With Frontline's flexible API, you can connect your FrontlineCloud workspace to your other communication channels.
The expansion of mobile access has been a common refrain in international development for years now. It plays an important role in supporting human development, from economic and educational opportunities to political freedoms and human rights. Increased access to mobiles has been linked to positive social outcomes in dozens of countries.
Over the past couple years, I’ve had the privilege of co-managing World Vision’s Speed Evidence Project, which seeks to improve information management in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. After most disasters, reliable field data is significant challenge - what we can find is normally incomplete and/or inaccurate.
A few weeks ago, we were invited by the Knight Foundation to join with other Knight News Challenge winners and discuss the various successes and challenges faced by our organizations. It was a terrific opportunity to recognize that many start-ups and small organizations go through nearly identical growing pains. The meeting was more than group therapy; our sessions provided some key insights into how different teams have tackled similar problems in their own contexts.
Coming to you from the University of Cambridge's Centre of Governance and Human Rights, we are pleased to feature a short film about the Africa's Voices project. This research pilot project supported local radio stations to use FrontlineSMS for audience participation, in an effort to continue to enhance citizen-based dialogue. Radio is still the killer app in Africa for sharing information. Adding mobile turns a one-to-many medium into a two-way interactive opportunity, empowering people to ask questions and hold their leaders to account.
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.
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.
I had my first mobile phone in 1999, a metallic blue Motorola M3888. Its street name was “phone booth” because it was the cheapest mobile phone available, even though it was a luxury. It cost 14,000KES ($160) – a gift from my father bought during a Safaricom Valentine’s Day special. I could make calls - for 40KES (50 cents) per minute, and send SMS, and that was it; I loved that phone!
SMS remains the most popular two-way communications platform on the planet. In most cases, it's inexpensive, casual, and discreet for users. It also represents one of the more profitable features offered by mobile network operators. And while SMS does face an increasingly fractured market, largely from the growth of messaging apps, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Here are 5 reasons why:
By Ashley Mannes FrontlineSMS was recently included in an academic paper, written by Ashley Mannes, of Georgetown University, USA, and titled ‘Interoperable Technologies in International Development: Access to FrontlineSMS.’ In the below guest post, Ashley introduces the main themes of her paper and what compelled her to write about FrontlineSMS:
"When I first got the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world, I began to understand and appreciate the beauty and unique qualities of the cultures that unite our global community. My interest in development flourished during my master’s degree program in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University. The program helped me to realize that a great opportunity is provided by today’s technologies; to communicate with and connect to cultures and climates that once seemed so distant. In this manner, I discovered the work of organizations like FrontlineSMS that are using technology to help people to connect and communicate across the world.
I actually came across FrontlineSMS by chance, as I was preparing to write a paper on Networks and International Development. I knew I wanted to explore how open lines of communication and access to technology were helping NGOs connect with local communities in order to give them a more global voice, and it was when I began searching for organizations with this type of a mission that I discovered FrontlineSMS. Through my research I saw how technology was positively impacting local NGOs and communities around the world due to FrontlineSMS’ work. Therefore, it seemed ideal to focus on FrontlineSMS as the case study for my paper.
I chose the title Interoperable Technologies in International Development: Access to FrontlineSMS to tie together ideas of access to technology and economic development. My paper explores the “bottom billion”, an idea proposed by Paul Collier that addresses the specific needs of the populations of least developed nations that have been left out of the discussion, and the struggle to prosper in today’s economic climate. I suggest that in order for these countries to rise from the “bottom”, they must build upon their own bonding capital and reciprocity in order to use the communication networks that are available to them.
In this sense, struggling nations must focus on the local connections that they have in order to expand their voices to a more global platform. I stress that new technologies, such as mobile phones, are fostering much more crosscutting communication; these new technologies have the ability and potential to aid development goals and economic activities. However, in order to take advantage of these new technologies, these networks must be interoperable and open.
