Build it, and they will come (if it's useful)

It's incredible to think that exactly four years ago I was gearing up to write the early FrontlineSMS prototype. Although a lot was undecided, a central pillar of my early thinking was that a "platform approach" would be the most flexible and appropriate, and that it would be wrong and restrictive of me to try and build a specific, local solution to the communications problem I'd witnessed in South Africa the year before. I figured that if I could avoid the temptation to try and solve a problem that wasn't mine, but build something which allowed its local owners to solve it, then interesting things might happen. Africa Journal, Fall 2007Today, the dizzying array of uses NGOs have found for FrontlineSMS is testament to that early approach, and the software is today driving projects in ways I could never have imagined. The Africa Journal most neatly summed up its impact when they wrote, back in 2007:

FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organisers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity

Non-profits in over fifty countries have either applied, thought about applying, experimented or played with FrontlineSMS in the context of their own work, imaginatively considering ways in which the software - and the rise of text messaging - can be be turned to good use. As a result we've seen solid growth in the FrontlineSMS user community, but this is just one piece of the puzzle. Building community with users is one thing, but getting traction with developers is another.

And today, something very exciting is beginning to happen.

N2Y4If you take a look at the N2Y4 Mobile Challenge this year, you'll notice something quite interesting. Three of the ten finalists are building their solutions around the FrontlineSMS platform, and a fourth used it as a major component in early prototyping exercises. You can add to these work that Ushahidi's developers have been recently carrying out, or students at MIT, or human rights activists in the Philippines, or the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, or university-based agriculture projects, all of whom have started integrating FrontlineSMS into their own tools and solutions. This kind of integration is what we always intended, and the software has been written in such a way to make it as painless as possible. Usability alone, however, is never a guarantee that people will buy into your vision.

It may have its critics, but the "Build it and they will come" mantra is truly alive and kicking in the FrontlineSMS world, and the finalists in N2Y4 are testament to this. FrontlineSMS:Medic, IJCentral and FrontlineSMS Alerts each have FrontlineSMS at the core of their proposals. Freedom Fone carried out much of their early proof-of-concept work with the software. Each of these projects are trying to solve a range of problems (note that voting is open until Friday 10th April).

FrontlineSMS:Medic - SMS for Medical Records and Mobile Lab Diagnostics [vote] FrontlineSMS:Medic is a team committed to empowering community health workers in the developing world using appropriate mobile technology. After almost a year of working with FrontlineSMS in Malawi, they are launching FrontlineSMS:Medic to extend the capabilities of this software and bring it to health centers across several continents

IJCentral: Movement to Support Global Rule of Law [vote] IJCentral, in tandem with documentary film “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court”, will be the core of a social network for global justice to combat the entrenched culture of impunity for crimes against humanity, implementing a multi-platform citizen engagement strategy using geolocated mobile phone SMS text messages, to build a worldwide constituency for the rule of law visualized on the IJC Map. Success will be an active global constituency supporting the justice mandate of the ICC, to prosecute perpetrators of the worst crimes, no matter how powerful

FrontlineSMS + Cell Alert = FrontlineSMS Alerts [vote] This team have created a whole new suite of information tracking and delivery modules including Grant Alerts, Regional Conflict Alerts, Genocide and Blockade Alerts, World Food Aid Alerts, and Economic Aid Alerts. These tools are particularly powerful when used with FrontlineSMS. Recent trials proved the concept in El Salvador and Pakistan. Essential and timely market data that is unavailable in rural El Salvador and rural Pakistan due to a lack of Internet access was made accessible in these trials through the use of FrontlineSMS. Through their trials, Cell Alert was used to locate and deliver essential market data to beta testers in rural areas through the software

Freedom Fone [vote] Freedom Fone is a free open source software tool that can be used to build and update a dial-up information service in any language. Its easy to use interface lowers the barriers to using Interactive Voice Response for outreach. Freedom Fone empowers non-technical organizations to build automated information services that are available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pre-recorded audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a Content Management System. This is updated through a simple to use browser interface. Callers then phone in to listen to the audio options available to them

The competition judges will decide which of these projects have merit, and which ones walk away with the prize money, if any. Of course, none are FrontlineSMS entries as such, and I have had nothing to do with any of the entries, or their decision to enter. What I do think is significant, however, is that it shows what's possible if we focus on building simple, appropriate, open social mobile tools and platforms, and let users impose their own will and vision on it.

If we build it - and it's useful - it turns out that they might just come.

Chipping away at the SMS literacy barrier

With all the excitement surrounding Monday's launch of FrontlineForms, we almost forgot the other improvements we've made to the FrontlineSMS software. As well as support for IntelliSMS - another Clickatell-style online aggregator - we finally got round to adding Unicode support which, to the non-technical, means you can now send and receive messages in foreign scripts, i.e. non-Latin or non-Roman character sets. Projects in India and the Middle East have been asking for this, and it's exciting to see it finally delivered (thanks Alex!). FrontlineSMS Arabic

Although there are still very real literacy issues for SMS-based social mobile projects, at least allowing messages to be sent and received in the local language - assuming handset support is available - removes at least one more barrier. We're excited to see how much this ends up being used, and what further opportunities it opens up for FrontlineSMS users around the world.

