Do you remember when grocery stores didn’t know you were pregnant before your parents? Or when newspapers couldn’t find naked pictures of you by looking through your phone? Boy, those were the days (When did I get this old?). Still, there’s no escaping it. Things are digitizing. Everywhere. Whether you’re registering to vote in Washington State using Facebook or banking on your mobile phone in Kenya, there are, all of a sudden, a bunch of third-party organizations involved in the most intimate parts of your life that weren’t there before. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Services are delivered more quickly, collective action is easier to organize, and you can do, well, almost everything, better.
Seemingly every major news event worldwide is heightening participation in news. People are eager to share updates and photos of an unfolding news event, ask questions of media outlets, and share important information. But there are two important aspects to this type of participation: (1) people are most interested in sharing news about the community around them, specifically with others in their community and (2) the mechanism by which they choose to share information is dependent upon personal habits and access. In other words, people write about their immediate world using their 'home' or go-to platform.
It's Social Media Week this week, and in recognition of this and our seventh anniversary next month, we asked our Founder, Ken Banks, to reflect on the role that social media has played in the history and development of FrontlineSMS.
In a recent BBC Future article I wrote about the "democratisation of development". In it, I argued that the dual rise of the world wide web and mobile technology had opened up the opportunity for everyone to contribute to solving some of the world's bigger problems. Today, someone with an Internet connection and a software development kit can write a health-, agriculture- or human rights-focussed application and begin building a global user base within days, if not hours. To quote from my article, there are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. Clearly this can't be a bad thing.
An Internet connection and a software development kit, along with the odd phone, cable and GSM modem - a luxury item back then - was exactly how FrontlineSMS got going in 2005. Slightly ahead of the curve, it took advantage of the increasing numbers of mobile phones in the hands of communities in the developing world and allowed non-profit organisations working with those people to better communicate with them. The idea and software development were carried out in relative isolation. It took the Internet and gradual rise of social media to truly open up the opportunity. Without either of those the project would not be where it is today. Without it, very many others wouldn't be where they are today, either.
When my IT career began in the 1980's, software was still mailed out on floppy disks, and software updates were few and far between. Clearly, anyone interested in software development had a clear problem of distribution, not to mention promotion. Back then I found out everything I needed to know in trade magazines. If FrontlineSMS had been born back in those days it would never have taken off. Without funds for promotion, and without any way of connecting easily with users, or getting the software to them, it would have gone nowhere. I often wonder how I'd have mailed floppy disks to users in remote Sierra Leone, or Indonesia, even if they had managed to hear about it and want a copy. The Internet changed all that. Today, the FrontlineSMS website is the equivalent of a double page spread in a glossy computing magazine, and the download button the equivalent of dropping floppy disks in the post. Not only are things much much quicker, they're as good as free, and the reach is enormous.
Social media has played a considerable role in the success of FrontlineSMS, too. The project never had a marketing and promotion budget, so in the early days it was all about maximising every free channel that was available. Blogging was the first. People were kept up-to-date with latest user statistics, case studies, conference talks, guest articles, grants and snippets of news. We pride ourselves in giving our users a voice and letting them tell the world how the software has impacted their work, and this strategy worked incredibly well. Comments were left on other blogs writing about technology and development, and often they linked back to FrontlineSMS articles and posts. It probably took a couple of years, but blogging eventually got us the early traction we needed.
To show how long FrontlineSMS has been around, Facebook wasn't really up to a huge amount back in 2005 (although it was clearly going places). As the user base grew, we took advantage of its increasing reach by cross-posting blog entries and setting up group pages. Facebook, as Twitter has done more recently, crucially helped take the project to a new audience. Whereas blogging had largely promoted it among the technology-for-development (ICT4D) community, Facebook allowed for more serendipitous connections to develop. One of those directly lead us to Wieden+Kennedy, a design agency who later worked on the first revamp of the FrontlineSMS website, and the development of the now infamous o/ logo. Since then, Facebook and Twitter have been crucial in helping us promote the use of the software, in sharing news, and creating buzz around new software releases and new grant funding.
