For a technology product, a 9th birthday is no small feat. It’s an even bigger feat for a technology non-profit. So, it's taken a lot of deliberation, but it’s time to announce something we’ve been working on for a while: Frontline is becoming a business.
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.
For the past six-and-a-half years, FrontlineSMS has been something of a labour of love for me. Initially inspired by a decade of work with grassroots non-profits across the African continent, FrontlineSMS spoke directly to how I felt development should be done. Three years at university, dozens of field trips and countless discussions with development professionals convinced me that the future was bottom up, yet many of the mobile tools I came across in the early years of the discipline were quite the opposite. Tools, I believed, needed to be simple, appropriate, give control to the user and be built with those non-profit users in mind, and up until then little was. In 2003, when I started my career in mobile, it was clear that the technology held huge potential for the grassroots NGO community. As I approach my ten year anniversary that potential has largely been proved, but we're still some way off reaching our full potential. It's been an honour to be part of the growth, and an honour to have helped - in some small way - the work of countless dedicated NGOs as they battle to use mobile in their work.
Although the idea for FrontlineSMS came about after a series of conservation trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I had a hunch that conservation NGOs in other places faced the same communication challenges. 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. Today those hunches bear out, with FrontlineSMS in use in over eighty countries in over 20 sectors of development. It's been an incredible few years, and over that time it's become clear that FrontlineSMS has much greater potential than I ever imagined.
I've always maintained that it's just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and as FrontlineSMS grew its way out of my one bedroom flat in Cambridge and my VW Camper home at Stanford University, it became clear to me that the project needed a whole new set of skills to take it to the next level. In one of my favourite blog posts - " The Rolling Stones School of Innovation Management" - I wrote about how the Rolling Stones needed three different managers over the course of their careers, each of who had entirely different skills needed at different times in their growth. Funnily enough, FrontlineSMS follows a similar trajectory with different needs at the technological, business and organisational levels. As I wrote:
"As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process".
Since the middle of 2011 I've been working closely with a new Senior Management Team at FrontlineSMS, working towards the announcement we're making today. Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald have worked tirelessly helping prepare FrontlineSMS to meet new challenges and prepare us for our next stage of growth. They and the team have welcomed new, talented staff, released in-depth user guides, case studies and resources, published two academic articles, started a consultancy, brought in new funds, released Beta versions of exciting new FrontlineSMS products, future-proofed the software with a new, extendable, browser-based version, established a new UK entity, opened US and Kenyan offices, and recruited two Boards of Directors. It's been a busy 18 months, and we're in great shape as we enter a new and exciting phase in the history of FrontlineSMS, with Sean and Laura at the helm. Going forward, Laura will be CEO of the kiwanja Foundation, which houses our free, open-source software and user support. Sean is CEO of the kiwanja Community Interest Company, which supports users with program design advice, houses our sector-specific projects, and manages custom extensions to the platform. You'll hear more about our plans for the future from them in the coming days.
As for me, I'll continue my association with FrontlineSMS as before, and will continue to support it enthusiastically in person at conferences, through my blog, through book chapters and wider writing, and in my role of Chair of the Board. As to what I'll do with some of my new-found free time, I'm also planning to get stuck into a number of new project ideas which have been bubbling away for the past two to three years, ideas which I've been unable to do anything with due to my full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS. Further details on these new projects will be announced on my blog over the summer, so watch this space!
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. For some people, passing the baton on such a personal project would be something of a challenge. Knowing that the project is in safe hands has made the decision much easier for me. FrontlineSMS was always going to be bigger than one person. With a fantastic team behind it, it now has the chance to step up and meet the potential it clearly has.
Wishing you all the very best,
Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder
FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was recently invited by Wired magazine to write an article for their "Ideas Bank" column. You can find an extract of the article below. The full version is available via Wired's website here.
Depending on how much of a sweet tooth you have, you might not rate chocolate-chip cookies, ice-lollies or crisps as Earth-shattering product inventions, but they do all have one thing in common. Along with microwave ovens, penicillin and Teflon, the ideas behind them came about entirely by accident. Despite this, a common perception of innovation remains one of men and women in white coats crowded over laboratory equipment and mainframe computers. Though this may be generally true for big-ticket items and big pharma, today you may just as likely trace a lot of the smaller -- but equally high-impact -- discoveries and inventions back to someone's garden shed.
The field of ICT4D - information and communication technologies for development - tasks itself with figuring out how to apply many of our everyday technologies for the greater social good, often in the developing world. Ironically, despite the tens of billions spent each year in official aid, some of the more promising ICT4D innovations also happen to have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did. Welcome to the world of the "reluctant innovator"...