FrontlineSMS is utilizing both the technology of mobile phones and the networks of communities to spread information, communicate, and affect lasting change. I focused on two case studies in particular to demonstrate how FrontlineSMS can be flexible and accessible technology, used by NGOs to accomplish both their local and global missions. In Pakistan, for example, the global NGO, the International Organisation for Migration is using FrontlineSMS software to send mass text messages of health and sanitation information to countless displaced refugees who need this information to remain safe and healthy during natural disasters. The ability of these NGOs to access this technology and reach out to local Pakistani citizens through text messages is a huge step for development, and one that allows for an open line of communication with those who may need it most.
The second case study I looked at focused on the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Hubli-Dharwad district of India. Here FrontlineSMS was utilized to connect a network of development groups to the local sex-workers infected by, or at-risk of contracting, HIV/AIDS. The FrontlineSMS data collection tool FrontlineForms allowed field workers to quickly collect important information on their mobile phones and export it to their headquarters to be gathered and documented for further development purposes. Interoperable technologies have helped development practitioners collect more information faster and more easily.
It has become clear that openness and flexibility are necessary components of technologies that can help to successfully promote development. Access to technologies that harness the network capability of a common mobile phone can provide the needed link and physical line of communication to isolated communities. Interoperable technologies can be used to network a group of development practitioners or to distribute mass amounts of information and assistance to a local community. They can be used to collect information in the field or to simply communicate between individuals.
Regardless of the manner in which the technology is utilized, the accessibility of this technology can help to open up a path of communication between the local and global, ultimately building social capital at the local level and cultivating a more global sense of capital and reciprocity through working together and expanding these development networks. I enjoyed exploring how FrontlineSMS is helping communities and NGOs to interact, and hope that I have done justice to this in my paper."
Read Ashley’s paper here - Interoperable Technologies in International Development.
I'm beginning this week in the small landlocked eastern European country of Moldova, talking to representatives of IREX-supported organisations running telecentres and internet access points across the region. We just had a short session on FrontlineSMS, explaining how it works, and starting to come up with ideas for how to use it. Even though we talk every day about how users innovate way beyond our wildest dreams, I somehow still wasn't prepared for the deluge of brilliant ideas coming from the floor! Here are just a few, which the group have generously allowed me to share as inspiration for others thinking about how to incorporate SMS into their work:
- In a wide geographic area, liaising with partner NGOs, colleagues, and even the authorities - even if it's just to SMS and point out an important email you sent that day. Where the Internet hasn't yet really taken hold, people often don't check their email accounts every day.
- To let people know about trainings and workshops, or ask them to get involved in campaigns and actions
- To create a feeling of community between schools and kindergartens across a wide area
- To let students know when their scholarship money is ready for collection
- To send information to newly arrived migrants in Kazakhstan, where migration is a high-profile issue; informing them of the law on registration, the contact details of their embassies in-country, and how to get a visa, a work permit, or citizenship
- In a big country, the potential as a research tool and information-sharing tool is huge
- Updating parents about their child's academic performance and behaviour at school.
Participants were also very realistic about the obstacles to using SMS. In countries where SMS bundles aren't common, costs can quickly mount up. In some countries, people often have multiple SIM cards to use across multiple networks as a cost-saving measure - subscription-based services can be a challenge here. And users realised quickly that they had to plan for the service they are considering offering to really take off, so that they would have to resource administrative support for it - but some, such as those proposing parent information services for schools, also saw that they could generate an income to cover this from a small subscription fee for the service.
A final note of caution from me was that in some of these countries, SMS are routinely monitored for political activity not favourable to the government. Where this is the case, organisations need to be aware that mobile services - or even the mobile network - can be quickly shut down, or bulk messaging heavily regulated and the SMS themselves can put both the service provider and the people they are interacting with at risk.
Over the next couple of days I'll be working with individual users on their operational and practical challenges - including types of network, operating costs and staff time - and I'll post further reflections here when I can.
This weekend has been spent at CityCampLondon, in a fog of coffee and beer, on Brick Lane and at the Kings Cross Hub, thinking and talking about using tech to make London better. I wanted to post a slightly more coherent version of my thoughts here.
