FrontlineSMS welcome video

We've been planning for some time to create a cool (possibly animated) introductory film for people interested in the FrontlineSMS basics, but haven't managed to get round to it yet. So, as a stop-gap, yesterday I put together this quick eight minute welcome video, which covers most of the more frequently asked questions.

This video, and others, can be found on the FrontlineSMS Community. The "Quick Start Guide" mentioned towards the end can be downloaded from here (PDF, 1Mb).

Video intro: FrontlineSMS in agriculture

Earlier this year we were asked to work with some colleagues over at the Gates Foundation to highlight a few of the uses of FrontlineSMS in the agriculture sector. There have been numerous projects in Aceh, El Salvador and Cambodia, and the number of initiatives continues to grow.

Here's a short five minute video which they put together. You can find this, and other videos, on the FrontlineSMS Community site.

Taking on the grassroots challenge

Over the past four years FrontlineSMS has taught us a lot, and I write about it frequently (see my recent misconceptions and observations posts). One of the biggest - and most underestimated - challenges is outreach. If you're building a tool for grassroots NGOs, particularly those working on the margins, promoting social mobile tools to them is inherently tricky. Over the past year, and over the past few months in particular, increasing numbers of local, national and international NGOs have begun promoting FrontlineSMS themselves, to their own field offices, partners and NGO friends. This is hugely significant for us, amplifying our own efforts considerably. This short video, courtesy of United Methodist Communications (UMC), shows a handful of delegates at a recent crisis management conference talk briefly about their thoughts on the software.

They may only be a few words, but for us they speak volumes. We took on the grassroots challenge, and it's great to see others joining in to help us.

After all, it doesn't matter how good your mobile solutions are if no-one knows they exist.

The Social Mobile Long Tail explained

What follows is a short extract from the recent "Soul of the New Machine" human rights/technology conference hosted by UC Berkeley, in which I explain my theory of the Social Mobile Long Tail.

This video is also available on the FrontlineSMS Community pages

Social Mobile Long Tail

A full video of the session - PDA's and Phones for Data Collection - which includes presentations from InSTEDD, Ushahidi, DataDyne and, is available via the website.

Interview at Africa Gathering

Filmed at the Africa Gathering event in London last Saturday, this short interview with Jonathan Marks covers the history, thinking and use of FrontlineSMS, and contains some priceless footage of over 100 Africa Gathering attendees doing an impression of the FrontlineSMS logo.

(Tip: Turn HD off if the video is slow to play). Thanks to Ed and the rest of the team for organising such a great event, and to Jonathan Marks for conducting the interview.

Farmer to farmer. Phone to phone.

In this - the fifth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts - Gary Garriott, Innovation Program Officer in the "Digital Futures for Development Program" at Winrock International, talks about their implementation of FrontlineSMS as part of a wider agriculture-based initiative in El Salvador Background

"Winrock International is a social enterprise which describes itself as a "mission-driven, nonprofit business". Winrock works with people in the United States and around the world to increase economic opportunity, sustain natural resources and protect the environment.

Winrock InternationalDerived from the international philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family, Winrock International (named for Winthrop Rockefeller, governor of Arkansas) and its predecessor organizations have acquired more than 50 years of development experience. Winrock has distinguished itself over this period by promoting capacity development for local entrepreneurship and community-based businesses in the areas of smallholder agriculture, environmental management, clean/renewable energy, and information and communications technologies.

Through its ‘Farmer to Farmer’ program, Winrock has been active in El Salvador in recent years providing volunteer technical assistance to smallholder farmers, especially to increase productivity and profitability in the horticulture and dairy subsectors. Sustainable approaches to achieve this objective are to strengthen agricultural sector institutions and improve sustainable use of natural resources. Both strategies tend to strengthen national trade institutions.

In this context Winrock works closely with FIAGRO, the Agricultural Technology Innovation Foundation - a local Salvadoran nonprofit - whose mission is to promote innovative technology for improving the competitive advantage of the agricultural sector. Through its Farmer to Farmer staff and Digital Futures for Development Program, Winrock provided an internal grant to FIAGRO to promote the use of cellular phones as a device to encourage buyers and sellers of agricultural products to exchange information and strengthen market linkages.

Mobile/SMS training with partners and staff (photo courtesy Winrock International)

Mission link and rationale

Forty-six percent of of El Salvador’s population live in rural areas and earn incomes from agriculture-related activities. Even though the Internet has become an important worldwide diffusion media promoting the democratization of information and knowledge, farmers in El Salvador continue to be isolated from the new Information and Communications Technologies (ICT's) that could help them access local markets and develop business opportunities. A valuable alternative to computer-based information for farmers is the use of more affordable mobile phones, which are very popular even in rural areas. National statistics reveal that there are 55 mobile lines for every 100 inhabitants, representing an opportunity to use mobile lines as a real-time agribusiness information tool to promote products and services, and to establish real-time market links between producers and buyers and/or final consumers.

The Project

The aim of the project is to help Salvadoran agricultural and agro-industrial producers sell their products in local markets for better prices and to obtain better profit margins, thus mitigating the effect of intermediaries or middlemen. A primary target is better marketing of vegetables and garden crops.

