ON AIR: Cambridge Researchers visit FrontlineSMS:Radio trials in Zambia and Uganda

Earlier this month, Amy and Peter from the FrontlineSMS:Radio team based in London, UK made the short trip north to Cambridge to meet the University’s researchers at the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR). In this post, we share an update on the trial of FrontlineSMS:Radio and research being carried out with Breeze FM, Zambia and Radio Buddu, Uganda.

In 2012, the Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR), as part of its project on 'New communications technologies and citizen-led governance in Africa’ (2010-12), is piloting Africa’s Voices, a collaborative platform aimed at enhancing debate, discussion and knowledge on contemporary issues of public interest in Africa. Designed as an African-wide research initiative, Africa's Voices is aimed at analysing citizens' opinions on a wide range of issues as radio stations all over the continent ask a monthly question and audiences are invited to reply via SMS. Stations are then provided with comparative analysis and can create innovative broadcasts that put their communities’ views in an pan-African perspective. Researchers have recently visited Uganda and Zambia working with local radio stations who are getting ready to ask audience questions. This research will lead to comparative findings on how SMS is used by listeners to discuss issues which affect their community.

Sharath Srinivasan who has been working with presenters in the studio at Breeze FM, Zambia reported that one 45 minute show - based on the role of the police and community in arresting criminal suspects - attracted 60 incoming SMS's and generated a very lively debate. The DJs have been testing FrontlineSMS:Radio’s "shows" function for the first time. Shows are designed to be a space where different presenters can organize their own area within the FrontlineSMS:Radio system. By clicking an “on-air” button, all SMS received from that moment on are fed into the current show, making it easier for DJs to organize messages relevant to them. DJs can click "off-air" when they finish so messages are filtered to the main inbox or another DJ's show. With the awareness that many stations have volunteer staff coming and going, this FrontlineSMS:Radio function is designed to be simple and not restricted to user names or passwords.

Meanwhile, Florence Brisset-Foucault has been at Radio Buddu in Masaka, Uganda, where they receive around 30 text messages per day and are trying to develop their use of SMS. The most popular topics for interaction from the audience seems to be shows on domestic and personal problems. Presenters are enthusiastic about the future for FrontlineSMS:Radio software especially since they previously relied on a premium rate number. A shift to using FrontlineSMS means they can use a local number, reducing the cost for listeners to text the station  by 50% or more. Previously people would pay 220 or 250 sh to text the station but now it will be 110 sh or 50 sh if on same network. (1 £ = 3900 sh).

"FrontlineSMS:Radio makes it much cheaper for audiences to interact with us and we hope it will increase access to our debates," Pascal, Radio Buddu's head of news told Florence. Pascal is confident this will enlarge the number of people able to contact the station and share their views.

Another new FrontlineSMS:Radio function is polls, which allows stations to ask listeners to respond to a question using a keyword followed by a letter denominating their answer. When messages are received, FrontlineSMS generates a visual representation in a graph and introduces a system to cope with misspelt keywords through a manual override function. Umar, the programme manager is very excited about the polling activity which he thinks will have great potential particularly in Radio Buddu’s development and health programmes. With a smile, Umar observed that "the polling function will definitely help those of us who are bad at maths, as it displays the results automatically! It will make things easier to announce the results live on air".

To find out more about Africa's Voices see their website or check them out on Facebook.

You can also hear Hassan Korona of Radio Gbath, Sierra Leone's promotion audio for Africa's Voices here.

For more photos from Radio Buddu see the online album.

Get the Word Out: Using SMS to Support Harm Reduction for Vulnerable Women

Guest post from FrontlineSMS user Gordon Gow, University of Alberta Here at the University of Alberta we are using FrontlineSMS to support graduate student research in communication and technology. Among its range of activities, the Mobile Applications for Research Support (MARS) Lab provides access to FrontlineSMS and mobile phones to allow students and community groups to set up and run pilot projects using text messaging.


Among our projects, the MARS Lab is providing support for “Get the Word Out” program operated in partnership with Edmonton’s Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE). CEASE works through partnerships to create and pursue strategies to address sexual exploitation and the harms created by prostitution. Their work includes public education, client support, bursaries, counselling, trauma recovery and emergency poverty relief for individuals working to heal and rebuild their lives after experiencing exploitation.

“Get the Word Out” is a harm reduction service that uses FrontlineSMS to enable women involved in prostitution to anonymously report incidents or concerns about violence or crime that is affecting them or may affect others. The program also offers an network for these women to share thoughts or provide peer-based social support using anonymous text messages. FrontlineSMS is set up to auto-forward incoming text messages to a distribution group that includes frontline support agencies and clients who have chosen to subscribe to the service. The auto-forwarding process removes the callerID from the text and preserves only the contents, ensuring anonymity of the issuer. Text messages are also forwarded to a set of email addresses provided by the frontline agencies, as well as a protected Twitter account.

The MARS Lab is also involved in other projects using FrontlineSMS.  For example, it is working in collaboration with Simon Fraser University to pioneering the use of FrontlineSMS in combination with Ushahidi to explore the use of social media in campus health and safety.  This project is using FrontlineSMS to receive text messages from students and staff at both the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University to report health and safety concerns on campus. The goal of the project is to better understand how text messaging can provide a low cost, low barrier means of reporting to encourage the campus community to help mitigate risks to health and safety on a university campus.