I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator. In 2004 I found myself working on the fringes of Kruger National Park in South Africa, trying to help the authorities improve communications with the local communities. Mobile phones were beginning to appear there and we considered using SMS to send group texts to community members. The problem was that no group-SMS technology worked in those kinds of hard-to-reach places. A few months later, the idea for a text-messaging platform was born one Saturday night over a bottle of beer and Match of the Day. The result, FrontlineSMS, today helps non-profit organisations in over 70 countries communicate critical messages with millions of the most marginalised and vulnerable people.
To read the full version visit the Wired magazine website.
In late October 2005, an early beta - "proof-of-concept" - version of FrontlineSMS was released to the world. It took just ten months for the idea to shape itself into the early stages of what you see today. In this, the second and last of our sixth birthday celebration posts (you can read the first here), we dig deep into our email archives and reveal some of the more interesting early - and perhaps surprising - moments of the project. The idea for FrontlineSMS was conceived in early 2005 with the help of several field trips to South Africa and Mozambique, a bottle of beer and "Match of the Day". All is revealed in this fun, short National Geographic video:
The very first email which specifically references FrontlineSMS was sent on 6th March, 2005 at 0853 to register the domain name.
Prior to that the working title was "Project SMS". The first email to reference "Project SMS" was sent on Wednesday 26th January, 2005 at 12:02. In it, the entire concept was described in just 963 words with an initial estimated budget of just £2,000 ($3,000).
Factoring in equipment and other costs, personal gifts totaling £10,000 were secured on 16th March, 2005 from two former Vodafone directors.
"The potential for FrontlineSMS is very exciting, and I am very much looking forward to working on the project. The potential impact for conservation and development is considerable." - Email to one of the supporters, 3rd May, 2005.
Preparation for the project officially got underway with the purchase of equipment totaling £1,476.09 on 22nd May, 2005:
One month later the timeline for the project was laid out. FrontlineSMS was delivered bang on schedule. From an email on 22nd June, 2005:
"I will begin working on the specification over the next couple of weeks, and will then get stuck into the initial programming phase during August. I have allocated that whole month to FrontlineSMS. As per the original timeline, July will be preparation, and August to September development time, so by October we should have something to trial."
News of FrontlineSMS was first revealed to the media in an interview with the Charity Times in August, 2005. Software development was briefly paused on 26th August so that the first FrontlineSMS website could be hastily put together ahead of the article's release.
"I have very high hopes that FrontlineSMS is really going to open the door to SMS technology to the wider NGO community" - Email to World Wildlife Fund, who were interested in trailing the software. 2nd September, 2005.
On 29th September, 2005 FrontlineSMS was presented for the first time at an internal event at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK:
On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).
Email, 6th October, 2005: "Google now gives us around 80 results when searching for FrontlineSMS". Today the number is well over 100,000.
Email to supporters, 31st October, 2005: "The FrontlineSMS texting system is now ready for trial". These nine words signaled our official launch exactly six years ago today.
Email dated 14th November, 2005 from the MacArthur Foundation: "The MacArthur Foundation's Technology Grants Committee is always looking for innovative applications of technology for the NGO sector. I'd love to have a chat with you about your application if you have the time". Two years later MacArthur would become the first donor to make an investment in FrontlineSMS with a $200,000 grant. This funded a major rewrite and a new website.
14th November, 2005: 160 Characters are the first mobile-focused news site to announce the release of FrontlineSMS.
15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation. Days later FrontlineSMS had its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.
Today, with fifteen staff over three continents, users in over 70 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and approaching 20,000 downloads, the rest - as they say - is history...
It's hard to believe, but six years ago this month FrontlineSMS was quietly released into the world. There was no press release, no fuss, no fanfare and certainly no funding. "Project SMS" was conceived earlier that year, renamed "FrontlineSMS" a few weeks later, and then cobbled together on a kitchen table in Finland over the summer. For a long time promoting and supporting it was simply a hobby as I continued my life as an ICT consultant. It's an understatement to say that I'm surprised at where we are today. Over fifteen staff across three continents, thousands of users in over 70 countries around the world, and a tool which has found a home for itself in almost all fields of international development. None of that was ever part of the plan back in October 2005.
I'm equally as proud of the roots of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. I've been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven't. There's much that's wrong in the sector, but also a lot that's right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There's very little I'd do differently if I started it all over again.
As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.
These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here's just a few:
Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead - and at the heart - of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive "anything is possible" attitude, making sure we continue to put people - and their needs - ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally - constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.
As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.
"The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace". Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic "Explorer" Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as "the little piece of software that dared to dream big".
With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize - which specifically focuses on open source software for public good - our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren't traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.
Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:
On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.