At another level, social media has been central in allowing us to recruit volunteers and staff. Twitter now effectively acts as our "Volunteer, intern and vacancy" bulletin board, with increasing numbers of staff coming through connections first made on Twitter. When Laura Walker Hudson joined us a couple of years ago a tweet was not only the catalyst, but the very fact we were following each other signified, in my mind, a solid long-standing interest in who we were and what we were trying to do.
Without the world wide web, and the now ubiquitous social media platforms that sit on top of it, it's hard to see how FrontlineSMS would have made any ground at all. As we hear all too often, ideas are one thing but execution is another. Execution, however, is much harder if - armed with that great idea - you're not able to tell people about it. In Social Media Week we, at FrontlineSMS, acknowledge the role it has played in our own story and, along with our countless thousands of users around the world, say thank you for all the good things it has helped us and our dedicated community make possible.
Guest Post By Tully McLoughlin
By 6:30 in the morning Owuraku Asamoah is seated comfortably at the black microphone in the Rite FM studio in Ghana, headphones on, twin computer monitors glowing, a laptop by his side displaying his Facebook page, his cell phone gripped firmly in one hand. “And this is how we’ll start today’s edition of the Morning Ride, being produced by Nii Alarbi,” he begins. “Believe in your hearts that something wonderful is about to happen.”
Rite FM broadcasts on 90.1 FM and online at www.ritefmonline.org from the bustling, 20,000-resident town of Somanya in the Eastern Region of Ghana. It occupies a unique niche of the radio space here – a commercial station for agriculture and social development. It is not simply an outlet for agricultural extension, nor do its programs present the standard rigmarole of music, politics, and religion. The catchment area, which includes portions of the urban Greater Accra region and large swaths of rural area in the Eastern and Volta regions, symbolizes that dual-demographic challenge.
I’m volunteering my time at Rite FM. I met the director of the station through their close partnership with Farm Radio International, an NGO with whom I work. Farm Radio was started in the late 1970s by a Canadian agricultural broadcaster who saw the need for better farmer-focused radio in Africa. The organization has been supporting commercial, public, and community stations on the continent since then, and in 2007 undertook the 42-month “African Farm Radio Research Initiative” with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rite FM was one of five Ghanaian stations in the project.
My phone buzzes on the table by my bed, waking me up. “Tully. Owuraku wants you to talk about the Africa’s Voices project on the Morning Show in one minute.” That’s Kofi Baah, called Granpaa, the show’s producer. It’s July 20th, 7 am. Asamoah is devoting today’s show to a discussion of food security in Ghana, inspired by this month’s question for the project. The Africa’s Voices project is being undertaken jointly by the teams at FrontlineSMS:Radio and the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University UK, and Asamoah is taking the opportunity to cover the issue.
The question asks: “According to you, which is the bigger threat to food security in your area?” The options are: climate change, land access, market access, and food prices. I explain that by texting in their opinion they stand to win a remote-control, solar-powered, two-in-one lantern radio. A perfect way for farmers, in the field and off the grid, to tune in, the station’s director had told me the day before.
Asamoah takes calls and guides the conversation as it drifts from a debate on industrialized farming techniques to genetically modified foods. He is a pro at making the programming interactive. Beyond his demeanor, he has a number of tools at his disposal. There are two phone-in lines; an additional four lines on the Freedom Fone, an Interactive Voice Response tool; and an all-network SMS short code provided by the SIIMA system of SMS GH, a SMS-solutions company in Ghana. In addition, Rite FM operates its own website. And of course there is the battery of social outlets: a Facebook and user profile (ritefm), and a twitter feed (@rite901fm), and various satellite websites for other Rite FM projects. Now, the introduction of FrontlineSMS:Radio as part of the trial adds another exciting tool to the mix.
The advantage of this arsenal is that listeners participate and hosts facilitate in the way they’re most comfortable. Callers pepper the Morning Show, which runs from 6:30 to 9am, and The Drive, which runs from 2 to 5:30pm. But for shorter programs like Time With the CEO, profiling senior executives of agricultural businesses to showcase models of success and affluence along the agricultural value chain, and Women in Agriculture, focusing on the role of women as wives, mothers, traders, and entrepreneurs, the host may not be seeking a spread of opinions.