Furthermore, in early 2012 the MARS Lab will be launching a pilot project in partnership with LIRNEasia and the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture to explore the use of text messaging to support Agricultural Extension Services in the Dambulla and Matale districts. This pilot will involve deployments of FrontlineSMS at three agricultural information centres and is also expected to include a deployment of FrontlineSMS:Radio with a local radio station to support audience interaction for one of the live agriculture talk shows.

It's great to see the diverse range of projects which the University of Alberta is supporting in their use of FrontlineSMS! This post was originally shared on the FrontlineSMS Community Forum. You can see the full original post and connect with Gordon on our forum here.

Learning more about FrontlineSMS users: Results from our first ever survey!

Offering FrontlineSMS as a free software download has proved a successful way to help many non-profits; but it’s an approach that doesn’t come without its challenges. There are many cases of our software having a positive impact on people’s lives which the FrontlineSMS team and other FrontlineSMS users remain oblivious to. At the end of 2010 our software had been downloaded 12,500 times and was being used in 60 countries across the world. Yet the FrontlineSMS team remained aware of only a fraction of what happened to these downloads; who they are and what exciting projects they could be running with the software. Therefore we decided to do our first ever user survey!

Through the survey we were also keen to better understand the needs of those using our software, so that we could then tailor our user support and planned upgrades to our software more effectively to users’ requirements. The nature of FrontlineSMS means that users can download the software and not need to get in touch again. Thus part of the challenge we have is ensuring users have the support they need once they start using our software.  We of course aim to do this in many ongoing ways, for example through our user community, which has nearly 2,000 members. Yet the survey provided us with an in depth user snapshot; comprising of 33 questions and thus providing us with a wealth of valuable information.  We received 174 initial responses and have been given a fantastic insight in to the profile of FrontlineSMS users as a result, so thank you to all those who contributed! We’d now like to share some of those insights with the wider user community.

Quick Facts:

  • Biggest impact of FrontlineSMS use in Africa, at 69%, but software being used across the world in over 70 countries
  • 67% of respondents are from local, national or international NGOs, with the remainder being academics (18%), independent researchers and testers (13%), governments (8%) and for-profit organizations (11%)*
  • 41% of individual respondents are unpaid volunteers, 54% staff, and 5% students or researchers
  • Our software is being used in over 20 different sectors
  • 84% of users found FrontlineSMS easy or somewhat easy to set up

Detailed analysis:

One of the most striking things the survey results demonstrate is the sheer diversity of organizations and projects making use of FrontlineSMS. When asked what sector they were working in respondents answers spanned over twenty different areas of work. Sectors high on the list included health, education, agriculture and humanitarian work.* As we expected well over half of those responding to the survey were working for non-profit organizations, with 49% working for a local or national NGO, and 18% working for international NGOs. The remaining users were made up of academics (18%), independent researchers and testers (13%), governments (8%) and for-profit organizations (11%).* It is great to see the variety of non-profit organizations using SMS technology in their projects.

Nor was this diversity confined to the ways in which FrontlineSMS is being deployed. The geographical spread of use cases was also quite staggering, with respondents doing work in over 70 countries across the world. Countries with the largest numbers of users working in them included Kenya, Nigeria and the Philippines. From the 174 survey respondents we learned that the geographical reach of FrontlineSMS is greater than we previously thought. Interestingly, when it came to analyzing the impact of the work being done with FrontlineSMS the most prominent region the tool is being used in is Africa, as you can see from the below graph of impact in countries worked in.

The results provided a relatively comprehensive idea of the profile of the individual FrontlineSMS user. A massive 41% of those who completed the survey are unpaid volunteers, with the remaining being 5% students or researchers and 54% paid staff. In combination with the statistics on the sectors people are working in, this shows the dedication of many of the individuals out there using FrontlineSMS.

In line with our expectations of individual users, not all of the individuals using our software were the technical specialists within their organizations. Just 32% of users said they worked in the IT department of their organization, whereas 39% stated that they work in management or leadership. This reinforces our assertion that you do not need to be tech savvy in order to use FrontlineSMS; in fact 84% of respondents found the software easy or somewhat easy to use.

Here at FrontlineSMS, being user-focused has always been our ethos. The feedback we received on the way people are using our software and the type of user support needed will help to guide our plans future updates to the software and development of user resources. It was interesting to learn therefore that just under half of FrontlineSMS users currently use keywords functionality of the software. 31% used the software for data collection via Frontline Forms and 21% of people used reminders. This insight in to functionality use was helpful in understanding user priorities for the software.

We did note that many people were keen for new user resources to be developed to help optimize their FrontlineSMS use. Almost half of respondents wanted to see more training on best practices, more task guides and more case studies. This is certainly something we are working on providing more of at FrontlineSMS. It’s great to see that our existing resources are of helpful for users too though; 70% of respondents had used our help files, and over half of respondents had made use of our Forum by either actively starting discussions or reading previous threads to help them with technical difficulties.

We’ll be continuing to engage with our users in a variety of ways to keep in touch with the needs and activities of our user base. We are extremely grateful to everyone who took the time to fill out the survey and help us improve our work here at FrontlineSMS; thank you everyone! A very special thanks is also due to our FrontlineSMS Heroes - Molly Reading and Robin Flanagan - for their valuable help in analyzing this survey data.

*Percentages at times total over 100% for questions where users could give more than one answer