Over the last decade, we’ve changed leadership, structure, and product – but what hasn’t changed is our values. Here are 5 of our favorites:
More than 95% of the world’s population uses radio, making it the most popular communication technology in the world. Radio stations and DJs have also been some of Frontline’s earliest and most inspirational users, taking on climate change advocacy, coordinating responses during emergencies, amplifying voices for peace during conflict, and bringing communities together.
Here at Frontline, we recognize that each user has specific needs, operating on a wide variety of platforms. That’s why, over the last decade, we’ve tried to makeFrontline as configurable as possible to meet these needs, wherever you are. With our new APIs, you can push messages and information in and out of FrontlineCloud – letting you keep data where it’s most useful to you. To get things started, we’ve preconfigured an integration into one of our favourite digital campaigning and management platforms, Nationbuilder. You can use Nationbuilder and Frontline together to RSVP to events and to update contact records inside your nation.
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.
We are excited to announce a new release of FrontlineSMS, our free and open-source desktop product. When we launched FrontlineCloud, we made a promise to continue to develop and support our desktop application. Thanks to generous support from the Open Society Foundations, we have released Version 2.3, which has a number of particularly exciting features and improvements.
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!
Given the incredible growth in mobile usage in the last decade, it comes as no surprise that many organisations are embracing the use of mobile technology to expand their reach and engage with communities. This has come with its fair share of challenges, given some of the limitations of technology such as poor mobile connectivity in some areas, SMS has become the more reliable and inexpensive option.
In Nicaragua, sex is embarrassing. Yet in a country where approximately 50 percent of the population is below the age of 18, and where 1 in 3 adolescent girls will become pregnant before they reach the age of 18, it’s clear that people are having sex—they’re just not talking about it due to pena—a wonderfully ambiguous word located somewhere between shame, embarrassment, and awkwardness.
The development and growth of FrontlineSMS has been driven by feedback we receive from our active user community. Each year we give our users the opportunity to share their use and vision of FrontlineSMS through our annual user survey. This year is no different! We would like to hear from you through our 2013 User Survey - tell us how you're using the software, how we can make it better, and help us show how FrontlineSMS is making a difference. The survey takes less then 10 minutes!
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.
By Kavita Rajah and Laura Walker Hudson FrontlineSMS software is used in such a wide variety of sectors that often people are surprised to hear that the inspiration for FrontlineSMS originally came specifically from conservation work. Throughout 2003 and 2004, FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was working to find ways to help authorities engage and communicate with communities in wildlife conservation in South Africa, without relying on the Internet. Ken realised he needed a system that could send, receive, and organize text messages through a mobile device and a laptop without needing the Internet, and from that the original concept of FrontlineSMS was born. The software was developed in the summer of 2005 and made available online that October.
Six years on, despite the very context-specific inspiration for the software, FrontlineSMS has now been downloaded nearly 27,000 times and is in use in over 80 countries, in 22 different areas of social change work. Until the recent release of FrontlineSMS Version 2, users were asked to fill in a form telling us who they were and how they were planning to use FrontlineSMS before being given a download link. Following up on this data gives us the links with users that lead to our case studies and FrontlineSMS in Action blog posts. We recently analyzed the whole dataset to learn more about how, why and where people seek to use our software. What we were able to glean from it was interesting. Among other fun facts:
- The top 3 sectors in which FrontlineSMS is being used most are Education, Health and Civil Society
- The country that has downloaded FrontlineSMS the most is the United States, followed by Kenya and then, India - we think that a lot of downloads from North America and Europe are intended for use elsewhere
- Africa accounts for 35% of all downloads - more than any other continent. 25% of downloads are from Asia, and 17% from North America.
Interestingly, some geographic regions have large numbers of downloads in certain sectors. For example, West Africa has the highest number of downloads in Election Monitoring and Engineering, while Europe has the highest number in Arts and Culture. Asia has the highest number of downloads in the Media sector.
However, the limitations of this dataset got us thinking about how we gather information on our users.