FrontlineSMS: Now with Forms

It's been a hectic few months, but we're finally there. Today we're excited to announce the release of the new FrontlineForms, an SMS-driven data collection tool which seamlessly integrates into our existing and growing FrontlineSMS platform. Sure, data collection tools already exist, but many require mobile internet access to function, degrees in Linux to get running, or PDAs or the kinds of phones that just aren't available to the masses in most developing countries. FrontlineForms runs on most high- and low-end Java-enabled phones, can be downloaded directly onto a handset over-the-air, doesn't require internet access beyond installation, and utilises the already-proven simple user interface of FrontlineSMS. In short, FrontlineForms compliments our existing focus on empowering the social mobile long tail with an entry-level, usable data collection tool.

According to my thinking, tools for the long tail need - among other things - to run on readily available hardware wherever possible, and be simple to install and easy to use. These innocent little criteria can create huge challenges, though. Writing an application which runs on all desktops (Windows, Mac and the various flavours of Linux), that interfaces locally with the widest range of phones and modems, and connects remotely with a data collection tool which runs on as many Java-enabled handsets as possible is a huge technical challenge. Many other mobile solutions concentrate on one desktop operating system, or a small family of mobile phones (sometimes just a single phone), which is all fine if you want to concentrate on users higher up the long tail. With our focus on grassroots NGOs, we don't.

FrontlineSMS Forms Editor

So, this is how it works. Using the new FrontlineSMS Forms Editor (above), users are able to create a form visually on their computer by dragging-and-dropping field types, giving them names and setting other parameters along the way. The form is then encoded and sent via SMS to any number of handsets running the FrontlineForms client, a small program which runs on a wide range of Java-enabled handsets. Once these handsets receive a new form, the Java client interprets the data, saves the form layout and displays a mobile version ready for the fieldworker to complete (see below).

FrontlineForms Client

The FrontlineForms client can hold many different forms at the same time, all selectable from a drop-down menu. As requirements change new forms can be built and distributed by simply texting them to the recipients handset through FrontlineSMS - they don't need to travel to the office to be added. Once out in the field the user simply inputs their data, and once complete multiple forms are combined and compressed, ready to be sent back to the FrontlineSMS hub, again as SMS. If at any time users find themselves working out of range of a mobile signal, the data is usefully held in "offline" mode until connectivity is restored.

The addition of data collection functionality to FrontlineSMS is a significant step forward for the software. From today, non-profit organisations in the developing world can experiment with anything from simple two-way group messaging campaigns to prototyping SMS-based information services, or start collecting data in the field, all through a single software application. The modular nature of FrontlineSMS means that users are able to deactivate functionality they do not need, but then easily reactivate it as they grow into SMS services. Future "modules" will include mapping functionality - powered by Ushahidi - and multimedia messaging (due later this year) allowing the transmission of pictures, audio, video and text. More specialist applications, including those being developed independently by the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, will also appear as optional modules.

According to Dr. Luis Sarmenta of the Next Billion Network and MIT Media Lab - whose students worked on pre-release versions of the tool as part of their own projects:

"Data collection from the field is one of the most common needs we see among projects in the developing world today, and enabling people to use mobile phones instead of paper would empower a lot of groups and people out there to do their work more efficiently, more effectively, and with broader reach. FrontlineForms seeks to provide this profoundly useful capability while remaining true to the goal of ease-of-use that has been the key to FrontlineSMS' success and value"

Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) were equally positive after spending several days putting the entire platform through its paces as part of a wider evaluation exercise. According to Grégory Rebattu, TSF’s Niger Representative:

"Crucially from our perspective, FrontlineSMS is extremely user-friendly, allowing partner organisations on the ground to rapidly deploy a data collection and dissemination system from scratch. This simplicity is crucial for organizations which may lack technical skills, and users can be up and running in a matter of minutes with the minimum of mouse clicks. The intuitive nature of the software also means that little technical support is required once they’re up and running"

FrontlineSMS Icon - Photo by Erik Hersman (White African), Kenya, 2008

Today's release of FrontlineForms gives many new and existing FrontlineSMS users access to entry-level data collection tools for the very first time. Those that find it valuable, and those whose data collection needs grow, can then move onto more scalable and powerful solutions such as those developed by DataDyne, an organisation we've been in contact with over the years and whose work is making a considerable impact in parts of the developing world. What FrontlineForms aims to do, over-and-above anything else, is give grassroots NGOs the opportunity to try out mobile data collection with the minimum of fuss, the minimum need for high-level technical expertise or equipment, and the minimum of funding.

These are exciting times for the FrontlineSMS community. The software has been allowed to develop organically, based very much on the needs of  users in the field, and it continues to power increasing numbers of social change projects around the world. If 2009 doesn't turn out to be the "Year of Mobile" everyone is talking about, we'll sure be doing our best to make it the "Year of the FrontlineSMS user".  o/

(Further details on today's FrontlineForms launch can be found on the official Press Release. A special thanks goes to Tess Conner for her work on media and PR, to MIT and Télécoms Sans Frontières for their feedback, to the team at Masabi for their commitment and contribution to the project, to members of the FrontlineSMS Communiity for their ideas and enthusiasm, and to members of the wider social mobile community for their continued support and encouragement. You know who you are)

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?

Low(er) cost computing

In the middle of everything else that's going on right now, we're working to get the latest FrontlineSMS ready for launch. Among a few of the more minor changes (bug fixes and additional language support, for example) this new release will see the inclusion of FrontlineForms, a fully integrated SMS-driven data collection tool. Although it's been ready for some time, we've been busy getting the core system up to scratch before adding the first of a range of exciting new functionality (the ability to do MMS - multimedia messaging - comes later this year courtesy of our Hewlett funding). Of course, none of this is of any use if you can't afford a computer to run anything on. As part of our goal to lower the barrier to entry for prospective FrontlineSMS users, we have plans to develop USB stick and mobile versions of the software. More news on that in the coming weeks and months.