SMS, and to some extent Facebook or Twitter, give the host the flexibility to incorporate certain comments fluidly. That means, Asamoah points out, “Even when I’ve not gone on air, I can respond to you.” For listeners, says Nii Alarbi, a reporter and broadcaster for the Rite FM news team, SMS may be the only way they will contribute. “It’s not everybody who will like to call in for other listeners to hear his or her voice.” On a good day, a producer might expect to receive 10 or so texts in a show.
Even when the number of outlets to interact with listeners feels overwhelming, Asamoah sees that running in the opposite direction isn’t an option. “If you stick to only phone-in, you can’t progress. You can’t reach out to everybody.” Alarbi, who also hosts Herbs & Spices and the Agricultural Forum, says the day he does a show without taking any input, he will think, “Maybe I did it to my satisfaction, but I left my listeners behind.”
To find out more about Cambridge University's Centre of Governance and Human Rights "Africa's Voices" project click here and to learn about other projects using SMS with radio, visit FrontlineSMS:Radio's website.
By Peter Westman, FrontlineSMS:Radio Intern
Whilst FrontlineSMS is well known for being used in low infrastructure environments with little or no internet access and limited smart phone availability amongst audiences, we often hear cases of the software being used in contexts to complement many other technology options available. While Amy and I were in Cambridge in the UK a few weeks ago visiting colleagues at Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, we also had the pleasure of dropping in to visit Cambridge 105, a community radio that broadcasts live across the city 7 days a week.
The station is a not-for-profit organization that draws on its wide range of volunteer members for all aspects of production throughout the day. Cambridge 105 actively uses social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook as part of their audience engagement strategy. They are also using FrontlineSMS in a very innovative way in order to help listeners interact with the presenters using text message.
Audience participation is popular at Cambridge 105, particularly during the breakfast and drive-time shows. Axel Minet (photo right), who works at the station, described how one of the most powerful appeals of Cambridge 105 is that the issues discussed are locally relevant and personal to the community. The station’s leaflets even say: “We are local. We live and love Cambridge.” The station has shows which are particularly popular with their Cambridge listeners, share local news and even once helped a local pet owner to find a lost cat.
Listeners are often invited to request songs and dedications via text message which are relayed to the relevant DJ. Using the FrontlineSMS as a “back end” (i.e. DJs do not need to directly enter the application), Cambridge 105 have designed a unique system in order to ensure messages reach the appropriate DJ. They have developed a customized PHP script, which is used to create dynamic web-based content. This is synchronized with Google Calendar containing the DJ schedule. When an SMS reaches FrontlineSMS, a query based on the message’s time stamp is sent to the calendar which works out the corresponding e-mail of the DJ who is on air. The message is then forwarded to the DJ in their email account using a http trigger and presenters can access the content from the studio computer while they are presenting.
By widely publicizing the contact number for the station, the station is also looking to increase participation from audiences, particularly so that those without smart phones (about half of the UK) can contribute to their favorite shows while on the move. Axel pointed out the notices displayed in the DJ booth and around the station, which explain how audiences can contact the show. These notices serve as a reminder for DJs that they must remind audiences of ways they can participate and interact, and Axel stressed the importance of repeating the number throughout the show (not just the beginning and end).
It is especially important for community stations to be able to learn about their audience so that they can tailor their programming towards their listeners’ concerns. The station manager at Cambridge 105 is interested in analytics around interaction. Being a digital form of communication, SMS is a great way to monitor this and offer metrics to advertisers. Advertising is important for the survival of Cambridge 105 who offer local sponsorship packages targeted to a potential audience of 150,000 Cambridge based customers, making it an effective marketing medium. Moreover audiences don’t feel advertising is an invasion as messages more likely to be targeted to their local needs.
Axel observed that FrontlineSMS software offers both a flexible back end which can be customized for their specific needs, while also permitting presenters to collect useful feedback and information from their audience in a simple and unobtrusive format. You can find Cambridge 105 at and even listen online.
