News

7 Ways Newsrooms Can Boost Citizen Reporting

7 Ways Newsrooms Can Boost Citizen Reporting

In my previous post, I argued that established, traditional newsrooms tend to be most comfortable accepting citizen reporting or user-generated content during a large-scale, widespread emergency event. In these circumstances, newsrooms often accept photo and video submissions from the public, or even seek them out on Instagram, Vine or Twitter. Professional journalists or editors may curate tweets or blog posts to summarize the experience of citizens. They may also make a public request for input from those affected, or to clarify incoming information.

Happy 2013: user survey, the release of Version 2.2, and other news!

Happy 2013: user survey, the release of Version 2.2, and other news!

The development and growth of FrontlineSMS has been driven by feedback we receive from our active user community. Each year we give our users the opportunity to share their use and vision of FrontlineSMS through our annual user survey. This year is no different! We would like to hear from you through our 2013 User Survey  - tell us how you're using the software, how we can make it better, and help us show how FrontlineSMS is making a difference. The survey takes less then 10 minutes!

FrontlineSMS at 7: Al Jazeera gives a voice to the people of Uganda via SMS

In the third of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns 7, Trevor Knoblich, our Media Project Manager reflects on how Al Jazeera, the media house, gave the people of Uganda a voice, via SMS, in response to the controversial Kony 2012 video which went viral a few months ago. 

"As the media project manager at FrontlineSMS, I've heard many inspiring stories of journalists and media organizations deploying the software in creative ways. One of my favorites is relatively recent: the FrontlineSMS component of Al Jazeera's Uganda Speaks program. Members of Al Jazeera's New Media team felt Ugandan voices were lacking from the global debate around the controversial Kony 2012 viral video. To help connect Ugandan voices to the debate, Al Jazeera established an awareness-raising campaign, which consisted of showing the video and then inviting Ugandans to post their reactions to the debate via Twitter, e-mail and SMS. They even connected the responses to a map, allowing people from around the world to see where respondents were located.

"I had the pleasure of meeting one of Al Jazeera's New Media team, Soud Hyder, pictured here, and asked him about the project. Specifically, I was curious about the value of SMS in such a campaign. He told me that SMS allowed Al Jazeera to reach people who had no other option for participating in the debate - a voiceless population. 'Text is an equalizer that allows us to elevate more voices, which amplifies the conversation,' Hyder said.

"I've heard similar reactions about our software globally. Many people worldwide have an increasing ability to share and participate in news, but millions more are left out of this conversation. FrontlineSMS, combined with the proliferation of mobile phones around the globe, opens new possibilities for citizen engagement."

We’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

Welcoming our new Boards of Directors!

We are very pleased to announce that last month we appointed new Boards of Directors, marking the next step in the growth of the FrontlineSMS project and its parent organizations.

FrontlineSMS is a joint project of the US-based kiwanja Foundation and the kiwanja UK Community Interest Company. This trailblazing hybrid structure means that we can continue to push forward and protect the social mission which inspires us - to lower barriers to social change through mobile technologies - in two different ways.

The Foundation continues to provide free, open-source software and freely available support to use it through our website, with over 30,000 downloads to date, an online community of over 2,500 people, and examples of use in over 80 countries worldwide. The Community Interest Company (or CIC for short) works to provide support and services to clients with specific and time-bound needs, designing project, providing training and custom modifications to the platform. Next year will see exciting developments in the way we make the platform available, masterminded by the CIC team.

Overseeing these two organizations are two separate Boards, with our Founder Ken Banks as Chair, Sean Martin McDonald as CEO of the CIC and myself as CEO of the Foundation present on both. Ensuring independent scrutiny and contributing their insight and experience are eight independent Board members, four on each Board.

For the Foundation Board, we're honored to welcome Brenda Burrell, co-Founder of the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe and leader of the team providing Freedom Fone, open-source IVR technology for social change organizations; Jan Chipchase, who brings an anthropologist's eye and approach to technology design as Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design; Linda Raftree, a leading voice in ICT for development and an experienced implementer of FrontlineSMS while working with country teams at Plan International; and Jeff Wishnie, architect and proponent of many open-source tech collaborations throughout his career and most recently as Director of Social Impact at software development consultancy ThoughtWorks Inc.

We've also added four members to the CIC Board: Trip Allport, III, the International Program Director for Africa for Accenture Development Partnerships who brings his considerable experience in building consulting practices in low-resource environments; Diane Coyle, a best-selling author, economist, and leader who focuses on the impact of technology on emerging markets; David Edelstein, who has years of experience designing and supporting business models around mobile technologies as the Senior Vice President of Solutions and Regions for the Grameen Foundation; and Joel Selanikio, the Co-Founder of DataDyne, whose tool, EpiSurveyor, is a leader in mobile data collection (Joel is also a practicing physician at Georgetown University Hospital).

We can't wait to work with such a passionate, engaged group to make our organizations the best that they can be, and are wholeheartedly grateful for their support and commitment.

Data-mining our download records - what download registration did, and didn't tell us about our users

By Kavita Rajah and Laura Walker Hudson FrontlineSMS software is used in such a wide variety of sectors that often people are surprised to hear that the inspiration for FrontlineSMS originally came specifically from conservation work. Throughout 2003 and 2004, FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was working to find ways to help authorities engage and communicate with communities in wildlife conservation in South Africa, without relying on the Internet. Ken realised he needed a system that could send, receive, and organize text messages through a mobile device and a laptop without needing the Internet, and from that the original concept of FrontlineSMS was born. The software was developed in the summer of 2005 and made available online that October.

Six years on, despite the very context-specific inspiration for the software, FrontlineSMS has now been downloaded nearly 27,000 times and is in use in over 80 countries, in 22 different areas of social change work. Until the recent release of FrontlineSMS Version 2, users were asked to fill in a form telling us who they were and how they were planning to use FrontlineSMS before being given a download link. Following up on this data gives us the links with users that lead to our case studies and FrontlineSMS in Action blog posts. We recently analyzed the whole dataset to learn more about how, why and where people seek to use our software. What we were able to glean from it was interesting. Among other fun facts:

  • The top 3 sectors in which FrontlineSMS is being used most are Education, Health and Civil Society
  • The country that has downloaded FrontlineSMS the most is the United States, followed by Kenya and then, India - we think that a lot of downloads from North America and Europe are intended for use elsewhere
  • Africa accounts for 35% of all downloads - more than any other continent. 25% of downloads are from Asia, and 17% from North America.

Interestingly, some geographic regions have large numbers of downloads in certain sectors. For example, West Africa has the highest number of downloads in Election Monitoring and Engineering, while Europe has the highest number in Arts and Culture. Asia has the highest number of downloads in the Media sector.

However, the limitations of this dataset got us thinking about how we gather information on our users.

Gathering data about how FrontlineSMS is used is critical for us on a number of fronts - it helps us to improve the software, enables us to report to our donors and the public about the impact of our work, and helps inspire others to use SMS in their work in new and more powerful ways. Although the download data was useful, it could only give us a snapshot of a user's intention at the time they downloaded FrontlineSMS - it was difficult to link this with data about actual use, from the statistics-gathering module in version 1.6 or later, or from our annual user survey, and many users didn't go on to use FrontlineSMS as they'd intended. The most informative element of the form was a freetext section which allowed users to give us potentially quite a bit of information about our plans - but is hard to parse and analyze and often included hardly any data. The only way for users to download anonymously was to give false or junk information on the form.