Gathering data about how FrontlineSMS is used is critical for us on a number of fronts - it helps us to improve the software, enables us to report to our donors and the public about the impact of our work, and helps inspire others to use SMS in their work in new and more powerful ways. Although the download data was useful, it could only give us a snapshot of a user's intention at the time they downloaded FrontlineSMS - it was difficult to link this with data about actual use, from the statistics-gathering module in version 1.6 or later, or from our annual user survey, and many users didn't go on to use FrontlineSMS as they'd intended. The most informative element of the form was a freetext section which allowed users to give us potentially quite a bit of information about our plans - but is hard to parse and analyze and often included hardly any data. The only way for users to download anonymously was to give false or junk information on the form.
When we came to plan the release of the new software, we thought very differently. Version 2 of the software is a one-click download that asks users to register when they install. Information collected in this way is sent back to us over the web, when the system sees the internet - we'll be adding support for registration via SMS later. We are committed to allowing users to maintain their anonymity, as we know many are activists (if you are one of these people, you should read our Data Integrity Guide!). You will always be able to opt-out of in-app registration - although it means we get fewer registration records, we know we can trust the data we get. In future, we'll also be building better ways for users to keep in touch with us and each other, and share information about what they're doing with FrontlineSMS, using the website.
in·ter·face/ˈintərˌfās/ Noun: A point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.
I’m going to be honest: when I first joined FrontlineSMS I had no idea how much goes into the design of software. Every screen, every button and every function has principled thought behind it. In 2011, we worked alongside Gabriel White, a User Experience Designer from Small Surfaces, to help translate FrontlineSMS users’ needs into the new design of Version 2. I came to realize that no matter how advanced and amazing a piece of software might be; it has no relevance if users can’t access it or work out HOW to use it. I think that the user interface – that point of contact between a user and the functionality (or what the software can do) - is the most important entry point in the way users experience a tool. Over a year and a half after the design work first began, I recently spoke with Gabe to share his reflections on how we ensured users’ priorities were central to the design of Version 2.
I’m sure that for many of us it’s not clear what User Experience Design really involves, so I asked Gabe to explain.
“To me, it means creating products and services that address real user needs, and defining how people can interact with software in a way that’s useful and meaningful. The most important things to consider in this process are what you (as an organization) are trying to achieve by creating the product or service; what the needs of the end users are; and then bringing those two sets of goals together through a design solution that is usable, useful and engaging.”
At FrontlineSMS, we have always endeavored to put our users first and be responsive to their needs - to make our software work better for them. This user-centered design process is at the heart of Version 2. I was curious to ask Gabe how he got involved in the FrontlineSMS project.
“I decided to move to Uganda to focus my work on projects which were meaningful to me in terms of positive social impact. I found out about the Mobiles for Development Conference in Kampala in 2010. I’d heard that FrontlineSMS’s Founder Ken Banks was going to be there, and the FrontlineSMS project was exactly the kind of initiative I wanted to get involved in. So I basically cornered him and said ‘We have to have a coffee together!’ When I later found out that he was thinking about how the user experience would evolve in the then upcoming Version 2 of the software, it felt like serendipity. Working with FrontlineSMS turned out to be one of the highlights of my design career.”
The first step in working together was when Gabe asked us to draw up profiles representing the characteristics of different types of FrontlineSMS users (‘Personas’ in design-speak). We asked volunteers who represented diverse projects using FrontlineSMS to be involved in the design process. Gabe explained the importance of this:
“It’s really critical to involve users throughout the entire process so that you can continuously ensure that you address users’ real needs in appropriate ways. First, we interviewed existing users of the software to understand their aspirations and pain points. This helped us frame the problems we wanted to solve with Version 2. As I began to craft a design solution, it was important to continue to engage end users through the process. So even when we had only very early design concepts, I shared the alternative solutions with users to understand how effectively the design ideas met the needs I’d earlier uncovered.
“One of the things we found was that, while it was often easy to do basic things in Version 1 of the software, it was sometimes harder to do more sophisticated things with it. For example FrontlineSMS users often want to use the tool to gather together messages from a group of people on a range of specific topics, or create a poll and easily understand the responses. Essentially, it’s great to be able to gather or disperse information using FrontlineSMS, but that’s only the beginning of the story – it’s often what users they do with all those messages afterwards that counts. Making it easier for people to use FrontlineSMS to do more sophisticated things was critical as we thought about building the new software.”
This speaks volumes to a central feature of Version 2: the 'Activities' which guide users through common tasks like announcements and polls, so I was keen to know more about where the inspiration for this came from.