At the Mobile in the City panel, I reflected on the UK's digital divide, which I've posted about here before, but took it further to suggest that the same factors preventing people from getting online might militate against them having a smart phone. As of January 2010, there were 11.1 million smart phones in the UK, 22.6% of active mobile contracts. Over three quarters of us still use 'dumb' phones. And while 31% of us browse the internet on our phones, 18% access social media and 13.7% access the news, 90.3% use SMS, or text messaging. Ok, so smartphone adoption is growing by an amazing 70% year on year, but I would argue that it's likely that the most marginalised and most vulnerable in society will be the last to see the benefits. Put simply, there's still an excellent case for using SMS to interact and communicate with people we struggle to reach using other technologies.
An example of this would be people who are rough sleeping, or homeless. A friend told me that when she volunteered in a soup kitchen, the most common request was for her to charge the batteries of people's pay-as-you-go phones behind the counter. Three soup kitchens, and one soup VAN, have downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their regulars by text. Others are running helplines for teens, and domestic violence sufferers, or using SMS as an adjunct to treatment and support programmes for people with depression. People are collecting survey information, even reports of bird sightings. I'm searching right now for someone in the UK to house and maintain a simple FrontlineSMS hub to support activists monitoring evictions of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex (if you can help, let me know - no experience or tech knowhow required! Read more about this here.)
What these ideas have in common is that they aren't dependent on introducing new tech of any kind - just using technologies and communications media that people already have in their pockets, to enable them to do what they were doing before, but reaching further and doing better. The questions I've been asking people as we've gone through the third day here at the Hub Kings Cross are - who are you trying to reach? And what are they already using? Do you understand the social context? How boring I must sound.
Events like CityCamp and OpenTech are great but can be all about the tool. My plea this weekend has been to put the end user first. I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited and make things, but there is a gap between innovation (coming up with a tool) and implementation at scale (widespread use and social impact), and the bit in the middle is the human element. Make things easy, both for end users and for the organisations trying to reach them - keep technology simple and recognisable, keep the need for training to a minimum, keep barriers to access AND to implementation low. This remains a challenge for FrontlineSMS as we head towards our sixth year, but one we're determined to crack.
The corollary to this is that too often these events result in new organisations trying to cover similar ground in a new way. How frustrating that established players are so seldom flexible enough to pick up new ideas and adapt their existing models to take advantage of them. The pitches we're hearing right now (I'm writing this from the shadows as braver and more brilliant people than I pitch NESTA and Unltd for funding to bring their newborn ideas into the world) are strikingly diverse in style and approach, and in the problems they seek to attack. If there's something I'm disappointed about this weekend, it's that more people from the public sector haven't stuck around to understand how simple technologies can transform how they interact with their clients.
Thanks to Dominic Campbell and the FutureGov team for a great event and for bringing together a diverse bunch for three days - and thanks for inviting FrontlineSMS!
As occasionally happens, Ken and I find ourselves on opposite sides of the world at conferences this week. Ken is at Mobile Web in Africa 2010, in Johannesburg, and I'm hereby asking him to tell you all about it here when he gets a minute. o/ I'm at Design for Persuasion in Ghent, Belgium, with a room full of people who've never heard of FrontlineSMS - this is only the second time I've done this kind of event, but it's something we're committed to doing because that's how we get the word out to new audiences. As I did after the Digital Indaba in July, I thought I'd post the gist of my talk here. You can also listen to an AudioBoo which I recorded in a far more coherent manner than the actual talk, shortly afterwards.
Sidenote: I showed, as I always do, Ken's favourite diagram of 'social mobile's long tail'. Related but different is the persuasion map we're all developing (read: wrangling over) live at the conference, at BJ Fogg's suggestion. It maps technologies along axes showing prominence versus usefulness. SMS has already moved from unknown to well known, and from useful to not useful, a couple of times. Will be interesting to see where it ends up - or who gives up first...
Since I joined the team back in March I've spent a lot of time emailing our users and begging them for stories and feedback about their experience. You can read a version of this plea here! Many of you have given generously of your time and energy to write and tell me your thoughts on the platform and the challenges of implementing using SMS.
Something that surprised me a bit was the low proportion of users who were utilising more than the most basic functionality in FrontlineSMS. Many, perhaps 90-95%, are using only the functionality up to and including keywords to automatically respond to incoming SMS, or simply organise incoming SMS. But not all are aware of additional plugins like the Reminders module and the enormous potential of Medic's PatientView. Even auto-subscribing people to groups via SMS is a step beyond what many have time to set up.This might be controversial - do people disagree? Am I getting a false picture?
