As the latest iteration of the Frontline product suite celebrates its first birthday, now seems the perfect time to sit back with a cupcake and reflect on the successes – and challenges – of the past twelve months.
This year we deployed our Android SMS gateway app — FrontlineSync — to public beta. We decided to build FrontlineSync to make it easier for our users to connect the power of FrontlineSMS to the GSM network. Connecting to the mobile network can be a barrier to users, so we wanted to build a resilient and easy to use platform that would work everywhere.
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.
Hurray! The Frontline Credit Project is back up and running! The :Credit project lowers barriers to moving value through mobile, whether through mobile money, airtime, or voucher codes. We research mobile money trends and insert ourselves in markets around the world so that we know where strong and upcoming markets are currently and can predict where they will create huge impact in the near future.
We want to say thank you to all of our users and supporters for a tremendous and inspiring 2013. Your ideas, input, and investments helped us achieve so many accomplishments over the past year: we topped 100,000 downloads with FrontlineSMS. We launched FrontlineCloud. We received a Google Impact Award for our work with our partner Landesa to secure land rights for 80,000 families in India.
FrontlineCloud has been out in beta for just over a month, and we’re proud to have over 450 users signed up already, sending and receiving thousands of messages. The newest addition to the Frontline product set has had an incredibly warm and supportive reception on social media and in the many lovely emails we’ve received from friends, users and donors. To everyone who has retweeted, liked, emailed and signed up to look around, a huge thank you.
The Busara Center for Behavioral Economics is a research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya focused onproviding researchers around the world with an opportunity to conduct studies in a variety of behavioral sciences with a strongly under-represented subject pool. Headed by Johannes Haushofer, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the Busara Center strives to replicate the controlled lab settings in a novel environment. Busara is housed under the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a non-profit organization focused on developing and evaluating poverty alleviation programs around the world.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we love data. Like, a lot. If data had its own Facebook page, we’d ‘like’ it and if we took a picture with data out one night, we’d probably make it our profile picture. Data empowers, and we’re all about empowerment o/. In fact, to empower people is the why for the what we do. One thing we’re always wanting to know, of course, is how we are doing. Well we SMSed our friend data to find out – Welcome to the 2013 FrontlineSMS survey results post!
A big thank you to Mike Adams, the INTL Coordinator, for sharing his experiences with FrontlineSMS and further schooling us on how radio can facilitate in saving lives! In times of disaster radio not only saves lives, it can also bring hope and critical information to the affected community. When the 2004 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, Indonesia, all the radio and TV stations went off air. Similarly, during the 2005 South Asian earthquake, the only radio station near the epicentre lost its tower and went off air. In times like these, people are in desperate need of news and information on how to get to safety and how to survive. However, the unfortunate trend seen recently is that when radio is so important, many times it goes off the air and does not come back until well after the emergency is over.
“Our dev team does SCRUM, with user-centric, test-driven development”. We’re proud of that statement, but also very aware of how unsubstantiated that claim can sound. We’ve all heard the stories of the tech companies with 6-month-long ‘iterations’ and 3000-page specification documents that nonetheless brand themselves Agile. These horror stories could push some to follow their agile approach of choice to the letter, for fear of being swept downstream into the dreaded waterfall, but at FrontlineSMS we feel we’ve adapted much of the industry’s best practices and most trusted tools to create a process that gives us confidence in our code, and the ability to create an ever-improving product for our users.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we're busily working to make Version 2 the best it can possibly be. This means building new features, fixing bugs, and releasing new versions of the software.
Yesterday, we released a new version which implemented help files for new features - and accidentally included our dummy test database with it. Aside from being a fascinating insight into the minds of our developers - clearly a strange and at times worrying place - this unfortunately will have overwritten your database, if you are one of the one hundred and two people who downloaded the software yesterday and have gone on to install it.
You'll know if you're affected, as your inbox will be full of messages from someone called Bob... if you haven't yet installed it, check the version number in the file name you've downloaded. If you have version 2.1.1, delete the file and download again.
If you have installed 2.1.1, follow the steps below (and let us know on this thread if you have any problems):
1) Uninstall the current installed version of FrontlineSMS
For Windows users, go to Start > Control Panel > Add/Remove Software, then select FrontlineSMS and click 'uninstall'. This will guide you through the uninstall process. For Mac, drag the FrontlineSMS icon from your applications menu into trash.
2) Locate your database folder
- In your home folder, there will be a .frontlinesms2 subfolder which contains the database and log files, even after uninstallation. On Windows, this is usually C:UsersYourUsername.frontlinesms2 or C:Documents and SettingsYourUsername.frontlinesms2
- On Mac, this will be /Users/YourUsername/.frontlinesms2. (Note that on Mac, the .frontlinesms2 folder will be hidden. Follow these instructions to enable viewing of hidden files and folders)
3) Delete the entire .frontlinesms2 folder
The .frontlinesms2 folder contains the database that contains all the test data that accidentally got included in the 2.1.1 build.
4) Also in your home folder, locate the backup folder
The name of the backup folder will resemble ".frontlinesms2-backup.2012-09-20-14-06", where the last section indicates the date and time when the backup was done (in this example, September 20th at 14:06). If you have more than one folder, find the one with the most recent date at the end, this will be the one created during the 2.1.1 installation.
5) Rename the backup folder to .frontlinesms2
Right-click (or Cmd-click) the folder and rename it to ".frontlinesms2".
6) Download and install FrontlineSMS 2.1.2
This will successfully update to the new stable build, with your data as it was before the failed upgrade. Download the software here.
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.
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.