see FrontlineSMS:Radio and the early prototype of a web-based version of FrontlineSMS. The FrontlineSMS team has grown from 5 in 2010 to 17 now over three continents. FrontlineSMS has users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads. The rest – as they say – is history…  o/

Reminders and MMS receiving: announcing a major new FrontlineSMS release

Today, we're very pleased to announce a new FrontlineSMS release - version 1.6.16, to be precise - with two major new features: MMS receiving and the Reminders module!

With this release, FrontlineSMS allows you to receive multimedia messages via a standard email account. More complex than SMS messages, MMS can include text, images, video and audio. This is a massive step forward for FrontlineSMS, and opens the door for the first time to receiving photo, audio and video reports, medical diagnostics via MMS…and more user innovations. We hope you will share your ideas, and if you plan to use MMS with FrontlineSMS please let us know!

For the moment, FrontlineSMS can only receive MMS via email, which requires the computer running the platform to have access to the internet. However, most mobile carriers worldwide support sending MMS from a mobile phone to an email address. Read more on our updated help pages.

Another keenly awaited new feature is the Reminders plugin from Dale Zak, which allows you to schedule email and SMS reminders for a specific date range and interval such as hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or by specific day(s) of the week.

Screenshot of the Reminders tab

Examples of practical applications include prompting patients to take anti-retroviral medication, reminding parolees to meet with probation officers, and helping special needs populations to live independently. Already, Babakan Sari Community Health Center in Indonesia has expressed enthusiasm for using the new feature for outreach to Tuberculosis patients.

Many of you are familiar with Dale - he is an active social mobile developer who also works as Mobile Project Manager for Ushahidi. The reminders plugin source code has been available on GitHub for some time for those of you with the developer skills to incorporate it into FrontlineSMS. Now we are delighted to bundle it with this official release. It's still in Beta, which means we want our users to actively test it. Please let us know if you encounter bugs and (as ever) we welcome your feedback and comments on how we can make improvements. We think the Reminders plugin illustrates the heart of the FrontlineSMS approach - by the community, for the community.

We are also happy announce significant interface improvements to the import tool by Morgan Belkadi, to enable you to preview the contacts data you're importing and to preserve your group hierarchies - check out this screenshot of our beautiful new preview tool:

The HTTP trigger is getting a tweak too - it is now possible to set it to start automatically when you launch FrontlineSMS. And last but not least, we're very grateful to be including a new Ukrainian translation from Katerina Ivchenko and Aleksei Ivanov.

Click here to go to the download page.

This release has truly been a team effort - from the users who sent in MMS during testing, to our developers and testers all over the world, to the core team and the donors who make this all possible. Heartfelt thanks to you all. o/

Focus on the users, and all else will follow

If we were to have a mantra on the FrontlineSMS project, it would be this: "Focus on the users, and all else will follow". From the very beginning we've been unashamedly focused on servicing the needs of our growing NGO user base. Much of the advanced functionality you see in the software today has been requested by users over the course of the last four years, and much of the feature request list we're working through today is based on feedback received since the major MacArthur-funded re-launch last summer. Our focus on the user is beginning to pay off, with well over 500 members actively engaged online. Although we're excited with our progress, we're far from complacent and there's much more we need to, and can, do.

FrontlineSMS Community

With growing numbers of these users actively engaging online, others have started contributing their own stories on how they're applying the software in their social change work. All that remains now is the creation of the second part of the community puzzle - this time for developers.

With invaluable support from our friends at the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Free Software Foundation, last autumn we finally solved some lengthy and complex licensing work with the FrontlineSMS code. With a number of educational establishments, NGOs and individual developers keen to begin work, we pushed the code out on SourceForge, posted a community blog entry a little later, and got on with improving functionality and providing continued frontline technical support to the NGO user base.

Although some early partners have already started working with the code, we've been holding back on an official announcement until we have everything in place - IRC, mailing lists, documentation and processes, for example - and the code is in the best possible shape for people to work with.

Earlier last month we started working with Aspiration Tech in San Francisco, who will be responsible for helping build the community. Our own developers, a number of users, and other volunteer programmers are all incredibly excited to be working with Aspiration, who are experts in the field. We'll make an announcement once we're good to go.

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

Although there is considerable buzz and excitement around mobile technology and source code at the moment, we've been firm believers that the users come first. Without them you have no project, no community. Only now, after increasing numbers of this first community - the users - begin to apply the software in exciting and innovative ways, is everyone ready - developers included - to tackle the second.