“In the research we found that most people were wanting to use the software to carry out three or four core types of tasks (such as conducting a poll). Version 1 of FrontlineSMS required users to put the pieces together themselves when doing these tasks, which meant that many users were unable to unlock the full potential of the software. I realized we needed to do two things: make it easier for people to do more complex things with the software, and also help people appropriately manage the information that was coming in and going out in relation to each of these different activities.
So we created this idea of ‘Activities’ – if we know you wanted to create a poll, for example, we could guide you through the steps of setting it up, and then help you manage and understand the responses coming back in. With Activities, people do not need to put the pieces together themselves – the software now supports them through the whole process by providing pre-packaged sets of tools."
Gabriel White’s company Small Surfaces designs user interface solutions for smartphones, tablet computers and beyond. His award-winning designs have helped organizations including FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, World Vision, and Refugees United, as well as business leaders like Google, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Sandisk and Kodak deliver innovative, next-generation products and services. Gabe continues to work on new features and designs for FrontlineSMS.
Moreover, the system was designed to inspire people to make the most of FrontlineSMS and explore more sophisticated uses of SMS. Gabe elaborates;
“Activities expose people to the possibilities of what they can do with the system. FrontlineSMS users have always been aware there was potential but some didn’t know they could do more advanced things with the software. Activities make it much more explicit and easy to understand. It’s now more obvious about potential possibilities and so makes everything much more approachable.”
When we presented early designs to users to seek their feedback, one person highlighted the power of the “email metaphor” particularly in reference to the ability to star messages or select multiple messages using checkboxes. I wondered to what extent Gabe’s design was influenced by online tools like Gmail and Facebook.
“As a designer one of the things I think about is: what are the design approaches or metaphors that people are familiar with and makes most sense to them? Design most often is not about creating completely new and radical solutions; rather it’s about bringing together elements and metaphors that people already deal with in novel and interesting ways.”
Gabe’s approach was logical and meticulous, sticking to predictable behavior to ensure the usability of the user interface. It wasn’t until after building user personas, choosing the task-based “Activity” concept and creating over 100 pages of design documentation that we first saw the first line of Version 2 code and a blue hyperlink for “Inbox” in Summer 2011. Now it’s fully working software I sometimes have to rub my eyes to believe how far we’ve come. What I love the most is hearing what people think because that is what central to user interface design. So find out about what’s new in Version 2 here and share your ideas on what you think of the design on our forum here.
Good news from the software sector: FrontlineSMS Version 2 is here at last! Two years in the making, the updated version is simpler, more intuitive, and easier to utilize. It also adapts more easily to individual needs and systems, and has already met an enthusiastic response from the SMS community. And with all it has to offer, the new software should prove a valuable contribution in the effort to achieve positive social change in developing countries around the world.
FrontlineSMS is a free, open source, SMS-messaging software that empowers the user to communicate with large groups of people through a mobile network. Basically, with just a laptop and a mobile phone, the initiator can create a communications hub that allows him to send, receive, and manage text messages.
The software is easy to set up and doesn't require an Internet connection—an important feature, since many FrontlineSMS users come from remote areas where reliable Internet connections simply don't exist. (The software has a significance presence in underdeveloped parts of Africa, for example.) Uniquely equipped to serve remote areas and the local communities who live there, FrontlineSMS is a powerful tool for achieving positive social change and health improvement by breaking down communication barriers and allowing instantaneous, two-way exchanges of information.
FrontlineSMS: Version 2
As an organization, FrontlineSMS offers individualized training and support to organizations embarking upon social change projects. It is also very proactive about acquiring user feedback and incorporating it into software updates and new releases. From the start, FrontlineSMS has focused on meeting the actual needs of local people by consistently engaging its user base.
FrontlineSMS Version 2 incorporates an extensive amount of that user feedback and represents “a significant step forward.” As an overall assessment, the software is said to be “easier and more intuitive to use, more versatile, and capable of being more easily extended with new functionality.” (For a detailed overview of the changes and additions, consider this description from the FrontlineSMS web site.)
A stronger and more flexible architecture allows the software to be integrated into more platforms and systems, and permits users and developers “to customize FrontlineSMS to better meet their needs”. So far, the response to FrontlineSMS Version 2 has been enthusiastic.