When we came to plan the release of the new software, we thought very differently. Version 2 of the software is a one-click download that asks users to register when they install. Information collected in this way is sent back to us over the web, when the system sees the internet - we'll be adding support for registration via SMS later. We are committed to allowing users to maintain their anonymity, as we know many are activists (if you are one of these people, you should read our Data Integrity Guide!). You will always be able to opt-out of in-app registration - although it means we get fewer registration records, we know we can trust the data we get. In future, we'll also be building better ways for users to keep in touch with us and each other, and share information about what they're doing with FrontlineSMS, using the website.

We'll keep analyzing the data and posting updates here - in the meantime you can read the analysis of our 2010 and 2011 user surveys here.

Speak a language and want to support FrontlineSMS? We need version 2 translated into French, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian and Arabic and every other language you can think of...

We’ve had phenomenal support from our users since launching the new version of our free, open-source software in June 2012. Supportive articles, warm words on Twitter and Facebook, and thousands of downloads already all speak for the tremendous community of users and supporters we’ve built up over the last few years.

We launched FrontlineSMS Version 2 in English and Swahili – now we need to ensure that users all over the world can use the software.

We need to translate the terms and messages used in Version 2 into five priority languages: French, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian and Arabic – but we’re looking for speakers of all languages to contribute translations in their native tongue. Translators will join our team of FrontlineSMS:Heroes – volunteer coders, testers, analysts and designers who contribute their time to the project for free, and as a thank you are featured on our website and get to sport these very fetching tshirts.

If you think you can help, please contact us at info@frontlinesms.com. We can’t wait to hear from you! o/

FrontlineSMS V2.0: A Powerful Tool for Achieving Positive Social Change and Health Improvement in Developing Countries

On 1st July 2012 OpenHealth News featured FrontlineSMS as we launched Version 2 of our software. Crista has kindly given us permission to syndicate her post on our blog - you can also find the original post here.

By Crista Richey | July 1, 2012

Good news from the software sector: FrontlineSMS Version 2 is here at last! Two years in the making, the updated version is simpler, more intuitive, and easier to utilize. It also adapts more easily to individual needs and systems, and has already met an enthusiastic response from the SMS community. And with all it has to offer, the new software should prove a valuable contribution in the effort to achieve positive social change in developing countries around the world.

FrontlineSMS is a free, open source, SMS-messaging software that empowers the user to communicate with large groups of people through a mobile network. Basically, with just a laptop and a mobile phone, the initiator can create a communications hub that allows him to send, receive, and manage text messages.

The software is easy to set up and doesn't require an Internet connection—an important feature, since many FrontlineSMS users come from remote areas where reliable Internet connections simply don't exist. (The software has a significance presence in underdeveloped parts of Africa, for example.) Uniquely equipped to serve remote areas and the local communities who live there, FrontlineSMS is a powerful tool for achieving positive social change and health improvement by breaking down communication barriers and allowing instantaneous, two-way exchanges of information.

FrontlineSMS: Version 2

As an organization, FrontlineSMS offers individualized training and support to organizations embarking upon social change projects. It is also very proactive about acquiring user feedback and incorporating it into software updates and new releases. From the start, FrontlineSMS has focused on meeting the actual needs of local people by consistently engaging its user base.

FrontlineSMS Version 2 incorporates an extensive amount of that user feedback and represents “a significant step forward.” As an overall assessment, the software is said to be “easier and more intuitive to use, more versatile, and capable of being more easily extended with new functionality.” (For a detailed overview of the changes and additions, consider this description from the FrontlineSMS web site.)

A stronger and more flexible architecture allows the software to be integrated into more platforms and systems, and permits users and developers “to customize FrontlineSMS to better meet their needs”. So far, the response to FrontlineSMS Version 2 has been enthusiastic.

In addition to its core software, FrontlineSMS offers four sector-specific programs:

  • FrontlineSMS:Credit (“enables organizations to easily manage mobile money”)
  • FrontlineSMS:Legal (“increases the reach, transparency and efficiency of legal systems in underserved areas”)
  • FrontlineSMS:Learn (“supports and strengthens] education and training initiative and human capacity development”)
  • FrontlineSMS:Radio (“represents a vital outreach particularly for rural communities” and “[fosters] two-way dialogue”).

FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit are currently running on Version 1.7, but will eventually be updated to the full-scale Version 2.

FrontlineSMS: Valuable Social Change and Healthcare Tool

Today, FrontlineSMS is used in over 80 countries. Not surprisingly, its usage remains concentrated in developing countries where mobile technology continues to increase dramatically. According to this report, the number of globally-sent texts tripled between 2007-2010. The numbers add up to 6.1 trillion texts, all told, or 200,000 texts sent each second. Mobile technology is a powerful communication tool in the developing world, and FrontlineSMS has had no trouble tapping into it.

“If you go to the developing world and you look at how cellphones are being used you can really see that people are already doing this kind of organizational management, communicating with stakeholders, communicating with people they're working with and for,” Laura Hudson, FrontlineSMS CEO, stated.

recently-released survey confirms the organization's growth and success. Currently most users are located in Africa, but there is a growing presence in Asia, India, the Philippines, Malawi, and Pakistan. Around 78% of FrontlineSMS users belong to grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in developing countries. As an open source product, FrontlineSMS is highly adaptable and thus valuable in situations and projects requiring low costs and ample flexibility. The fact that no Internet and only basic tools are required (laptop and mobile phone for the initiator; mobile phone for the receiver) is also an immense help. This arrangement allows the software to be used on the road or during power outages, for instance. Thanks to FrontlineSMS, NGOs have been better equipped to address human rights issues, manage natural resources, provide disaster relief as well medical care and supplies to remote regions, organize political protests, collect field data, conduct public surveys, educate the public on various topics, and much more.

Take Burundi as an example. In an African country where political elections often provoke violence and catch ordinary citizens in the crossfire, FrontlineSMS has proved useful. During election season, the Great Lakes Region of Africa (AGLI) teamed up with the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) program and created the Burundi Election Violence Prevention Program. The 750 participants used FrontlineSMS on their mobile phones to monitor election sites by reporting arrests or violent incidents, sending out alerts if irregularities or unsafe situations arose, and keeping each other up to date on the situation. In one instance, participants communicated with the police via FrontlineSMS to secure the release of an innocent citizen who had been arrested.

Likewise, in Indonesia, rural farmers in West Kalimantan have used FrontlineSMS to “report, connect, and raise awareness of their issues” in an area dominated by a contentious palm oil industry whose activities have sometimes caused problems for the farmers. By partnering with the local news station, Ruai TV, farmers have raised awareness of the situation and made their voices heard; by using FrontlineSMS, farmers are able to keep each other up to date on situations, back each other up during conflict, and mobilize as a unified group.