If not, the low take-up of advanced features is probably to do with capacity and time - both for many of the small community-based organisations who are our target user, if we have such a thing, and for larger NGOs and international organisations. Indeed, we know at times people struggle to get basic FrontlineSMS functions working effectively and meshing well with their existing work. We're tremendously excited about the potential of new functionality and technology, and small groups of users will be able to make excellent use of them - but for the majority of users, basic troubleshooting, support and advice are critical.
In the coming weeks we'll be working on our plans for the software in 2011 - stay tuned for more from this from our Lead Developer, Alex. Our role in providing user guides and resources, advice and support, and even training is something we're also looking carefully at. As ever, we'd welcome your thoughts.
In our twenty-fifth guest post, the lovely Jon Camfield highlights his past work to get FrontlineSMS running on an OLPC laptop. Anyone else running o/ on an OLPC? Let us know! The recent Technology Salons have been on local and sectoral implementations of mobile technology in development.
Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.
Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.
My favorite technology in this realm of empowerment remains FrontlineSMS. Last year, I cajoled my OLPC XO-1into running FrontlineSMS - combining the XO's hardy but lightweight construction, full-sun-readable screen, and grid-free capabilities with FrontlineSMS's ability to run an SMS messaging center without Internet access. These two combine into a completely mobile SMS command center that can be recharged using car batteries or solar panels, moved quickly, and ditched almost instantaneously (presuming you run a "guest" OS from the OLPC's SD card slot). This applies now to a new wave of netbook computers with even better batteries (though many are not built quite as well as the XO for ... let's say "non-standard" usage).
It took a few decades, but we now have technology which is powerful enough and popular enough to support a global revolution in how "development" happens. It no longer means a visit from a white USAID SUV, or even a health worker motocycling out to check the medicine stocks of a remote clinic. A well-targeted SMS message can reach any part of the world, or just over the horizon to a colleague you want to ask a question of without spending a day and wasting gasoline in transit. More importantly, the "headquarters" of an organization is no longer tied to a central office, or necessarily needs to pay for reliable Internet to communicate with its members/beneficiaries/activists. This enables a renaissance of new local solutions to local problems, and that is exciting impact that has only just begun.
This post originally appeared on Jon's website. We're very grateful to him for allowing us to repost it here.
Although I find myself intrigued by the convergence of computer science, human computer interaction (HCI) design and international development, it's not often that I find myself in a room of experts. They're just not places I tend to mix, most likely because I have no professional IT qualifications, let alone a computer science degree, and I've done most of my own software design off-the-cuff, much to the dismay of people who hoped there was a robust process behind it. Last August I got my first taste of the very real challenges that the computer science world faces when it comes up against the equally real challenges of international development. The meeting - convened at UC Berkeley - was an eye-opener for me to say the least, and as I left I blogged about how thankful I was that it wasn't me who had to come up with the answers. You can read that post here.
A little later in the year I was invited to speak at the First International Workshop on Expressive Interactions for Sustainability and Empowerment, held at one of Vodafone's London offices. The topic of conversation was similar, but here the focus was on how to build mobile tools that work in difficult, challenging, 'foreign' environments. Following my talk I was invited by the Editor of Interfaces, John Knight, to contribute an article to the next edition of their magazine.
For the article I teamed up with Joel Selanikio, co-founder of DataDyne.org and the creator of the EpiSurveyor mobile data collection tool. It made sense working with Joel for a number of reasons. Not only have I known and admired him and his work for some time, but Joel is first and foremost a paediatrician. For him - like me - understanding the problem takes priority over the technology, consideration of which should always come last. FrontlineSMS and EpiSurveyor have both evolved from time spent in the field - observing, experiencing and understanding before designing, developing and building.
You can read our thoughts on the process - "Ten things you might want to know before building for mobile" - in the current edition of Interfaces magazine (PDF, 2.5Mb).