Similarly, many of the SMEs that process grains and other agricultural feedstocks also depend on intermediaries and traders who tend to speculate and inflate prices during times of shortage, generating negative impacts on the profitability of these small companies.

The system envisioned by this project will allow producers and buyers to post buy/sell offers through SMS messaging directly to mobile phones or through a call center managed by the project where operators will log information obtained from semi-literate or illiterate farmers. Then summaries of these "classifieds ads" will be sent through SMS and e-mail to service subscribers. Additionally, communities of buyers/sellers with Internet access will be able to see these offers on a project web site as well as through RSS feeds via other web sites. Thus producers and buyers will be able to interchange information and directly develop commercial activities without total reliance on intermediaries.

While this system uses multiple channels to create an information exchange network, it focuses on the cell phones since mobile technology is nearly ubiquitous as the most pervasive channel with the most penetration in rural areas.

The FrontlineSMS application

FrontlineSMS testing (Photo courtesy Winrock International)

Originally, the project envisioned working directly with a Salvadoran mobile operator that had offered to provide software interfaces as well as billing capabilities. While these discussions continue and will hopefully be successful, FrontlineSMS provides a more than adequate platform to move this project into operational mode and will likely provide service well beyond the pilot stage.

FrontlineSMS has, in short, saved the project from becoming trapped in a slow-moving bureaucratic process and allows projects results to be obtained during the time-critical pilot implementation in order to justify Winrock’s internal investment as well as the institutional commitment made by FIAGRO.

The pilot implementation manages and posts buy/sell offers from buyers and sellers. If sellers (usually smallholder farmers) are not comfortable using SMS, they can call a small call center managed by FIAGRO and an operator requests all the information needed to produce a ‘classified ad’ ready for posting through multiple channels. A daily summary is sent via SMS to the users of the pilot system as a digest of all the offers published during the previous 24 hours, divided into various categories. FrontlineSMS in combination Clickatell is used to send and receive SMS messages among large numbers of users. Through the call center, the user can also call to get specific information about products geographically close to a particular market or urban center and in the same way can request information about buyers for specific products.

Through FrontlineSMS, the functionality to directly publish offers through SMS over the Internet is being added too, where the users write a keyword, either to Buy or Sell, followed by the product information such as name, amount, sell or buy price, and product location. All this information will be added to the pilot system and available when the users contact the call center.

The pilot will accommodate approximately 600 users with technological resources currently available; however, to scale to a larger user group and expand it to a regional or even national level, further investment is required for additional technological and human resources, such as software development, computer and communications equipments and collaborators that support project operation through national mobile operators. The system will be sustained based on per call charges made to the call center as well as charges for SMS reception. Users will be charged only for the information they receive or request and with the frequency desired; the user can cancel the subscription at any time.

We believe this to be the first FrontlineSMS trading application in the agricultural space in El Salvador and possibly the first anywhere in Central America. Further information is available on the short video below.

From the FrontlineSMS Community site

Thank you FrontlineSMS!"

Gary Garriott Digital Futures for Development Program Winrock International

Other staff involved in the project include:

Ricardo Hernández Auerbach, Regional Director, Farmer to Farmer Program, Winrock International Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Executive Director, FIAGRO (Fundación para la Innovación Tecnológica Agropecuaria) Raúl Corleto, ICT Coordinator,  FIAGRO (Fundación para la Innovación Tecnológica Agropecuaria)

A glimpse into social mobile's long tail

Although I've only been writing about the social mobile long tail for a couple of years, the thinking behind it has developed over a fifteen year period where, working on and off in a number of African countries, I've witnessed at first hand the incredible contribution that some of the smallest and under-resourced NGOs make in solving some of the most pressing social and environmental problems. Most of these NGOs are hardly known outside the communities where they operate, and many fail to raise even the smallest amounts of funding in an environment where they compete with some of the biggest and smartest charities on the planet.

Long tail NGOs are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they're trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape - not just geographically, but also the language, culture and daily challenges of the people.

After fifteen years it should come as no surprise to hear that most of my work today is aimed at empowering the long tail, as it has been since came into being in 2003, followed by FrontlineSMS a little later in 2005. Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn't going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand? The default position for many people working in ICT4D is to build centralised solutions to local problems - things that 'integrate' and 'scale'. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. Technology can be fixed, tweaked, scaled and integrated - building relationships with the users is much harder and takes a lot longer. Trust has to be won. And it takes even longer to get back if it's lost.

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.

Here's a video from Lynman Bacolor, a FrontlineSMS user in the Philippines, talking about how he uses the software in his health outreach work. What you see here is a very simple technology doing something which, to him, is significant.

Watch this video on the FrontlineSMS Community pages

In short, Lynman's solution works because it was his problem, not someone elses. And it worked because he solved it. And going by the video he's happy and proud, as he should be. Local ownership? You bet.  o/

Now, just imagine what a thousand Lynman's could achieve with a low cost laptop each, FrontlineSMS and a modest text messaging budget?