If you’re using Frontline as part of your programming, we’d love to hear from you on firstname.lastname@example.org
We have been excited to play a role in celebrating the first ever World Radio Day here at FrontlineSMS, through our sector project FrontlineSMS:Radio. Our Radio Project Manager, Amy O'Donnell, has been central to proceedings; helping to organise a successful World Radio Day event in London and attracting significant media attention, too. Below is an article Amy wrote about World Radio Day for the Guardian Development's Poverty Matters blog. You can view the original post on the Guardian website.
By Amy O'Donnell, Radio Project Manager, FrontlineSMS
World Radio Day celebrates radio's role in empowering people in remote communities – not just as a source of information, but increasingly as a way to make their own voices heard.
In a world of increasing opportunities to participate in public debate online via social media, the blogosphere and comments on news sites, the first World Radio Day on 13 February, organised by Unesco, reminds us to celebrate the radio as an unsung hero that is steadily empowering people to access information and – crucially – to respond to what they hear.
Radio is the predominant source of information in areas of the world that are sometimes too remote to get a newspaper delivered, let alone access the internet. This is why Unesco has noted that radio is a "low-cost medium, specifically suited to reach remote communities and vulnerable people".
Attention given to technology for information communications has recently been captivated by web-based applications, especially "new" or "social media". But about 65% of the world's 7 billion people do not use the internet. In addition to those who are offline due to lack of access, there are also those who are unaware, unable or simply do not want to use social media.
People listen to the radio in their cars, on the move and at work. Radios don't require large amounts of electricity, and wind-up radios don't need an electrical source at all. Moreover, radio reaches large groups of people, being easily shared among families or listener groups. It is a medium often used as a focal point for community discussion on subjects including politics, elections and service provision. Radio efficiently reaches large audiences in real time. But can radio – a one-way broadcast platform – ever replicate the participatory impact of Twitter, Facebook or Google+?
Different technologies are changing the ways in which radio is used as a platform for engagement. At the end of last year, the ITU 2011 report revealed that there are almost 6 billion active mobile phone subscriptions. The ubiquity of mobile technology presents an exciting opportunity even for those in "last mile communities" to interact with radio shows using a tool they already have.
Take "The Organic Farmer" in Kenya, for example. The radio show gathers questions from its listener community of agriculturalists. On one occasion, reports surged in via text message about a disease affecting chickens in the area. In response, the radio show invited an expert to analyse the crowd-sourced evidence, diagnosed the cause as "Newcastle disease" and helped to organise vaccinations.
Similar to social media, the most important aspect of successful radio programming is participation. Seeking feedback from listeners helps to generate and guide content, which in turn increases local relevance and stimulates dialogue. Radio stations are increasingly reliant on audiences to be their eyes and ears, as they seek new tips to mobilise journalists who report from the field. More importantly, this enables more people to have a voice in the discussions that affect them. Mobile interaction "closes the loop", enabling audiences to listen to a discussion, contribute insight, and then hear their views encourage additional participation.
This may include challenging decision makers or service providers, which can be particularly powerful when feedback is democratically obtained. Pamoja FM has used listener input to challenge water cartels in Kibera, Kenya; Breeze FM in Zambia has held discussion on its "Issue of the Day" programme about upcoming elections; and Malawi's Mudzi Wathu FM has taken health questions from listeners to ministers, and relayed the answers on air.
Calls are a powerful way of getting opinions across – but there's only so much airtime. For those who can't get through, SMS is a digital and asynchronous way for listeners to express themselves, and this increases engagement. For example, DJs can ask listeners to respond to SMS polls, enabling them to get many points of view without requiring significant airtime. When using software such as FrontlineSMS, this can be automated and visualised, making these real-time interactions easy to understand and rebroadcast. Over time, radio stations can use this kind of digital data to analyse audience behaviour and the popularity of different shows.
In a "Twitter like" way, radio, combined with the ubiquity of mobile, can be a platform for community discussions that change people's lives. Radio stations are being called upon to embrace new technology, but it is fundamentally important to make use of tools that are available locally, engaging people on the platforms they already use. As radio stations and tool providers all over the world are discovering, it is possible to do smart things with dumb phones.
This post was originally seen on the Guardian Development's Poverty Matters blog.