In the meantime, thanks to great forward planning from Masabi - our developers - FrontlineSMS will already run on a range of emerging low-cost computers. Here's the latest build (1.5.2) being tested on an Acer One (it's also running happily on the even lower-cost EEE PC). This kind of set up - a low-cost computer, a GSM modem and a handful of low-end mobile phones - forms the backbone to our thinking of what an "SMS Hub in a Box" might look like.

We're hoping to do something with that idea when we have a little spare time on our hands.

Spreading the [text] message

I often get asked the advantages of FrontlineSMS over the standard 'Group' messaging functionality of some (notably Nokia) mobile phones, or the supplied Handset Manager software. It's an obvious question if you just see FrontlineSMS as a simple Group messaging hub. Not until you use it, or dig a little deeper, do you realise it's a lot more than that.

(Larger version available here)

One of the great strengths of the software are "keyword actions" - the things that can be done with an incoming text message. For example, automatic replies can be triggered (with any message of your choosing), the incoming text can be forwarded as a new SMS to a predefined Group of people (which is what Twitter used to do for the masses before they pulled the plug), the message can be forwarded to any email address or email distribution list/group, the message can be sent to an online Twitter account or update your Facebook status, or posted to a web service/site such as Ushahidi, or passed on to another application running on the local computer (or written to an external database). Any combination of these actions can be triggered, making FrontlineSMS extremely flexible.

Once the new year (and the new Hewlett Foundation funding) kicks in, we'll be working on a range of user-requested enhancements. FrontlineSMS remains very much work in progress. Watch this space - in 2009 there's much more to come... o/

Invention. Collaboration. Integration.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly exciting for Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. Independently they've been featured on the BBC and CNN websites, where their use in the DRC and Malawi respectively continues to gain traction. Jointly they've appeared in Forbes Magazine in an interview given by Ory (which was predominantly about Ushahidi, but given the enormous openness and spirit of collaboration between the two projects, the FrontlineSMS integration also made it to print). I've been a big fan of Ushahidi - particularly the people behind it - long before they started using FrontlineSMS as their local SMS gateway. I wrote about the project when it came to prominence during the Kenyan election crisis, and included it (along with FrontlineSMS and Kiva) in a discussion about rapid prototyping - something I'm a huge fan of - in one of my PC World articles:

The interesting thing about these three projects [Ushahidi, Kiva and FrontlineSMS] is that they all proved that they worked - in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record - before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just a few days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this - don't let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve "failing fast"

Given Ushahidi's Kenyan roots (and those of the Founders) and its growing collaboration with FrontlineSMS, it was more than a little apt that last week saw three of us working together at a Plan International workshop near Nairobi (photo, above, of us at a separate Ushahidi developer meeting). Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich and myself didn't only present Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS as standalone tools to the Plan staff, but also demonstrated how easily and how well the two could work together. It was the first time the three of us had collaborated like this, and the first time that I'd seen a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi sync running in the field. As Erik himself commented:

One of the basic tenants of Ushahidi's Engine is to make it open to extend through other mobile phone and web applications. The first one we've done this with is FrontlineSMS, which has worked out incredibly smoothly for us. Within a week of releasing our alpha code, we deployed Ushahidi into the DR Congo, and used a FrontlineSMS installation locally to create the hub for any Congolese to report incidents that they see. It has worked flawlessly...

During our presentation, Plan International staff were able to text messages into the FrontlineSMS hub at the front of the room, messages which were then automatically posted via the internet to the Ushahidi server. Erik approved some of the comments (not all!) via the online Ushahidi dashboard from the back of the room, and the attendees saw them appearing on a Ushahidi map beamed via a projector onto the wall. Although live demonstrations are risky at the best of times, the sync took two minutes to set up, and everything worked perfectly. For everyone behind the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects, months (and in the case of FrontlineSMS, years) of hard work was paying off right before our eyes.

Graphic courtesy Ushahidi

For the workshop delegates, the potential of the two tools - independently and together - was clear, and ideas for their application in Plan projects across Africa continued to flow for the rest of the week. What's more, the benefit of working together to demonstrate the independent and collaborative power of the tools was clear to Erik, Juliana and myself. An innocent Tweet about "Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS Road Shows" brought back encouraging words, and even an offer to try and help make it happen.

There's much talk of collaboration and integration in the mobile space, and things are slowly beginning to happen. The recent establishment of the Open Mobile Consortium is further proof of a growing collaborative environment and mentality. What took place last week in Lukenya is just a small part, but one that I - and the team behind Ushahidi - are immensely proud to be a part of.

FrontlineSMS @ Netsquared/USAID

Two FrontlineSMS-based projects have been entered in the 2008 Netsquared/USAID challenge. The challenge is sponsored by The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and aims to find the best in mobile innovations for good. Voting is carried out by the NetSquared community, and fifteen finalists will be chosen. A panel of judges, selected by USAID, will then select the winners. The first place winner will receive a grant of $10,000, the two runner-ups will receive grants of $5,000 each. All three winners will have the opportunity to present their ideas to senior USAID officials, experts, and the public in Washington D.C.

The first FrontlineSMS-related project - Providing Business Opportunities Information to Farmers and Producers via SMS - aims to help Salvadorian agricultural and agro-industrial producers sell their products in local markets for better prices and obtain better profit margins, thus mitigating the effect of intermediaries or middlemen. The primary target is better marketing of vegetables and garden crops.