Or consider an offshoot organization like FrontlineSMS:Credit. In Africa, where economic development is severely hampered by lack of rural banks and stable monetary systems, mobile payment through SMS services is a huge development that eliminates problems caused by delivering cash payments over long distances. Without mobile money, for example, farmers wait “weeks or months” before receiving payment, and the employees who deliver those cash payments must travel long distances--sometimes through unsafe areas. FrontlineSMS:Credit saves time and reduces the risk of traveling with large amounts of cash, increasing efficiency and allowing workers in all sectors to focus on farming, delivering quality healthcare, or whatever their jobs entail.

The system also works as a kind of rudimentary SMS Craigslist. Users of the full suite and post notices of the products and services they offer or are seeking. This has been a boon, for example, for farmers who have significantly expanded their market and thus can obtain better prices while buyers are able to purchase high quality food at fairer prices. By supporting free market local economic activity, FrontlineSMS makes highly nutritional food more available and helps alleviate food shortages.

It may be relevant to our readers that FrontlineSMS, in addition to being used as an agent for social change, maintains a powerful presence in the healthcare sector as well. Almost right from the start, it was used to improve care coordination at a poverty-stricken health clinic in Malawi. Since then, its application to healthcare has only expanded. Consider these examples:

  1. In Cambodia, Sophie Baron is working on a pilot study to monitor and contain animal diseases that present a significant threat to agricultural livelihoods. In conjunction with the CIRAD, IPC and VaVRI, Baron is testing a system designed to monitor animals' deaths and diseases in local farming areas. Weekly reports allow workers to track diseases, discover the source of an outbreak, and keep tabs on the general situation. According to Baron, “Receiving regular data via SMS—and being able to manage this data within FrontlineSMS—helps enable NaVRI to adopt more timely and effective response mechanisms to breakouts of animal diseases.”
  2. Cleopa Otieno, National Coordinator of KenTel, uses FrontlineSMS to text people living with HIVin Kenya. The program is (or was, as of November 2011) still in the works, but a pilot study enabled telehealth centers to provide victims of HIV with information concerning health and prevention of infection and disease. As it grows, the program will become more and more interactive, encouraging participants to make the most out of the resources available.
  3. In Kenya and Uganda, Stop Stockouts is lobbying for the African governments “to meet their obligations to provide essential medicines” by increasing the national budgetary allocation” for purchasing medicines and “by ensuring efficiency and transparency in the procurement, supply, and distributions of medicines.” Stock-outs (which occur when a health center or pharmacy runs out of a medicine) can significantly delay treatment and subject patients to serious and aggravated health risks. Stop Stockouts relies on FrontlineSMS for campaign communication and monitoring of medicine availability.
  4. In 2011, the Institute for Reproductive Health partnered with FrontlineSMS to provide an mHealth service called CycleTel, which “helps women take charge of their reproductive health and use an effective family planning method” by empowering them with knowledge about their days of fertility and so forth. IRH used FrontlineSMS to manually test the CycleTel program in two Indian cities, Lucknow and New Delhi. The software proved to be “a crucial and practical step in the technology development process” and contributed to the overall product.

FrontlineSMS: The Ongoing Story

The idea for FrontlineSMS began with a conservation trip to South Africa in 2004. Ken Banks, working with authorities to establish better communication with nearby communities, realized the need for tools that would enable information exchange in remote areas. In places like Africa, NGOs typically lack money, expensive equipment, and reliable access to Internet and electricity—but they do carry mobile phones. At the time, there was no group-SMS system in existence that could operate in remote locations, so Banks decided to make his own: “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table,” he says in this article for National Geographic. “I made it a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”

Although he wrote the software to fix a specific problem, Banks also focused on creating software that was adaptable to different situations and purposes: “I also felt that other disciplines – health, agriculture, education and human rights among them – were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people.”

FrontlineSMS has successfully scaled communication barriers and provided catalysts for social change and healthcare improvement in more than 80 countries worldwide. (Not bad for an organization that hired its first employee in 2009.) Made available online in 2005, FrontlineSMS was transferred to an open source platform in 2008. The same year, Banks started working with Josh Nesbit (co-founder of Medic Mobile) on a project to improve management and patient care at a clinic in Malawi. The project stirred up a wave of eager interest and encouraged other people and NGOs to adopt FrontlineSMS for their own projects and organizations.

Since then, the software has continued to garner praise and recognition. The year after Ken Banks worked with Nesbit at the Malawi clinic, FrontlineSMS won the Silicon Valley Tech Award and received funding from OSI, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2010-2011, founder Ken Banks was named an Ashoka Fellow as well as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and carried off the Pizzigati Prize to boot. Meanwhile, FrontlineSMS won the Curry Stone Design Award in 2011. The software has been downloaded over 25,000 times, and has had a profound impact upon the lives and livelihoods of many communities in developing countries, especially Africa.

Meanwhile, FrontlineSMS is passing by another milestone in its history. This May, founder Ken Banks announced his intention to step back and take a more relaxed role in the organization, choosing to focus on other projects which a full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS had prevented him from developing (details will be posted on his blog).  Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald, future CEO of kiwanja Foundation and CEO of kiwanja Community Interest Company, respectively, will lead FrontlineSMS forward to the next stage of its development.

Regarding that next stage, Banks is optimistic: “It’s an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I’m excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it,” he reflects in his transition announcement on the FrontlineSMS website.

If the past is any indication of the future, there's good reason to feel excited. In just a few years, FrontlineSMS has built a strong history of continued growth, successful problem-solving, cultural outreach and technological advancement. Innovative, low-cost, and flexible, FrontlineSMS is uniquely poised to make a difference in the developing world. And the good news is, it already has. So here's to the new and improved FrontlineSMS.

Context is King: Knowledge Sharing on Communications Tools at BBC Media Action

By Amy O’Donnell, FrontlineSMS:Radio Manager

Recently my colleague Flo and I visited BBC Media Action for a Knowledge Sharing session which focused on the use of innovative mobile technology to enable effective communication for social change. BBC Media Action (previously known as the World Service Trust) "uses media and communication to provide access to information and create platforms to enable some of the poorest people in the world to take part in community life. With a focus on programming that directly engages people in debate and discussion thereby encouraging  communication across political, ethnic, religious and other divides in society." We felt lucky to be one of the last visitors to their longstanding home in the iconic Bush House, London as the BBC is relocating from there after 70 years.

Often when people first hear about FrontlineSMS, it’s not just the software which inspires them, but the valuable lessons we learn from how the tool is being used. BBC Media Action works to directly engage people in debate and discussion through programming and this workshop explored the potential of SMS to open up participation.

To broaden participation, combine accessible communications channels

We explored how a radio station in Uganda is using FrontlineSMS to gather incoming audience feedback via SMS to put their questions to MPs while on-air; how FrontlineSMS is engaging citizen journalists in Indonesia and how the software is being used to run a news service for women in Sri Lanka. Introducing another popular open-source platform, we explained how the Ushahidi mapping tool was used in conjunction with FrontlineSMS for election monitoring by the Reclaim Naija project in Nigeria last year to illustrate reports in relation to their location. Many of these programs use SMS in concert with other platforms, whether radio, TV or the Internet - an important element of building a truly accessible, system that works for its unique context.