In addition to its core software, FrontlineSMS offers four sector-specific programs:
- FrontlineSMS:Credit (“enables organizations to easily manage mobile money”)
- FrontlineSMS:Legal (“increases the reach, transparency and efficiency of legal systems in underserved areas”)
- FrontlineSMS:Learn (“supports and strengthens] education and training initiative and human capacity development”)
- FrontlineSMS:Radio (“represents a vital outreach particularly for rural communities” and “[fosters] two-way dialogue”).
FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit are currently running on Version 1.7, but will eventually be updated to the full-scale Version 2.
FrontlineSMS: Valuable Social Change and Healthcare Tool
Today, FrontlineSMS is used in over 80 countries. Not surprisingly, its usage remains concentrated in developing countries where mobile technology continues to increase dramatically. According to this report, the number of globally-sent texts tripled between 2007-2010. The numbers add up to 6.1 trillion texts, all told, or 200,000 texts sent each second. Mobile technology is a powerful communication tool in the developing world, and FrontlineSMS has had no trouble tapping into it.
“If you go to the developing world and you look at how cellphones are being used you can really see that people are already doing this kind of organizational management, communicating with stakeholders, communicating with people they're working with and for,” Laura Hudson, FrontlineSMS CEO, stated.
A recently-released survey confirms the organization's growth and success. Currently most users are located in Africa, but there is a growing presence in Asia, India, the Philippines, Malawi, and Pakistan. Around 78% of FrontlineSMS users belong to grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in developing countries. As an open source product, FrontlineSMS is highly adaptable and thus valuable in situations and projects requiring low costs and ample flexibility. The fact that no Internet and only basic tools are required (laptop and mobile phone for the initiator; mobile phone for the receiver) is also an immense help. This arrangement allows the software to be used on the road or during power outages, for instance. Thanks to FrontlineSMS, NGOs have been better equipped to address human rights issues, manage natural resources, provide disaster relief as well medical care and supplies to remote regions, organize political protests, collect field data, conduct public surveys, educate the public on various topics, and much more.
Take Burundi as an example. In an African country where political elections often provoke violence and catch ordinary citizens in the crossfire, FrontlineSMS has proved useful. During election season, the Great Lakes Region of Africa (AGLI) teamed up with the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) program and created the Burundi Election Violence Prevention Program. The 750 participants used FrontlineSMS on their mobile phones to monitor election sites by reporting arrests or violent incidents, sending out alerts if irregularities or unsafe situations arose, and keeping each other up to date on the situation. In one instance, participants communicated with the police via FrontlineSMS to secure the release of an innocent citizen who had been arrested.
Likewise, in Indonesia, rural farmers in West Kalimantan have used FrontlineSMS to “report, connect, and raise awareness of their issues” in an area dominated by a contentious palm oil industry whose activities have sometimes caused problems for the farmers. By partnering with the local news station, Ruai TV, farmers have raised awareness of the situation and made their voices heard; by using FrontlineSMS, farmers are able to keep each other up to date on situations, back each other up during conflict, and mobilize as a unified group.
Or consider an offshoot organization like FrontlineSMS:Credit. In Africa, where economic development is severely hampered by lack of rural banks and stable monetary systems, mobile payment through SMS services is a huge development that eliminates problems caused by delivering cash payments over long distances. Without mobile money, for example, farmers wait “weeks or months” before receiving payment, and the employees who deliver those cash payments must travel long distances--sometimes through unsafe areas. FrontlineSMS:Credit saves time and reduces the risk of traveling with large amounts of cash, increasing efficiency and allowing workers in all sectors to focus on farming, delivering quality healthcare, or whatever their jobs entail.
The system also works as a kind of rudimentary SMS Craigslist. Users of the full suite and post notices of the products and services they offer or are seeking. This has been a boon, for example, for farmers who have significantly expanded their market and thus can obtain better prices while buyers are able to purchase high quality food at fairer prices. By supporting free market local economic activity, FrontlineSMS makes highly nutritional food more available and helps alleviate food shortages.
It may be relevant to our readers that FrontlineSMS, in addition to being used as an agent for social change, maintains a powerful presence in the healthcare sector as well. Almost right from the start, it was used to improve care coordination at a poverty-stricken health clinic in Malawi. Since then, its application to healthcare has only expanded. Consider these examples:
- In Cambodia, Sophie Baron is working on a pilot study to monitor and contain animal diseases that present a significant threat to agricultural livelihoods. In conjunction with the CIRAD, IPC and VaVRI, Baron is testing a system designed to monitor animals' deaths and diseases in local farming areas. Weekly reports allow workers to track diseases, discover the source of an outbreak, and keep tabs on the general situation. According to Baron, “Receiving regular data via SMS—and being able to manage this data within FrontlineSMS—helps enable NaVRI to adopt more timely and effective response mechanisms to breakouts of animal diseases.”