The system will allow producers and buyers to post "buy/sell" offers through SMS messaging directly to mobile phones, or through a call centre managed by the project (where operators will log information 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 website as well as through different RSS feeds via other web sites. As a result, producers and buyers will be able to interchange information and develop commercial activities directly without the need for intermediaries.

The second project - Mobile Application for Virtual Community Based Complementary Currencies - will develop a mobile phone m-banking application aimed at enabling the creation of community based complementary currencies. The application will operate in very much the same way as Wizzit and m-Pesa.

A complementary currency is a currency which operates in conjunction with the national currency. It does not replace the national currency - they merely create additional opportunities for the real economy to operate in times of greatly reduced credit and financial liquidity (for example, poor communities with under-employment). The idea, implementation and value of a creating a community-based complementary currency are well documented. There are over 1,900 community-based currencies around the world, including Ithaca Dollars, Time Banks, and the lesser known but extremely successful WIR based in Switzerland.

And finally - not a FrontlineSMS-related entry but a project which does use the software - is Ushahidi, a piece of open source software that solves communication and visualization challenges during crises situations through mapping and crowd sourcing. (Ushahidi hit the pages of the BBC News website today).

To vote for your favourite projects, visit the Challenge website.

NEWS: "Mobiles in Malawi" project featured on

Josh Nesbit's Mobiles in Malawi project has been featured on the 'Technology' pages of the website. Josh travelled to Namitete over the summer to install a text-based communications network using FrontlineSMS. Josh, who is about to return to Malawi, was interviewed along with kiwanja's Ken Banks for the article, which can be read here

Pocket messaging?

During the recent Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellows boot camp in Camden, Maine, I had the pleasure of sharing a cabin with Erik Hersman of White African, AfriGadget and Ushahidi fame. Despite knowing Erik for a couple of years or so, it was the first time we'd managed to sit down over a prolonged period and chat Africa, mobiles, innovation and technology. It was great and, as it turned out, productive.

Most evenings founds us blogging, Tweeting (@whiteafrican and @kiwanja), practicing our 5-minute Pop!Tech pitches, sharing stories and bouncing random ideas around. So it came as no surprise when we stumbled on a pretty cool idea for a hybrid piece of hardware (at least we think it's a pretty cool idea). If it existed, we thought, this thing could unlock the potential of platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS yet further, and prove a real breakthrough in our efforts to lower the barrier to entry for organisations seeking to use SMS-based services in their social change work.

Messaging hubs like FrontlineSMS - currently being used by Ushahidi in the DRC to collect and forward local text messages to a remote server - require three things to work. Firstly, a computer with the software installed and configured; secondly, a local SIM card connected to a local mobile operator; and thirdly, a GSM modem or mobile phone to send and receive the messages. The GSM device is essential, as is the SIM card, but the computer is another matter. What if messaging software such as FrontlineSMS could be run 'locally' from a microSD card which slotted into the side of the modem? The software, drivers, configuration files and databases could all be held locally on the same device, and seamlessly connect with the GSM network through the 'built-in' modem. This would mean the user wouldn't need to own a computer to use it, and it would allow them to temporarily turn any machine into a messaging hub by plugging the hybrid device into any computer - running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux - in an internet cafe or elsewhere.

Right now this is only an idea, although we're going to see what we can do with it early next month when Erik and I, along with most of the Ushahidi team, happen to be in Nairobi, Kenya. Using Erik's extensive contacts in the Kenyan innovation space, we'll be looking to see if a prototype device like this can be cobbled together in a workshop somewhere. I'm willing to sacrifice a GSM modem in the name of progress.

If the guys can pull it off then there's a real chance we could get funding for wider trials. Things would then get really interesting not only for our own projects, but also for many others working in the same social mobile space, making rapid prototyping and the dissemination of tools much quicker and easier.

Fireside chat

If I was ever asked to give a short, informal introductory fireside talk about FrontlineSMS, it would probably go something like this...

FrontlineSMS was originally released at the end of 2005 based on a hunch that there was a need within the grassroots non-profit community for a simple, easy-to-use replicable text messaging tool which didn't require the internet or expensive infrastructure or equipment to use. The idea came during fieldwork in South Africa, where I was looking for something that South Africa National Parks could use to re-engage the local communities within the conservation effort through their mobile phones. I couldn't find anything.

Several months later the idea of a mobile-based messaging hub came to me, and I decided it might be worth trying to write something. Over a five week period I sat at a kitchen table in Finland developing a prototype FrontlineSMS (during development it was known as "Project SMS" until good friend Simon Hicks came up with the newer, better name). Clearly the hunch has paid off. FrontlineSMS is today in the hands of well over a thousand non-profit organisations, and increasing numbers are beginning to do some quite incredible things with it. (A nice little history of FrontlineSMS was published in the Stanford Journal of African Studies recently).

Bushbuckridge - the inspiration behind FrontlineSMS

Despite a warm reception to the launch from bloggers, reporters and activists, it wasn't until April 2007 that the software really came to prominence when it was used by local NGOs to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections, the first time (it is believed) that civilians have helped monitor an African election. The story was widely reported, most notably on the BBC. Late last year news of its use in Pakistan during the state of emergency was reported in the Economist (bloggers were afraid to use the internet to report news and information, so turned to text messaging. FrontlineSMS enabled them to be anonymous). FrontlineSMS has since been featured a number of times on the BBC World Service, and more recently on PRI's "The World" when it was used by activist groups to help spread news and information during the recent troubled Presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

Last spring and summer, with increasing numbers of people taking an interest in the software, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in to fund the development of a rebuild (at this stage FrontlineSMS was still technically proof-of-concept). The nine-month project created a new and improved version - one which now also runs on Windows, Mac and Linux machines. Main development work was carried out by an incredible team at Masabi in London. In parallel, Wieden+Kennedy carried out a full branding, communications and website-building exercise. Thanks to them there are now hundreds of former conference goers around the world in possession of much sought-after FrontlineSMS badges... o/

When I think about the growing number of users and uses, and the kinds of projects that FrontlineSMS has enabled - not to mention the enthusiasm many NGOs have shown for what the tool has done for them - a quote in the Africa Journal from last year rings incredibly true:

"FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity" The use studies are beginning to back this up. Since the new version was released at the end of June 2008, 932 NGOs have downloaded it. News of its availability has primarily been spread through news sites and blogs, driven in large part by incredible support from the NGO community, volunteers, bloggers, Twitterers, ICT4D professionals, professional and amateur reporters, and donors. A single person may have originally come up with the concept, but it's been a huge team effort to move it on to where it is today.

If there was ever a paragraph that summed up the kind of impact FrontlineSMS is having, then this would be it. Take a deep breath...

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps are using FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country's first independent news agency - Aswat al Iraq - to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organisations - including - and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections (it's also being lined up to help register 135,000 overseas Filipino workers ready for their 2010 elections). In Malawi, FrontlineSMS is generating a huge amount of interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit - a Stanford University student - is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. It was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the October 2008 Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilise the youth vote. FrontlineSMS is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. Just this month it was deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS. It's also being used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network, and has been integrated into the work of a major human rights organisations in the Philippines. Projects are lined up in Cambodia and El Salvador (where it will be used to help create transparency in agricultural markets) and a network of journalists will be implementing FrontlineSMS to help report and monitor forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

FrontlineSMS clearly has considerable potential if this smallest of snapshots is anything to go by. I've always believed that if we're able to build an NGO user community around a single, common, appropriate mobile solution then amazing things could happen. If what we're beginning to see now isn't exciting enough, just remember that this is only the start. When we all work together, anything and everything is possible.

Mobiles reach out to Azerbaijan's youth

Razi Nurullayev is Co-Chairman of the Society of Democratic Reform in Azerbaijan, and Executive Secretary of the Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs. In this guest post, he talks about the state of democracy and mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan, and how FrontlineSMS is contributing to the work of non-profit organisations in the country

Mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan is on the rise. Out of a population of approximately nine million people there are today well over four million mobile phones, making text messaging one of the fastest growing communications mediums available. While many internet users have email accounts, most are only checked once or twice a week. SMS is proving more direct and immediate, and as a result many civil society organizations have started using it to reach their potential members, clients, and target audiences.


The Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs first heard of FrontlineSMS last year through the CIVICUS e-newsletter. We later began using it to reach our own members through news alerts, meeting requests and awareness-raising around human rights violations. FrontlineSMS has brought a real change to the way the Coalition sees and uses mobile tools, something we previously considered beyond us.

Prior to our adoption of FrontlineSMS we were communicating through mass email. Unfortunately this channel rarely reached more than half of our members due to either lack of email accounts among our members, or the late checking of messages. Now we don't have to worry about email inefficiency, and can send out hundreds of text messages to members at once.

After quickly realising the wider potential for text messaging in our work, we decided to enter kiwanja's nGOmobile competition last December with plans for a new "Count to 5!" campaign. As one of four winners we received a laptop computer, US$1,000 in cash, a Falcom USB modem and two Nokia mobile phones. The equipment was used to raise awareness and levels of activism among young voters in advance of our October 2008 Presidential Elections. Digital Development approached the US Embassy in Azerbaijan and received financial support to run the campaign. According to Mrs. Konul Agayeva, our Executive Director:

The Embassy were very interested in "Count to 5!", and the ability of FrontlineSMS to reach potential young voters in a short period of time. This method of voter activism was something of a "technological revolution" in our country and has proved itself highly effective in this and our wider civil society and democracy work. Imagine, you sit at your desk with a cup of tea and control your project, and at the same time receive great feedback to what you're doing, and see considerable impact. I highly recommend that this software be adopted by NGOs around the world

FrontlineSMS is now well-established in our work, and more and more NGOs in the country are beginning to pay attention to our mobile activism campaigns. Keep an eye on the Digital Development website for further details on what we're up to!

About Azerbaijan Azerbaijan - officially the Republic of Azerbaijan - is a country in the Caucasus region. Located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, it is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south. The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (an exclave of Azerbaijan) borders Armenia to the north and east, Iran to the south and west, and Turkey to the northwest. The Nagorno-Karabakh region in the country's southwest declared itself independent from Azerbaijan by the Armenian separatists in 1991, but it is not recognized by any nation. The capital city is Baku

Mobiles for media empowerment

Today, all eyes are on the United States with one of the most anticipated Presidential elections in decades. Amidst the excitement lurks the ever-present concern over potential election day chaos, and fears of a repeat of what happened in Florida eight years ago. Once again, mobile technology is also being touted as one way of smoothing election day progress and how it's reported, as it has been in almost every election around the world in recent years. The proposed use of Twitter is perhaps the one key addition in USA'08.

In the coming months three West African countries also go to the polls - Ghana, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. Sadly, access to balanced and unbiased election information is often a key problem in these countries. The logistical challenges of running nationwide elections is often compounded by a lack of election-specific knowledge among local media, which can often lead to misreporting, misinformation and - in worse-case scenarios - civil unrest. Availability of ICT tools for local journalists can also be problematic, compounding the problem yet further.

To address some of these challenges, the International Institute for ICT Journalism, in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), are embarking on the "West African Elections Information and Knowledge Project".

The project seeks to strengthen the role of the media in election reporting through the training of senior editors, journalists and reporters; developing and disseminating an 'Election Reporting Guide for the Media'; the use of text messaging in election coverage and monitoring with FrontlineSMS; and the creation of a Knowledge Online Portal.

The use of mobile technology in election monitoring may be nothing new, although promoting the use of text messaging specifically as a media enabler represents something of a departure from its usual use by official election monitor groups. The choice of FrontlineSMS is also significant. The software has already been successfully implemented in Nigeria to enable what is widely believed to be Africa's first citizen election monitoring project, and it was used in the last Philippine elections to help organise official monitoring teams around the country. In recent weeks it has also been lined up to help register 135,000 overseas Filipino workers in advance of the upcoming 2010 elections.

Further details on the West African election project are available via the Africa Election Portal website, and updates will also be posted on the blog as the project moves forward.

Students to debut FrontlineSMS on Android?

CS210 is a project-based Computer Science Innovation & Development course at Stanford University where students work with faculty and staff to build on the spirit of innovation and excellence at Stanford and the larger Silicon Valley area. As part of the course this year, Karina Qian and David Gobaud are working with the Computer Science Department and the Haas Center for Public Service to create Masters and Senior project classes. Here, Karina talks about one project which hopes to create a Google Android version of kiwanja's FrontlineSMS system

Students in CS210 usually collaborate with corporate liaisons on software challenges presented by global corporations that require innovation. Teams take projects from concept to completion, which includes defining requirements, iterating through ideas and prototypes and, ultimately, producing a finished work product. To reflect the growing importance of collaboration with the NGO sector, David Gobaud and I are working on allowing students to collaborate with non-profits on software challenges that require innovation, and would expose a new generation of programmers to the possibilities available in applying technology to social problems.

In CS210, a team of 3+ creative, bright Stanford Master's level Computer Science (CS) students tackle one project over two quarters - for a total of six months - starting in January. The final product will be showcased at the Stanford Software Faire held in June.

Right now a group of students are interested in a project that would build a comprehensive all-mobile mass text-messaging program on Android. (For those of you interested in the technical detail, students would essentially impose a REST architecture on top of SMS, basically using SMS as a form of HTTP. Each SMS message would represent a 160 character mini-webpage that would serve as an information architecture for any kind of project, from election-monitoring to rapid disaster relief).

As a first step the project would involve porting FrontlineSMS and other, existing mass text-messaging platforms (like InSTEDD's GeoChat) onto Android. The program would then be expanded to create a larger suite of features that would also allow users to process, manage, and respond to data using different software and display data using varying web-based interfaces. It would be open source, allowing users to adapt the program by mashing in other applications as needed.

This project would create a cheaper, more flexible, and more adaptable platform for managing SMS by virtually eliminating the need for computers, and even Internet, in the field. Large chunks of crowd-sourced data can be aggregated in a server in the urban areas, and uploaded onto the web for dissemination and/or further parsing. Crucially, users will no longer need computers to set up a mass SMS platform, only an Android-enabled phone and a phone plan with (unlimited) text messages. The decreased cost of operating SMS-based networks would have a significant impact on non-profit mobile projects.

The class is a great opportunity for a team of 3+ software engineers to devote themselves to the completion of this project for twenty weeks. Students would work in consultation with InSTEDD and FrontlineSMS. However, despite being a non-profit project, the class is primarily directed toward industry and this requires an unrestricted donation of $75,000. We are actively seeking funding to cover this. Thank you.

Karina Qian is co-founder of techY, a Stanford on-campus initiative which aims to engage students in global NGO technology issues

If you, or anyone you know, is interested in helping fund this innovative and exciting project, please contact Ken Banks through the website. (FrontlineSMS has already been integrated into a human rights monitoring system in the Philippines - blog post pending - and work continues on its integration into the new Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform. Further work is pending on a number of other projects, including with the team at InSTEDD)


You can always tell you've been to something quite special when the bar rises not only off the scale but out of site. "Amazing. Inspiring. Community. Friends. Special. Overwhelming. Over-fed. Unstoppable". Just some of the words used by delegates in the closing session on Saturday to describe their Pop!Tech08 experience. Mine would have been "Spiritual". And yes, with a capital 'S'.

This was my first Pop!Tech. Two years ago I had never even heard of it, but by last year I had. I wanted to go then, but it was never going to happen. Twelve months can be a long time in mobile, and this was to be my year. It would have been more than enough to have just sat back in Camden Opera House and soak up the amazing atmosphere, like the majority off the 700-odd people fortunate enough to be there. But going as an inaugural Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow made it all the more special. The many people I had the pleasure to spend four days with at the Fellows boot camp made sure of that. Finally getting to spend some quality time with Erik Hersman was one of the highlights, as was our late evening spent in a cabin in the woods with Ethan Zuckerman, beer in hand, while the three of us discussed the intricacies of baseball. Such a shame these moments are so rare, but it's the rarity that makes them so special, I suppose.

kiwanja presenting FrontlineSMS at Pop!Tech08 - Photo courtesy Leapologist (Flickr)

Traditionally, conferences are all about turning up and hearing what you hope to be interesting people talk. Sometimes you get lucky. Here, it didn't matter, although the speaker line-up was stunning. Pop!Tech felt different because it wasn't just about speaking, about presenter and presented, but more about dialogue. Everyone there was interested and interesting in their own right. The three days felt like a hyperactive family re-union of massive proportions. People were physically and mentally overwhelmed by it. Pop!Tech is intellectual renewable energy in its purest form. The Camden Opera House was well and truly lit up with it.

Spirituality is a word rarely mentioned in the technology world, although a lot of what I see in the people who work in our little corner of it is spiritual in nature, whether they realise it or not. Hearing about individuals inspired and driven to action by key events - the loss of close friends, suffering or hardship witnessed at first hand, injustice - are strong testament to the strength and presence of that human spirit.

There were many emotional connections at Pop!Tech, many emotional moments, many off-stage but some on. When Zinny Thabethe and Andrew Zolli embraced at the end of a stirring session about the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, their arms reached out and embraced us all. It's these moments that leave me struggling for a word other than 'conference'. Conferences just don't do that.

Industry events now have a lot to live up to, although it would be unfair to judge them against Pop!Tech's incredibly high standards and rather unique positioning. But, if I can't help myself, there's always Pop!Tech09, I guess... o/

SMS-powered rural healthcare in-a-box

A few months ago Josh Nesbit, a Senior in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, travelled to east Africa where he spent the best part of his summer introducing FrontlineSMS into a rural hospital in Malawi.

St. Gabriel’s Hospital, where Josh worked, is located in Namitete. It serves 250,000 rural Malawians spread throughout a catchment area one hundred miles in radius. With a national HIV prevalence rate of 15-20%, children orphaned by AIDS will represent as much as one tenth of the country’s population by 2010. With tuberculosis (TB), malaria, malnutrition and pneumonia ravaging immuno-compromised populations, the health system - including St. Gabriel’s Hospital - faces a disquieting burden. Malawi’s health challenges are compounded by its devastatingly low GDP per capita, by some measures the lowest in the world, and with just two doctors and a handful of clinical officers, St. Gabriel’s Hospital is also strikingly understaffed.

With woefully inadequate communications exacerbating the problem, Josh - with the help of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University and the Donald A. Strauss Foundation - implemented kiwanja's FrontlineSMS software to connect the hospital with its community health workers (CHW). Now, drug adherence monitors are able to message the hospital, reporting how local patients are doing on their TB or HIV drug regimens. Home-Based Care volunteers are sent texts with names of patients that need to be traced, and their condition is reported. The "People Living with HIV and AIDS" (PLWHA) Support Group leaders can use FrontlineSMS to communicate meeting times. Volunteers can be messaged before the hospital’s mobile testing and immunization teams arrive in their village, so they can mobilize the community. According to Josh, FrontlineSMS has essentially adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network.

The hospital sees intense promise in the formidable duo of FrontlineSMS and the cell-phone-yielding health worker. The usefulness of a well-managed communications network is undeniable, particularly when the information is so vital. In the first hours of the pilot program, a deceased patient’s extra ARVs were secured, the Home-Based Care unit was alerted of ailing cancer patients, and a death was reported (saving the hospital a day-long motorbike trip to administer additional morphine).

Since returning to Stanford, Josh has continued his work, speaking at a number of conferences and workshops and producing a user manual - "Building an SMS Network into a Rural Healthcare System" (available here as a PDF, 7Mb). According to Josh, the guide "provides an inexpensive way to create an SMS communications network to enable healthcare field workers as they serve communities and their patients".

Not only has FrontlineSMS enabled a significant improvement in healthcare delivery for St. Gabriel's, the project is infinitely scalable and replicable. Coming in at just $2000, Josh has clearly demonstrated what is possible with just three basic ingredients - a single laptop, one hundred recycled mobile phones, and local ownership and engagement. Now, with his step-by-step user guide and the minimum of investment in time and money, rural hospitals the developing world over can easily implement their own SMS communications network.

Call to arms: Meeting our Clinton Commitment

It's not every day you get to glance around the room and see the likes of Bono, Al Gore, Mohammed Ali, Tony and Cherie Blair, Olusegun Obasanjo, John McCain, Bill Gates, the Queen of Jordan and Bill Clinton. I'm just back from an incredible week where I did just that, thanks to a complimentary invitation to this year's Clinton Global Initiative (CGi) annual meeting in New York. cgi-11

Despite the line-up there wasn't too much time to get star-struck. Condition of membership - worth a whopping $20,000 - is that new CGi members make a 'commitment', outlining an idea which, when implemented, is expected to "impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world over the next ten years". kiwanja's commitment might not reach such dizzy heights, but it was deemed significant enough to be announced live on-stage during the 'Poverty and Information' workshop on Friday.

kiwanja's commitment - the FrontlineSMS Ambassadors Programme - seeks to increase the scale of FrontlineSMS use among the global grassroots NGO community. By the end of 2010 our commitment is to reach an additional 5,000 users through a combination of:

  • Identifying leading international organisations working in key areas of education, energy and climate change, global health and healthcare delivery, and poverty alleviation

  • Training Ambassadors within each organisation how to use FrontlineSMS and how to leverage the software's rapid prototyping capabilities in order to meet needs and outcomes

  • Charging individual Ambassadors within each organisation with the promotion and implementation of FrontlineSMS use within their organisations and organisational area of influence

  • Recruiting teams of volunteer Ambassadors from civil society

  • Enabling individual Ambassadors to report use, constituency impacts and measurable outcomes derived through FrontlineSMS implementation

  • The development of a FrontlineSMS Ambassadors website and resource centre

The commitment is due to start in January 2009. Between now and then we're going to need help in two critical areas. If you're a web developer interested in volunteering a little time to help us get a site together, please get in touch. Or, if you have project management skills and are interested in helping plan and co-ordinate this exciting new Programme, drop me a line. Alternatively, if you know anyone else who might be interested in helping out in either of these areas, please let them know. If you're new to FrontlineSMS and want to find out a little more, check out this recent Blog post, or check out the project website.