More recently we've begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations - Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what "socially responsible design" meant to them, most would associate it with physical design - the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that's what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:
Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it's deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We've worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it's this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It's also arguably at the heart of it's success:
We trust our users - rely on them, in fact - to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We're all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it's people who own the problems, and by default they're often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn't rocket science. As I've written many times before, it's usually quite subtle, but it works:
My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some "cloud". This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.
What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code - but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.
Further reading FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book "Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up", available now on pre-order from Amazon.
If you were to ask me to give you - in a microcosm - an example of what continues to inspire me about FrontlineSMS, it would be this.
On Sunday morning I woke, and checked in with the Forum. Okay, it was a weekend but we try to be there for our user-base - which these days is truly global - as much of the time as is possible. (The recent appointment of two FrontlineSMS:Heroes - power users, in other words - to provide additional cover when we're not always around, is testament to this). I saw a post from Stephen Sowa which didn't require too much thought - FrontlineSMS doesn't yet do what he wanted - but there was something he could try. After a couple of minutes responding I then had breakfast, did some gardening and spring cleaning, and got on with the day.
Later in the afternoon, during a break from mowing the lawn, I quickly checked into the Forum again and Stephen had successfully set up the three FrontlineSMS systems he needed for his training this week. A result all round.
A number of things motivate me about all this:
- Stephen found his way to our software, identified it's potential, read it up and downloaded it.
- Stephen successfully installed it, without help, on three separate machines.
- Stephen didn't need us for any of that, but when he did we had a fully open online Forum available where he could look for answers and post his question.
- After giving Stephen a bit of advice, he managed to figure out the rest for himself.
Okay, not all technical support turns out this well this quickly and this easily, and not all users have the technical skills Stephen clearly has, but what happened here represents everything that motivates me about FrontlineSMS. Engaged, motivated users, driving their own projects with full local ownership and us in a support role, as and when needed, if at all. It might not be how most m4d projects are run, but it's a process and approach I continue to believe in.
Northern Zambia, August 1993. We set off from Chilubula - where we were helping build a school - for another village a couple of hours away. They didn't have a school. They didn't seem to have much, in fact. As our pick-up approached, children ran out to greet us, throwing themselves onto their knees. Many of them saw us as saviours, visitors from afar who had the power to build them schools, drill them wells and change their lives in unimaginable ways. While some people enjoyed the attention, for me it was an uncomfortable experience. It may be hard to not be the "white man in Africa" when you're white and in Africa, but that doesn't mean you have to behave like one. Humility is lacking in so many walks of life, yet a lack of it seemed even more misguided in the environment in which we'd found ourselves.
Since then, on my many trips - they've ranged from as brief as a week to as long as a year - I always grapple with visibility, the feeling that whatever we do it should never be about us. How do we facilitate the change we want to see without being so totally central to it? I remember Jerry, a colleague at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria where I worked in 2002, towing me along to meetings with government officials because "white faces opened doors". I always went along, but insisted he did all the talking. They were his plans, his ideas, and it would have been wrong for me to take any of the credit for them.
Jerry organised an incredible environment day in Calabar that year. He's managed to do the same every year since. The doors thankfully stayed open. Job done, perhaps.
The dilemma of visibility has been with me from the very beginning - 1993 - and I still grapple with it today. I don't have the answer, but I do know that putting end-users first at every opportunity is the right thing for me to do. Create tools that enable other people to head off in any direction they choose increases the distance between me and their solution. That's what they want - independence, empowerment on their terms, credit for their actions - and doing it this way gives a little of the invisibility we seek, too.
Not having intimate knowledge of every single thing FrontlineSMS users are doing with the software may be a challenge when it comes to funding and reporting, but it has everything to do with trust, respect and genuine empowerment. It's not until you try to do something like this that you realise how difficult it is to achieve. I don't think enough people really know how to "let go". Too much innovation and too much noise still centres around the technology and not in the approach. Maybe it's time we saw a little "innovation in the way we innovate".
Development is littered with contradictions, and my work is no exception. These things still trouble me, but at least I believe we're on the right path - not just technically, but more importantly, spiritually.
@jack - inventor, Founder and Chairman of Twitter - meets up with @kiwanja - developer of FrontlineSMS - at the "Symposium on Technologies for Social Action" (e-STAS) conference in Malaga last week, where they both spoke about elements of citizen empowerment.
In their quest for globally-available, affordable (free!) text messaging, the Twitter folk are not alone, but unlike their non-profit counterparts Twitter are beginning to win the battle of nerves with the operators (expect to see free messaging slowly come back over the coming year). NGOs the world over can only dream of having this kind of clout, although it was interesting comparing the Twitter experience with that faced by FrontlineSMS users and the wider NGO community.
It'll be interesting to see where the Twitter Foundation might go with this, if and when we ever see one.