- Cleopa Otieno, National Coordinator of KenTel, uses FrontlineSMS to text people living with HIVin Kenya. The program is (or was, as of November 2011) still in the works, but a pilot study enabled telehealth centers to provide victims of HIV with information concerning health and prevention of infection and disease. As it grows, the program will become more and more interactive, encouraging participants to make the most out of the resources available.
- In Kenya and Uganda, Stop Stockouts is lobbying for the African governments “to meet their obligations to provide essential medicines” by increasing the national budgetary allocation” for purchasing medicines and “by ensuring efficiency and transparency in the procurement, supply, and distributions of medicines.” Stock-outs (which occur when a health center or pharmacy runs out of a medicine) can significantly delay treatment and subject patients to serious and aggravated health risks. Stop Stockouts relies on FrontlineSMS for campaign communication and monitoring of medicine availability.
- In 2011, the Institute for Reproductive Health partnered with FrontlineSMS to provide an mHealth service called CycleTel, which “helps women take charge of their reproductive health and use an effective family planning method” by empowering them with knowledge about their days of fertility and so forth. IRH used FrontlineSMS to manually test the CycleTel program in two Indian cities, Lucknow and New Delhi. The software proved to be “a crucial and practical step in the technology development process” and contributed to the overall product.
FrontlineSMS: The Ongoing Story
The idea for FrontlineSMS began with a conservation trip to South Africa in 2004. Ken Banks, working with authorities to establish better communication with nearby communities, realized the need for tools that would enable information exchange in remote areas. In places like Africa, NGOs typically lack money, expensive equipment, and reliable access to Internet and electricity—but they do carry mobile phones. At the time, there was no group-SMS system in existence that could operate in remote locations, so Banks decided to make his own: “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table,” he says in this article for National Geographic. “I made it a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”
Although he wrote the software to fix a specific problem, Banks also focused on creating software that was adaptable to different situations and purposes: “I also felt that other disciplines – health, agriculture, education and human rights among them – were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people.”
FrontlineSMS has successfully scaled communication barriers and provided catalysts for social change and healthcare improvement in more than 80 countries worldwide. (Not bad for an organization that hired its first employee in 2009.) Made available online in 2005, FrontlineSMS was transferred to an open source platform in 2008. The same year, Banks started working with Josh Nesbit (co-founder of Medic Mobile) on a project to improve management and patient care at a clinic in Malawi. The project stirred up a wave of eager interest and encouraged other people and NGOs to adopt FrontlineSMS for their own projects and organizations.
Since then, the software has continued to garner praise and recognition. The year after Ken Banks worked with Nesbit at the Malawi clinic, FrontlineSMS won the Silicon Valley Tech Award and received funding from OSI, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2010-2011, founder Ken Banks was named an Ashoka Fellow as well as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and carried off the Pizzigati Prize to boot. Meanwhile, FrontlineSMS won the Curry Stone Design Award in 2011. The software has been downloaded over 25,000 times, and has had a profound impact upon the lives and livelihoods of many communities in developing countries, especially Africa.
Meanwhile, FrontlineSMS is passing by another milestone in its history. This May, founder Ken Banks announced his intention to step back and take a more relaxed role in the organization, choosing to focus on other projects which a full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS had prevented him from developing (details will be posted on his blog). Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald, future CEO of kiwanja Foundation and CEO of kiwanja Community Interest Company, respectively, will lead FrontlineSMS forward to the next stage of its development.
Regarding that next stage, Banks is optimistic: “It’s an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I’m excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it,” he reflects in his transition announcement on the FrontlineSMS website.
If the past is any indication of the future, there's good reason to feel excited. In just a few years, FrontlineSMS has built a strong history of continued growth, successful problem-solving, cultural outreach and technological advancement. Innovative, low-cost, and flexible, FrontlineSMS is uniquely poised to make a difference in the developing world. And the good news is, it already has. So here's to the new and improved FrontlineSMS.
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.