Help empower the grassroots NGO community, and help take FrontlineSMS to new heights.

Make your own commitment to help us reach ours.

Future FrontlineSMS

Today has turned out to be rather significant for FrontlineSMS. Two months and two days since we released the new version we've hit our 500th download request. Although I didn't set any targets back on launch day, by all accounts we've done incredibly well and FrontlineSMS is now likely the most widely adopted non-profit text messaging platform around.

Of course, many of those 500 users will probably never do anything significant with it, but at least they're thinking about how they can apply mobiles in their work, and at least there's a tool they can turn to as they begin to explore their mobile world. And for those who are beginning to use it, we're slowly building a powerful picture of how it's being adopted in the field. Here's some feedback from just a few of our new users.

Mercy Corps, Indonesia - agriculture: We have been using FrontlineSMS for about a month sending weekly information on commodities such as plant, fish, fertiliser and pesticide prices, and weather forecasts (pictured). In the longer term we plan to send SMS-advertisements as well. Right now we have around 350 subscribers consisting of internal staff, farmers, buyers, government staff and other organisations

FrontlineSMS is also central to a UNDP pilot project where it is being used to provide coffee prices and other related agricultural information to 150 smallholder farmers. This project was previously covered here.

Open University project, UK - election monitoring: We are working in Mozambique where we are setting up coverage for local elections in 43 municipalities on 19th November. We publish the Mozambique Political Process Bulletin and during election periods we do a daily newsletter. We will be running FrontlineSMS with four lines - two for each of the two mobile phone companies. One line will be our fifty correspondents in the field - largely local radio and local newspaper journalists who will also string for us. We did this in the 2003 and 2004 elections and the only change is to use text messages that can go directly into the computer for basic information. The other line will be open and we are experimenting, for the first time in Mozambique, with an open request for citizen correspondents to send us text messages on the conduct of the election

FrontlineSMS first hit the headlines last April when it was used to monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. This story was picked up by the BBC, among many others. The software has also been used to co-ordinate election monitoring in The Philippines, and is being lined up to help monitor the forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire.

mPedigree, Ghana - health: We intend to use FrontlineSMS for the "rapid prototyping" of creative mobile health services related to drug authentication, and to help us with our surveying and administration on the prevalence of fake drugs. Based on the work we've been doing here in Ghana since 2007, we're convinced there is room for FrontlineSMS in various e-government initiatives, health included

One of the early higher-profile projects making use of the latest version of FrontlineSMS is "Mobiles in Malawi", where it has been implemented as the central communications hub for 600 community health workers in a rural hospital. Plans are already underway to replicate this work in places such as Kenya and India. The work in Malawi was covered here back in June.

National Democratic Institute, USA - election monitoring: Thanks for all your (collective) work in bringing such a quality product to market. As you may know, NDI has done a lot of work using SMS to collect and broadcast data via SMS in a number of elections around the world over the past two years. The latest version of FrontlineSMS is quite impressive, and much more accessible for non-technical users starting off in the SMS world. Although it can’t replace the custom coding we do through other methods, it’s a GREAT tool for international development partners who don’t have a lot of technical expertise but who want to stick their toe into the world of SMS. FrontlineSMS is now on our radar and something that we will always keep in mind when giving recommendations to partners

Anonymous media organisation, Iraq - news dissemination: We had been in contact with a number of local mobile operators hoping to negotiate the launching of a news alert service. While progress with local operators was relatively slow we started to look for a technical alternative and that was when we found out about FrontlineSMS. The team came to realise, during FrontlineSMS testing and evaluation, that the program was a fantastic way to deliver our content. A user-friendly program, three of our staff were trained to use it within the context of few hours. The effectiveness of FrontlineSMS is evident as we can create, manage and update the profiles of the clients' groups we created. We now send messages to at least eight countries using different operators in Europe and the Middle East, with the messages delivered to all the numbers at the same time. We are keen to continue using FrontlineSMS as we predict that the demand for our services, via the software, will grow in the future

A significant number of rural radio stations have requested the latest version of FrontlineSMS as a method of sourcing audience-feedback, and we'll bring further information as we get it. Use of the software continues in Zimbabwe, however, where it is being used to keep members of the public updated on news and current affairs, and to provide them with a channel to air their views.

Watch this space for further stories and case studies, particularly as our outreach efforts expand and we prepare for nine conferences in three months, not to mention an exciting engagement with the Clinton Global Initiative in late September.

A Malawian perspective on FrontlineSMS

Josh Nesbit - a Senior in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University - spent the best part of this summer working in a rural hospital in Malawi, where he also implemented FrontlineSMS. Here, Alexander Ngalande, the Home-Based Care nurse at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Namitete, talks about his experiences of the software, and how it has impacted healthcare delivery for 250,000 people (video courtesy of Josh Nesbit)