The depth and range of discussion generated by my last post on "the cloud" and "appropriate technology" may have come as something of a surprise, but one thing is clear. There's a great deal of misunderstanding around the topic, particularly with people who are either developing or promoting tools based on the very technology I was challenging. The only way to avoid this kind of confusion is to spell out our positions clearly, and I made this point in that very same post. So how do we move on from here? Well, we need to set out our positions clearly as a marker in the sand for future discussion. So, let me go first. To clear up any present and future confusion, here's the official FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net position on what I consider five key "mobile tools for development" areas - location in the "long tail", scaling, replication and growth, open sourcing and access to "the cloud".
1. Who are your target audience?
Some time ago I butchered Chris Anderson's "long tail" concept and adapted it for mobile. It seemed like the best way of categorising the different focus areas for mobile tools - high-end for larger organisations down to low-end for small grassroots ones. Here's what I came up with.
The basic rationale behind the diagram is this. Tools in the red area are technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don't require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated - within hours - whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.
Note: There is no right or wrong or good or bad place on the tail. There are just different places
From its early beginnings in South Africa in 2004, FrontlineSMS has been totally focused on grassroots NGOs in the green space, an area which I believed back then was heavily underserved (and to a large degree still is). We're not particularly interested in big users such as international NGOs or government departments. So if our tool isn't considered right for the kinds of big projects they're likely to be running, then that's fine with us.
I wonder where the other social mobile tools would place themselves on the tail?
2. What is your position on scaling?
Believe it or not, not everyone wants to build tools that can grow into large centralised solutions, which is how many people seem to define scale. No one is ever going to run a nationwide election monitoring campaign running into millions of text messages using a single laptop, cable and mobile phone. FrontlineSMS is based on "horizontal scaling", gained by an increase in the numbers of individual users with their own systems. In other words, a hundred systems in a hundred clinics serving 10,000 people each, rather than one system adapted and "scaled up" to serve a million. We're happy and comfortable with this approach, as are our target audience of grassroots NGOs.
3. How does it replicate and grow?
Growth is based on patience, and a "pull" rather than "push" approach, i.e. awareness-raising and then letting NGOs decide if they want to try out the tool or not. Those that do then go and request it from the website. Everything is driven by the end user, who needs to be independently motivated to download and use the tool. There is no need for us to be involved at any stage, so no-one flies anywhere and no-one does any training - note that the approaches of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit may be different - and no-one tries to "sell" FrontlineSMS to anyone. The solution is designed to allow users to do everything themselves. No core FrontlineSMS implementations are driven by us, and none are our projects. Use is replicated by users sharing experiences, talking about their use of the tool to others, and growing numbers of champions who are either building their own solutions around FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and researchers who write about its use and impact.
4. What is your position on open sourcing?
Again, from the very beginning we have been unashamedly focused on our end user - NGOs in developing countries seeking easy-to-deploy mobile tools. Our end users are not programmers, coders or technical developers, and few if any of our FrontlineSMS user base would have any idea what to do with source code. We decided that we would focus on the open source community once we believed we had something worth working with, and that time is about now. In between working on everything else, we plan to launch a developer community soon. That all said, there are already a number of developers bolting on new functionality to the core FrontlineSMS platform, and 90% of the code is already available online and accessible through SourceForge.
5. Does access to "the cloud" matter?
FrontlineSMS only came about four years ago because of a critical lack of tools that allowed for group messaging without the need for the Internet. Building a tool which is able to operate in Internet-free zones has therefore been central to our thinking since the very beginning, and continues to this day. Beyond basic messaging, FrontlineSMS can make use of an Internet connection when and where available - messages can be forwarded via email, or posted to websites, for example (that's the functionality Ushahidi takes advantage of) - but no Internet is not a show stopper for us. And as time moves on and connectivity does improve, we'll be ready. We're adding picture messaging in the next couple of months (for example), and other web-based features are in the pipeline. We are not anti-Internet, but realistic when it comes to its availability and reliability.
So, that's our line in the sand. If anyone else has a mobile tool - or is working on a mobile tool - I'd encourage them to clear up any possible confusion and write a post outlining their thinking in these five areas. The alternative is more confusion, and more false arguments and comparisons.
I know I'd love to know the thinking behind more social mobile tools, and going by the reaction earlier this week, it looks like I'm not the only one. Now is a good-a-time as any to join the conversation.
Read responses and "lines in the sand" from: