Using FrontlineSMS

CityCampLondon: thoughts on SMS and appropriate tech

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!

Designing for the REAL 95%

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.

Your stories are our bread and butter

Friday morning saw me zooming up Portobello Road in west London, cursing the tourists and looking forward to a large flat white with some new acquaintances - I was meeting with a couple of people have just started to use FrontlineSMS for campaigning. This is an increasingly common, and always delightful, part of my job. I generally pepper people with questions, exclaim 'that's interesting' every ten seconds, and scribble furious notes. Often, people ask for advice - what's the best way to fit this into our programme? How should we pilot? How much will it cost? The thing is, I'm not the expert, hence all my questions - but I know where to find the real pros.

FrontlineSMS are a diverse bunch, based all over the world, as our new Member Map is beginning to show. You're working on projects in all sorts of fields, from safe motherhood, to community cohesion, to citizen journalism, to minority rights activism, and all points between and beyond. And YOU are the FrontlineSMS implementation experts. We know the theory, and of course we know the software, but there's no substitute for experience when it comes to finding ways around the real world pitfalls and problems that users encounter. So if anything, I'm less an expert myself, and more of a matchmaker, linking people using FrontlineSMS in similar ways; or a librarian, remembering stories of past solutions and pointing them out to people encountering a similar problem.

So where do we find these examples? Well, face to face meetings are probably the richest way for us to find out what you're up to. We'll go anywhere! Send us an email and we'll hop on a plane, train or death-defying local form of motorbike transport and come see you. Failing that,  we often give examples from our guest posts, or from email correspondence with unfailingly generous people all over the world who have millions of things to do, and yet still find the time to sit down and tell us what they're up to.

We're also working with a couple of our users to write up glossy, jointly-branded case studies, which get into a bit more technical detail than a guest post can, try to show the impact FrontlineSMS has had, and even list local suppliers. The idea is that FrontlineSMS users should be able to use these documents themselves to explain the SMS portion of their project to their own donors and stakeholders. They'll also be an invaluable resource for others looking to implement a similar programme. Watch this space for the first case study in the next few weeks.

At a more basic level, we need more data about who's using FrontlineSMS - we need to know who you are, where you are, and what you're doing. People like numbers - what, where, how many. For this reason, we added a small tool to a recent version of FrontlineSMS that offers to send back anonymised statistics to us (more on that in a future blogpost, as they've only just started to come in).We'll also be running a user survey in September to try and get a better picture of how FrontlineSMS is being used. Finally, in 2011 we'll be working on allowing you to register your copy of FrontlineSMS.

All this information gathering has three purposes:

  1. We find that it's only when we get to know you that we start to hear what we should be improving, what not's working, what else we should add. All the new features we've added (Translation Manager, Forms, and the HTTP trigger) have been in response to your feedback. And it's only when you tell us that we know something's not working - users reported a problem with the software on Monday morning, and we had it fixed and a new version uploaded within a few hours.
  2. As I said above, you're the experts. Hearing from you means we can share more with other users, and help give people ideas for how to use FrontlineSMS in their own work.
  3. We can explain to our donors and supporters what FrontlineSMS is achieving in the world, which enables them to keep supporting us, and in turn, lets us keep doing all the things we do to keep FrontlineSMS evolving and keep the community flourishing.

Your stories keep us improving; keep us innovating; and keep the lights on in the office. Better still, they help inspire other users. Do you have a story to tell?

Social Change - to go, please

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.

Crossing the Digital Divide - FrontlineSMS in the developed world

I had a great discussion with some FrontlineSMS users this week as they gear up for their maiden voyage into SMS campaigning. Theirs is one of the larger UK charities, with a solid campaigning operation and a history of groundbreaking approaches - one of the first to run their own research project to spark real social change, back in the 1960s. But for one reason or another, they had never tried campaigning using SMS. Perhaps they went straight from snail mail to email? Perhaps the 160 character limit put them off? Either way, they are now taking their first steps towards integrating it into their campaigning approach - not as a standalone gimmick, but as another tool in the toolbox. We talk a lot on this blog about the potential of FrontlineSMS, and SMS more generally, to reach people in remote areas in the developing world, underserved by their governments. But I think it's worth remembering about the islands of vulnerability and isolation that can exist in the developed world too. At the end of 2008 there were 76.8 million active mobile subscriptions in the UK, or 1.26 for every inhabitant. But 10 million people in the UK (one sixth of the population) have never used the internet, and 4 million of them are among the least advantaged members of society (Independent). The UK now has a 'Digital Inclusion Champion', Martha Lane Fox, the founder of, who is tasked with helping those 4 million people to get online by the time the 2010 London Olympics rolls around. For organisations working with some of this group, mobile could be a valuable communication and interaction tool.

The Foleshillfields Vision Priject

The Foleshillfields Vision Project in Coventry, West Midlands, UK, uses FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their volunteers and community group members, informing them about timings and activities. For the people they work with, as for many of us, phones and texting are an intimate part of daily life - it's how they arrange to meet their friends, find out what's going on, arrange playdates for their children. It's entirely natural that their community organisation is there too. The Project was already using SMS, and FrontlineSMS has made keeping in touch easier and faster for the team. You'll hear more about them in a future guest blog post.

So what should you think about when considering using SMS in your work in a developed country? In my meeting the other day, we discussed a few things to run through when shaping your FrontlineSMS intervention:

  • Who is your audience? How well do you understand how the group you work with use mobile, and SMS in particular? Young mums, teenagers, and people with learning disabilities are all groups I've heard about recently as enthusiastic 'texters' and great candidates for SMS communications - but could you say the same for most older people?
  • How can your SMS communication with them have a real impact? Can it form part of a wider campaign with an established 'ask' such as signing a petition, which could be easily done with a keyword reply to a broadcast SMS from you?
  • Who can you reach with SMS that you can't reach through other means, and what would you most like to get from an interaction with those people?
  • Whatever you want to achieve, it's important to think through whether it will work well with SMS. For example, it's hard to disseminate large volumes of information in a text; similarly referring people to a website using SMS won't work well unless they have a smart-phone with a good data service. But SMS is great for reminders (that your radio programme is coming on, or that they have an appointment), passing on helpline phone numbers, or doing a straw poll - 'have you experienced bullying at school today?'

What other issues should we think through? We'd love to hear from you, and we might be able to pull your advice together into a Get-Started Guide for this kind of work - so do get in touch!

I guess my main plug is this: Don't make SMS just an add-on to your communications. This is a powerful tool that can reach the parts other media can't - how could you use it to start new conversations in your community?

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.

Out of nothing comes something

I don't usually work on planes, even eleven hour transatlantic flights. But this time I thought I'd give it a go - maybe do something a little bit more interesting than reading reports or doing email. So I plumped for this. I've wondered for a while what the FrontlineSMS footprint is, you know, where it's been used since the launch just over two years ago. So I did the grunt work on the plane and have just thrown it onto a map. And here it is.

The totals are quite impressive. It turns out that FrontlineSMS is being used in 41 different countries, and in some cases by more than one NGO in that country. I counted over 60 uses of the software, too. From helping blood donor clinics and human rights workers to promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks. Oh, and election monitoring, of course. There are many more. I knew the tool was flexible but, for the first time having this information available has been a real eye-opener.

The latest version of FrontlineSMS is being developed as we speak, with work on a new website underway. We have a fantastic product, a great vibe in the non-profit world, increasing publicity and a great donor in the MacArthur Foundation. There are also plans afoot for an exciting global launch at a major GSM Association event in Cannes next May. Momentum is at an all-time high, and proposals for the next phase of development, starting mid-2008, are already out.

From nothing, apparently, comes something...