BBC Media Action’s own Jonathan Robertshaw shared his experience of using FrontlineSMS as a practitioner. He explained BBC Media Action’s role in a project run by ActionAid and infoasaid which which set up a food distribution alert and food price information system in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2011 drought. The project successfully took a multi-platform approach to improving communication between relief committees, food monitors and the public. The set-up gave people options, including voice (using an interactive voice-based software called FreedomFone); detailed SMS-based data collection (using  FrontlineForms, FrontlineSMS’ data collection tool); and text message (using FrontlineSMS’s core platform).

No matter how high-tech a program is, sometimes a low-tech solution can be the ‘killer app’ - the most impactful option. In the Isiolo program, the final message in the chain relaying information about the service to the public was distributed via a paper poster taped where communities could read it. The poster included a phone number, so that beneficiaries had the option to seek further information or stay up to date. Jonathan explained how the poster was not part of the original communications plan; the project and its communications mechanisms evolved and adapted to the context. Overall, the learning from this project demonstrates the importance of offering different communications options to meet different communications needs.

Technology is 10% of the solution

As the discussion with different Media Action project leaders delved into program specifics, we explored how technology often only represents a small proportion of overall project design. Looking at potential Media Action projects - including participatory audio dramas and humanitarian radio - reinforced how important it is not to lose sight of behavioral and cultural factors as well as critical delivery planning: outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring. One of the group asked how to anticipate the resources required to run a communication platform. Particularly when the volume of response depends on the level of interactive behavior, the group agreed there is no “one-size-fits-all” or “magic formula.” Program staff have to consider the context and stay flexible, tweaking the system to respond to the needs of their beneficiaries and staff as they develop. Resourcing this kind of responsiveness is critical and difficult, and there are costs in money and goodwill involved in introducing people to a new system, changing messages and systems too often.  The group agreed that, rather than committing to services which it may be difficult to estimate demand for, organizations should manage expectations and try to test ahead of time. Trying out communications in small trials or pilots can help scope people’s reactions.

The strongest message we took away from the session was practitioners’ motivation to learn about the different tools available in the communications toolkit. Often the design of a communication system is not about one tool, but the right tool or right combination of tools which suit the context. FrontlineSMS needs limited support and people are implementing projects all over the world using the software and tools readily available to them without requiring our team’s direct involvement. We're proud of how much that makes it a really sustainable piece of software for organizations working in the last mile, and a critical tool for long-term capacity-building.

Why Version 2? The story behind the FrontlineSMS redesign

Three weeks ago, FrontlineSMS launched its first new full release in over a year. Today, we're releasing version 2.0.2, which includes useful bug fixes and small tweaks to the functionality that make it even easier to use. You can expect regular releases from us from now on, with new features coming out every couple of months. Check out our launch blog post, and our Version 2 microsite, for more information about the software. In this post, we wanted to share more of the background to the decision to rewrite our software from the ground up, and some of the key principles that have informed our work over the last eighteen months.

Extendability

In late 2010, we were working with Medic Mobile, Dale Zak, Ushahidi and others to build extensions to FrontlineSMS which would allow users to manage more complex contact records, map reports offline, and build in scheduled SMS to the platform. Version 1 of the software was tough for volunteer coders, or other partners, to extend. Without APIs, any alteration had to be hard-coded into the software, and plugins were hard to make inter-operable with one another.

The crunch point came when we asked Alex, our Lead Developer, how long it would take to build the kind of Contact Records Management (CRM) we wanted into the platform - he told me it would probably be quicker to start again. We realized that every time we wanted to respond to user needs and add a new feature it would be an additional delay and drain on our resources. Building extension code into the core software was always going to be a mammoth task. So we started looking in earnest at the possibility of redesigning the software for a new set of requirements.

Usability

At around the same time, we met Gabe White of Small Surfaces, a user interface design consulting firm in Kampala. With his help, we spent the first part of 2011 interviewing a wide range of existing FrontlineSMS users, and analyzing user survey responses and forum conversations to understand how FrontlineSMS could be improved. Key feedback was that users were used to a certain type of interface in communications platforms, thanks to widely-used services and applications like Gmail and Microsoft Outlook - they wanted to see an inbox, and be able to monitor their sent and pending messages in one place. If FrontlineSMS behaved like other communications platforms they were already familiar with, new users would pick up the basics of the platform more easily.

We had noticed from our 2010 user survey that only a relatively small group of ‘super-users‘ - very tech-savvy, for the most part, and often part of the ICT4D sphere - were using the more advanced elements of FrontlineSMS to reply automatically to messages, allow end users to join and leave groups using SMS commands, and transfer message content to web- or network-based services and databases. We wanted to make it easier for all of our users to branch out and use SMS in more powerful and professional ways. So the design of FrontlineSMS Version 2 is a commitment to helping users to discover more about the platform and use increasingly sophisticated functions. Activities are a simpler way of conceptualizing the keyword functionality that has always existed in FrontlineSMS. Keyword settings, and many other elements of the software, can now be set up using simple walk-throughs, prompting users to make the most of functionality available to them.

Many users commented that, over time, they were accumulating huge numbers of SMS and contacts, but were unable to perform simple operations (grouping, moving and deleting, for example) on multiple SMS or contacts at once. Similarly, without a sophisticated search function, users struggled to maintain control of the backlog of SMS, and find important communications quickly. Manipulating the data in another program required you to download the whole database each time. We have implemented fixes for all of these problems in Version 2. You can now manage multiple SMS and contacts at once, using check-boxes; control search outputs using date-ranges, group membership and other characteristics; and export the SMS received through specific activities at the click of a mouse.

A new developer team

Building all of this has been about a year’s work, all but the very first few weeks of which has been done in Nairobi, Kenya. Alex moved to Nairobi in the spring of 2011 to set up a larger development team, and over the last year we have welcomed David, Geoffrey, Joy, Roy, Sitati, and Vaneyck, with Hussain in London rounding out the team. All of them have contributed hugely to the process of designing, building, and launching version 2 and although some have, or may in future, move on to other things, they will always be part of the team that made this all happen. As we look beyond the launch and begin to plan additional features, we have a fantastic base to build on, from our very colorful offices in the centre of a growing Tech City in Kenya’s capital.

What’s next?

We know we have a lot more to do. Some of version 1’s features, including the Frontline Forms interface and our Translation Manager, are still in the works. Some will come swiftly, such as Subscriptions Manager (which takes the place of the join/leave group keywords in version 1) and which is almost ready. Others are concepts we want to take some more time to get right; such as how Version 2 handles building Forms, and how it will display data collected on a mobile device and submitted through a variety of channels. You can read more about our planned features on our Upcoming Features page.

The whole FrontlineSMS team, including volunteers and fantastic partners like Gabe and the Software Testing Club, have put a tremendous amount of energy into Version 2; we are really proud of it and at the same time we feel like we’re just getting started! We couldn’t have got to this point without our users, who gave us the original inspiration, helped shape the design, and continue to contribute feature requests, testing and the drive to keep improving on FrontlineSMS.

We can’t wait to hear what you do with it.

To access FrontlineSMS Version 2 click here.

Celebrating the History of FrontlineSMS

Last week was an historic one for FrontlineSMS, as we launched Version 2 with successful events in Nairobi and Washington, D.C. FrontlineSMS has come a long way since October 2005, when our founder Ken Banks launched the very first open-source SMS management software. In a blog post last week, Ken shared Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS. Inspired by Ken's post, here is a history of FrontlineSMS in nine bullet points, ahead of our global Version 2 launch event in London this evening.

  • In 2005, FrontlineSMS.com is registered on 6th March, and the beta is released in October. On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).
  • 15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organization. Days later FrontlineSMS has its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.
  • In 2006, FrontlineSMS begins receiving donor support and fellowship and the following year, the kiwanja Foundation is created to house the growing project.
  • In 2008, FrontlineSMS becomes open-source. Josh Nesbit begins working with FrontlineSMS, working intensively with a clinic in Malawi to apply FrontlineSMS to the management and patient care challenges they face, significantly increasing the number of patients seen by health workers, while saving time and money. This narrative, coupled with the work and advocacy that Ken was doing, drives FrontlineSMS adoption and usage considerably.
  • In 2009, our Lead Developer Alex joins us – and we began to measure software downloads and build a sector-specific brand with FrontlineSMS:Medic (which has since become Medic Mobile). We win a Silicon Valley Tech Award, and secure funding from OSI, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. By the end of 2009, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded 4,605 times.
  • In 2010, FrontlineSMS adds FrontlineSMS:Credit, FrontlineSMS:Learn, FrontlineSMS:Legal and FrontlineSMS:Radio. Our Founder, Ken Banks, is named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. The Omidyar Network makes us one of their grantees. By the end of 2010, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded 12,395 times.
  • In 2011, in response to requests for project support and consulting work, we open a social enterprise which will ultimately support the work of the Foundation and support a different group of users, as well as provide support and technical expertise to specific sectors. During this year, we win the Curry Stone Design Award for social design pioneers and are runners up for the Buckminster Fuller Sustainable Design Award. We receive funding from the Knight Foundation and renew our relationship with the Hewlett Foundation. In 2011, Ken becomes an Ashoka Fellow and wins the Pizzigati Prize for software in the public interest.

  • As of December 2011, FrontlineSMS, without having released any new software since summer 2010, has been downloaded over 20,000 times. That number soon grows to over 25,000.
  • In 2012 we’ve already released two open beta releases - PaymentView and FrontlineSMS:Learn - and Version 2. Later this year, you’ll see FrontlineSMS:Radio and the early prototype of a web-based version of FrontlineSMS. The FrontlineSMS team has grown from 5 in 2010 to 17 now over three continents. FrontlineSMS has users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads. The rest – as they say – is history…  o/

Announcing FrontlineSMS Version 2: Same vision, new user-driven design

Today, FrontlineSMS releases a new version of our award-winning software; more intuitive, simpler to extend and run over networks, and makes it easier to manage larger volumes of messages.

Download FrontlineSMS Version 2

Mobile phones are everywhere. There are now 6 billion active mobile phone connections across the world, an increasing number of which are in emerging markets, in communities who have previously been hard to reach. Recognizing this potential, our Founder, Ken Banks, envisioned FrontlineSMS six and a half years ago as a means to harness the power of mobile to lower barriers to social change. Since then, our open-source SMS-messaging software has been downloaded over 25,000 times, and helps organizations in over 80 countries to overcome their communication challenges to reach millions. Over the last two years, we’ve focussed on gathering user feedback and comments, and planned a roadmap for the software grounded in Ken’s vision, better serving the needs of its community, and well-positioned for a multi-channel, global mobile future.

Since late 2010, feedback from users on the existing platform, and learning from our work with organizations implementing the software, have been generating new designs and ideas. In collaboration with Gabe White, a Kampala-based user experience designer, we redesigned the software to be more intuitive, simpler to extend and run over networks, and make it easier to manage larger volumes of messages. After many months of building and testing - by many of the users in our original design research - we are releasing the first fruits of that work: FrontlineSMS Version 2.

What’s different about the new platform

FrontlineSMS Version 2 makes it easier to create and manage common SMS activities like making announcements, conducting polls and automating replies to incoming SMS. Our polls activity visualizes incoming data, allowing you to quickly understand the results. You can manage messages more easily with a flexible filing system, featuring folders and an archive capability; as well as an inbox, outbox, and the ability to monitor pending messages. Important messages can be starred for later, and a more robust search allows you to locate messages based on name, location, or date as well as by activity, group and folder. You can export your messages limited by date range, or from any search result, collection of messages or group of contacts.

The architecture of the new software makes it stronger and more flexible, allowing developers and users to customize FrontlineSMS to better meet their needs, and integrate it with other platforms and systems. Browser-based and built to run on Windows, Mac and Linux, FrontlineSMS still does not need the Internet to work, sending text messages via a phone or GSM modem. Online SMS aggregators Clickatell and IntelliSMS are already built-in, for those with a web connection, and more services will follow in the months to come.

User  feedback

User responses to the designs were overwhelmingly positive. One person commented; “it’s a huge leap forward… it feels much more modern and smooth functioning, and the design is nice and clean.” Another said; "this is really phenomenal: I could put it in front of any of our team and they could do awesome things with it."

As Version 2 starts to make its way in the world - it has already been used in over 20 radio stations in Africa - we look forward to hearing more feedback from users about the new software, and what they’d like to see it do next.

The Future of FrontlineSMS

In the coming months and years, we will continue to build on the core, stand-alone software, adding new features, many of which will be new ‘activities’, in the language of Version 2; adding integrations with additional web-based SMS services; and taking a fresh look at critical functionality such as how FrontlineSMS deals with forms-based data collection. Also on the map for later this year is a web-based test platform, which is a first exciting step to a more varied menu of hosting options for our users.

Our users inspire and help direct our work, requesting new features and helping us to prioritize as we decide what to build next. Many of our commercial clients fund custom development of the software to their specifications, which then creates functionality which can be shared with the wider community, benefitting everyone. The feedback and interaction we have with our users are what makes our software special, and Version 2 is easier to extend than ever before, allowing our Nairobi-based developer team to service more of your requests, more quickly.

The FrontlineSMS specialist sector-specific projects, which focus on using and adapting the software for specific fields such as legal services, education and mobile money - FrontlineSMS:Legal, FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit - will provide tailored versions of the software designed for their communities to use. FrontlineSMS:Radio is due out later in the year, and will feature specific functionality designed for radio presenters and station managers.

Learn more about the software

You can download the software, find out more about it, and access screencasts and explanations of the new functionality on our website.

Information about how Version 1 will be supported going forward, and about the timetable for putting remaining Version 1 functionality onto Version 2 is available here.

Connecting People, Improving Lives: The Global Launch of FrontlineSMS Version 2

Here is the latest FrontlineSMS newsletter, updating our community on recent activities and upcoming events. You can check out all the news below, and sign up to receive our e-newsletter directly on the right hand side of the screen.

FrontlineSMS Version 2 Global Launch!

We are excited to announce that we will be releasing FrontlineSMS Version 2 on June 12th 2012. Two years in the making, and built upon extensive input and feedback from our users around the world, this new version of our software is a significant step forward – easier and more intuitive to use, more versatile, and capable of being more easily extended with new functionality.

FrontlineSMS Version 2 will be launched at three events on three continents – in Nairobi, Kenya and Washington, D.C. on the 12th June, and in London, UK on the 18th June. Find out more and sign up to attend these events here, and keep up to date with release news via our blog. Demand for the launch events is high, so make sure to sign up as soon as possible!

Sector Specific Versions of FrontlineSMS

Two of FrontlineSMS’s sector-specific projects – FrontlineSMS:Learn and FrontlineSMS:Credit – have recently released new tailored versions of our software in beta. These tools are currently built on Version 1.7 of FrontlineSMS, but will be extended onto FrontlineSMS Version 2 in future.

FrontlineSMS:Learn is a version of the FrontlineSMS platform that will appeal to educators and development programs all over the world. The FrontlineSMS team, in partnership with the USAID-sponsored SHOPS Project implemented by Abt AssociatesJhpiego, and Marie Stopes International, designed this tool to help local schools, trainers, and educators increase knowledge retention, facilitate long-term changes in behavior, and, ultimately, improve the quality of education and training in the last mile. You can find out more and access FrontlineSMS:Learn in beta here.

FrontlineSMS:Credit’s first software product, PaymentView, was launched a few months ago, and since then the team has been hard at work bringing on new partners and expanding our user base in Kenya. So far, we have a Financial Services Association using PaymentView to receive group loan repayments and a microinsurance provider using PaymentView to receive policy premium payments. Over the next few weeks, we’ll also be adding another Financial Services Association and an agribusiness, which will use PaymentView to manage a network of sales agents working in rural areas. You can find out more and access FrontlineSMS:Credit’s PaymentView in beta here.

The Future of FrontlineSMS

Last week we announced some big changes to the FrontlineSMS management team, with our Founder Ken Banks making a transition and stepping back from daily operations. Going forward, Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will be FrontlineSMS CEOs. You can read more about this new management structure and our plans for the future here. Its a very exciting time for us here at FrontlineSMS, with new software being released and our team and community growing at an unprecedented rate, driving innovation in mobile technology all over the world. We are very much looking forward to what comes next!

News from the Community o/

FrontlineSMS prides itself on our active and global user community. There have now been over 25,000 downloads of our software, and our online community forum has over 2,500 members regularly interacting on FrontlineSMS use. Below you will find the latest news from our buzzing user community.

Face-to-Face User Support at FrontlineSMS Drop-ins

To help users get started with our software and troubleshoot any problems, we currently offer free user support via our community forum and online resources. Since March 2012 we’ve also been offering face-to-face help through our new monthly user support drop-in sessions. These are currently held in our Nairobi, Washington, D.C. and London offices. The details of drop-in sessions will regularly be updated here. Don’t forget to email us via info@frontlinesms.com to let us know if you plan to join the sessions in-person, and you can also feel free to join online via Skype (ID: FrontlineSMS_Support) or Twitter (@FrontlineSMS).

Global User Meet-ups Continue to Grow

FrontlineSMS users have been connecting with each other across the world to share their own knowledge and experiences of using our software. These user meet-ups started in Haiti at the end of last year, and there have since been meetings in UgandaCambodia and Kenya. They are driven by the passion and engagement of FrontlineSMS users and our FrontlineSMS Heroes, too. You can read more about this on our blog, and if you’d like to suggest a meet-up in your area you can do so via this group on our community forum. FrontlineSMS Community Survey Results

Towards the end of 2011 we launched our second user survey, which ran until the beginning of 2012 and now, the results are in. In the survey responses an incredible 97% of people said they’d recommend FrontlineSMS to others. We also found that people are using and testing FrontlineSMS in over 80 countries across the world, with Kenya and the Philippines leading the field. You can read more about the results on our blog. Thank you so much to all those who responded to our survey – we really appreciate knowing more about our vibrant global community of users! o/

FrontlineSMS in Action

It is inspiring for us to see the many ways our software is used across the world. Thank you to all those users who have shared their stories of FrontlineSMS in action. Recent highlights include: * Citizen journalists empower communities in IndonesiaMinistry of agriculture in Cambodia use FrontlineSMS Engaging Afghan radio audiences through SMSSharing women’s social knowledge in Sri Lanka Coordinating use of FrontlineSMS at next Kenyan electionsSMS helps improve service delivery after Pakistan floods

If you would like to share your story of FrontlineSMS in action email info@frontlinesms.com to let us know!

New user resources

FrontlineSMS now has a wide range of free user resources available on our website. The below are a few new resources produced in recent months. These resources have been created based on Version 1 of FrontlineSMS, but where relevant we will be updating them following Version 2’s release. We hope you find them helpful!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on FrontlineSMS The FrontlineSMS community forum provides a place for users to interact with each other and our team, and ask questions about our sofrware. We have collated the most frequently asked questions from the forum into a FAQ to provide an accessible way for you to find out more about FrontlineSMS. * Communications for Change: How to use text messaging as an effective behavior change campaigning tool This resource, produced collaboratively with Text to Change, provides an introductory guide, suggesting some key points which can usefully be considered if you are planning to use SMS as a campaign tool. * Step-by-step guide on using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi Synching FrontlineSMS with mapping tool Ushahidi enables users to map and visualize incoming SMS reports, which can be useful in a wide variety of ways. FrontlineSMS have produced this step-by-step guide together with the folks at Ushahidi in order to make it easier to synch our software with both Ushahidi and their cloud-based mapping tool, Crowdmap.

Global FrontlineSMS team continues to grow

Since the beginning of 2012 we have taken on 6 new team members; 3 in our Nairobi office and 3 in our Washington, D.C. office. We currently have 17 people in our offices across the UK, Kenya and the US, and our team is still growing! The recent additions to our team are as follows: * Three new Developers: Joy Kendi, Vaneyck Otoki, Sitati Kituyi * Cathryn Paine, Operations Manager in our Washington, D.C. office * Chris Albon, Governance Project Director * Simon Choi, Head of Finance You can find out more about them on the team page of our website.

We also bid farewell to one of our Developers, David Kutalek, who has been a key member of our team in Nairobi for a year. We wish David all the best in his new role as co-Founder of Spatial Collective.

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Thanks for reading our latest newsletter – we hope you’ve enjoyed it and we’d love to hear what you think. Let us know your views, your requests for future newsletters and any other comments at info@frontlinesms.com.

o/

The FrontlineSMS Team

The Future for FrontlineSMS: A Message from our CEOs

Yesterday, our Founder Ken announced some exciting changes to the way we’re doing things at FrontlineSMS. Today, we’d like to tell you just a little bit more. It’s a tremendous and exciting honor to be a part of FrontlineSMS. The FrontlineSMS team and community are growing at an unprecedented rate, driving innovation in mobile technology all over the world. Over the course of the last year and a half, our team has grown by 400 percent, started four new projects, and completely redesigned the core software. The FrontlineSMS community has grown to include thousands of users, finding innovative applications of the software to drive social change in more than 80 countries. Today’s team covers three continents and supports 2,500 forum members, hundreds of active users, and partners all over the world.

Sean (far left) and Laura (center, in black top) 'doing' the FrontlineSMS logo at a training in Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Vugar Naghiyev/USAID Azerbaijan

Although our team and organization are growing and changing, our mission remains the same: FrontlineSMS uses mobile technology to facilitate social change. While our evolution reflects the growth of SMS as a communications platform and its increasing professionalization, we’re guided by Ken’s focus on last-mile communities, locally appropriate technology, and easy-to-use tools. We’ve built a hybrid organizational structure that will continue to distribute free and open-source software to thousands of users, while building new, more sophisticated tools that meet growingly complex needs.

One of the major lessons we’ve learned from FrontlineSMS users has been how many barriers to communication are human, as opposed to technological. Effective mobile engagement depends on program design, professional capacity, infrastructure, culture and any number of other factors. To help users overcome these challenges, we’ve developed a wide range of consulting and support services that help connect industries to the communities they value most.

Since Ken invited us to join his senior management team in 2010, we have worked together to bring our core values and focus on the last mile into a larger vision and more ambitious approach for our organization. In 2012, we’ll be releasing four new FrontlineSMS products, including Version 2 of the core platform, a completely redesigned application that’s faster, easier to use, and more capable of handling complex tasks. Our users will be able to do more with larger volumes of SMS data, as we add automated data processing and visualization tools, and customize the application for specific sectors. We will continue to grow our library of free, accessible, field-focused resources on the best ways to use our mobile technologies to foster social change.

On a personal note, we’d like to thank Ken, the FrontlineSMS community, and our growing team for their innovative leadership and dedication. Ken has been a visionary mentor to both of us as we’ve grown into these roles over the last 18 months. There’s no question that he’s built more than software and a community - Ken has helped drive the way that we think about communicating. The FrontlineSMS community is, and has always been, comprised of organizations and problem-solvers who are inventing the future of mobile, one idea at a time. We couldn't be more excited to lead FrontlineSMS into its next stage of growth or more fortunate to have such inspirational guidance. More than anything, we look forward to what comes next and discovering it together.

Thanks and Best Wishes

Laura and Sean

FrontlineSMS CEOs

A transition announcement from our Founder, Ken Banks

From FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks

For the past six-and-a-half years, FrontlineSMS has been something of a labour of love for me. Initially inspired by a decade of work with grassroots non-profits across the African continent, FrontlineSMS spoke directly to how I felt development should be done. Three years at university, dozens of field trips and countless discussions with development professionals convinced me that the future was bottom up, yet many of the mobile tools I came across in the early years of the discipline were quite the opposite. Tools, I believed, needed to be simple, appropriate, give control to the user and be built with those non-profit users in mind, and up until then little was. In 2003, when I started my career in mobile, it was clear that the technology held huge potential for the grassroots NGO community. As I approach my ten year anniversary that potential has largely been proved, but we're still some way off reaching our full potential. It's been an honour to be part of the growth, and an honour to have helped - in some small way - the work of countless dedicated NGOs as they battle to use mobile in their work.

Although the idea for FrontlineSMS came about after a series of conservation trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I had a hunch that conservation NGOs in other places faced the same communication challenges. I also felt that other disciplines - health, agriculture, education and human rights among them - were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people. Today those hunches bear out, with FrontlineSMS in use in over eighty countries in over 20 sectors of development. It's been an incredible few years, and over that time it's become clear that FrontlineSMS has much greater potential than I ever imagined.

I've always maintained that it's just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and as FrontlineSMS grew its way out of my one bedroom flat in Cambridge and my VW Camper home at Stanford University, it became clear to me that the project needed a whole new set of skills to take it to the next level. In one of my favourite blog posts - " The Rolling Stones School of Innovation Management" - I wrote about how the Rolling Stones needed three different managers over the course of their careers, each of who had entirely different skills needed at different times in their growth. Funnily enough, FrontlineSMS follows a similar trajectory with different needs at the technological, business and organisational levels. As I wrote:

"As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process".

Since the middle of 2011 I've been working closely with a new Senior Management Team at FrontlineSMS, working towards the announcement we're making today. Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald have worked tirelessly helping prepare FrontlineSMS to meet new challenges and prepare us for our next stage of growth. They and the team have welcomed new, talented staff, released in-depth user guides, case studies and resources, published two academic articles, started a consultancy, brought in new funds, released Beta versions of exciting new FrontlineSMS products, future-proofed the software with a new, extendable, browser-based version, established a new UK entity, opened US and Kenyan offices, and recruited two Boards of Directors. It's been a busy 18 months, and we're in great shape as we enter a new and exciting phase in the history of FrontlineSMS, with Sean and Laura at the helm. Going forward, Laura will be CEO of the kiwanja Foundation, which houses our free, open-source software and user support. Sean is CEO of the kiwanja Community Interest Company, which supports users with program design advice, houses our sector-specific projects, and manages custom extensions to the platform. You'll hear more about our plans for the future from them in the coming days.

As for me, I'll continue my association with FrontlineSMS as before, and will continue to support it enthusiastically in person at conferences, through my blog, through book chapters and wider writing, and in my role of Chair of the Board. As to what I'll do with some of my new-found free time, I'm also planning to get stuck into a number of new project ideas which have been bubbling away for the past two to three years, ideas which I've been unable to do anything with due to my full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS. Further details on these new projects will be announced on my blog over the summer, so watch this space!

It's an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I'm excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it. For some people, passing the baton on such a personal project would be something of a challenge. Knowing that the project is in safe hands has made the decision much easier for me. FrontlineSMS was always going to be bigger than one person. With a fantastic team behind it, it now has the chance to step up and meet the potential it clearly has.

Wishing you all the very best,





Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder

Community Survey Results: Kenya and the Philippines lead the field, and 97% would recommend FrontlineSMS

Towards the end of 2011 we launched our second user survey, which ran until the beginning of 2012 and now, the results are in.

Quick Facts

  • An incredible 97% of people said they would recommend our software to others.*
  • People are using or testing FrontlineSMS in over 80 countries across the world. Most of those using or testing the software are working in Africa - 46% of respondents - but an increasing number – 29% are working in Asia, compared to 23% of users having impact in Asia shown in last year's survey.
  • The top countries in which survey respondents are using and testing FrontlineSMS are, in order: Kenya, the Philippines, Malawi, India and Pakistan.
  • This year 78% of respondents reported working for local, national or international NGOs,  with the remainder being academics (22%), independent researchers and testers (8%), governments (8%) and for-profit organizations (17%).*
  • 40% of respondents said they were using FrontlineSMS to communicate with project participants or beneficiaries; 39% with staff and volunteers; 30% with the general public; and 5% other organizations *
  • 79% of users found FrontlineSMS easy or somewhat easy to set up, and only 1% found it difficult (around 20% of respondents did not answer this particular question).

More detailed analysis

Between this year and last year’s survey the types of organizations responding have remained predominantly non-profit actors – NGOs and INGOs – and the largest percentage of those using and testing the software are still working in Africa. However, there is a growth of our user base in Asia, which is exciting to see. Kenya remains the most common country where FrontlineSMS is being used and tested, with the Philippines close behind at second highest.

In this year’s results we can also see that our software continues to be used in a wide range of sectors, the most popular being education and healthcare. This mirrors last year’s results - but there is also increasing interest shown this year in using FrontlineSMS in emergency response and preparedness, activism and campaigning, mobile finance, and the media. We are particularly excited to see the growth in areas where we have sector-specific projects.

We asked people about how the software is helping them to communicate. We found that nearly half of users are using FrontlineSMS to connect with project participants and beneficiaries, which is perhaps to be expected. Interestingly, though, nearly as many users are using the software to engage with staff and volunteers. In many cases we have seen SMS used in the same way that you might use email – to organize programs, coordinate meetings and appointments, send out alerts, even to submit monitoring and evaluation reports. Its clear FrontlineSMS is now being used as a professional communications tool in many contexts.

We’re aware that there is still plenty of room for improvement. There were many suggestions for our software and user support in survey responses. Users suggested new features, such as integration with more internet SMS aggregators, easier importing of bulk contacts, and a more adaptable plug-in interface for faster, easier use of our software with other tools - happily this fits brilliantly with our upcoming release, FrontlineSMS Version 2 (watch this space for more news on this in coming weeks!). Respondents also proposed new ways for us to support users, including more help with devices and more user resources including case studies, practical guides on using the software, and guides on specific challenges (such as data integrity). These are all ideas we will build upon in our strategic planning moving forward.

Despite challenges and constructive criticism, an astounding 97% of people said they would recommend our software to others. One respondent said;

“in my experience the software is easy to use and has an active community who are passionate about the work they're doing and eager to help. And it's free”.

It’s great to get this kind of positive feedback from our users, so thank you to everyone who contributed to the survey! o/

As those who regularly read this blog will know, here at FrontlineSMS we’re always looking to increase understanding of our user community. Listening to the experiences of those using our software helps us to find out if we are effectively meeting their needs, and enables us to identify the most important improvements needed in our software and user support. Crucially, hearing from our users also helps us to measure the impact of our own work in terms of how our software is being used and the difference it is making in the real world. If you’d be interested in telling the FrontlineSMS team how you are using FrontlineSMS then please do feel free to contact us and connect with our team and other users on our community forum, too!

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Huge thanks to FrontlineSMS Hero Matthias Ambruster for his help in analysing our survey responses.

*All data is based on 129 survey responses. Not all questions in the survey were mandatory. Percentages at times total over 100% for questions where users could give more than one answer.

Face-to-Face Help Getting Started with FrontlineSMS

FrontlineSMS software is designed to be accessible and easy to use ‘straight out of the box’ without the need for expert technical support. That said, when getting started with using a new piece of software we know how helpful it can be to have some guidance. To help users get started with our software, and troubleshoot any problems, we currently offer free user support via our community forum and resources online, but from March 2012, we're also opening our doors to you to offer face-to-face help through our new monthly user support drop-in sessions!

Once a month, our offices in Nairobi, Washington DC, and London will be open to users and staffed by our team. There will also be a monthly open chat over Skype for those who can't make it to the physical drop-ins. During these sessions the team will be there to answer your questions, demo FrontlineSMS functionality and generally provide support on using our software. The idea behind the drop-in sessions is to provide an informal opportunity for you to meet our team and ask questions about FrontlineSMS.

For full details on locations, dates and times please click here. Please email info@frontlinesms.com if you plan on coming and provide us with some information on your organization and any issues you are experiencing.

FrontlineSMS has chosen the locations of the drop-in sessions based on our staff and office locations If you’re keen to discuss FrontlineSMS at a face-to-face meeting in your own country then you could always suggest a user meet-up via our community forum, too.

We look forward to hearing from you, and hope to see you at one of our drop-in sessions soon! o/

New Resource: Step-by-Step Guide on Using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi

Here at FrontlineSMS we aim to make our software as accessible and adaptable as possible, and we’re always looking to respond to the needs of our growing user community. Through interaction with many users, we’ve found that some have successfully synched our software with mapping tool, Ushahidi. This set-up allows SMS to be submitted to the Ushahidi platform, enabling people to contribute reports to an online map using just their mobile phone. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi helps to empower organizations to both collect and share information in innovative ways; improving access, visibility and relevance of data for variety of projects, from election monitoring to mapping availability of health services. Not all users have found the process of synching the tools together straightforward, though, so we’re pleased to announce that FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi been working together to produce a clear step-by-step guide on this process, and this guide is now available.

FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are both free and open source platforms that have been used across the world to promote social change, improve communications and support the work of non-profit organizations. FrontlineSMS converts a computer, connected to a GSM modem or mobile phone, into a two-way communications system which enables users to send, receive and manage text messages. Ushahidi is a platform that aggregates information coming from different sources (web form, e-mail, SMS, social media) and visualizes this information on a real-time interactive map. Although using FrontlineSMS with Ushahidi requires an Internet connection, those submitting reports via SMS needn’t be online. Using FrontlineSMS enables people to submit reports to a textable number, making it possible for people to contribute content to an online map even if they are not connected to the Internet themselves.

Using the two software tools in combination can have powerful and inspiring results. We have seen FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi used together in Nigeria as an electoral monitoring tool, in Egypt as instruments to map harassment on the streets and in the Democratic Republic of Congo to challenge incidents of human rights abuse. These examples help to demonstrate that SMS – as an ubiquitous and widely accessible communications channel - can help reach people that are otherwise marginalized or vulnerable. By then mapping SMS reports it is possible to show incidences by location; visually sharing information from those that may not otherwise be heard, and, in doing so, creating data that provides a powerful awareness raising and advocacy tool.

The idea for providing an updated accessible resource based on how to synchronize the two platforms was raised at a collaborative event organised by FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi in late 2011. Entitled “SMS to Map: Using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to tell your story,”this event was held on the same day in London, UK and Nairobi, Kenya, and it explored how to use the two software tools together. The audience were also encouraged to think about the ways they could use these tools for social change in their own work.

We hope that offering further guidance on the process of using FrontlineSMS together with Ushahidi will help make the combination of SMS with mapping more accessible. We are keen to receive any feedback you have on this resource, or indeed any suggestions and experiences you would like to share based on your own use of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.

So, check out the new guide here today in pdf format or on the Ushahidi wiki, and feel free to get in touch with us to share your views via the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi forums.

Thanks to Laura Walker Hudson, Amy O'Donnell, Stefania Perna and Kavita Rajah at FrontlineSMS for their input into this resource release.

We would also like to take this opportunity to offer many thanks to all others who have helped with this resource, including Linda Kamau, Linda Raftree, Anahi Ayala Iacucci and Megan Goldshine. And a special thanks to Heather Leson at Ushahidi, for all her work on this collaboration!

New Resource: Using SMS as an Effective Behavior Change Campaigning Tool

Photo: Text to Change Behavior change campaigning is inherently interactive. In order to encourage positive behavior change it is important to not only push campaign messages out to people, but to listen to the responses. To run a campaign which has a real impact, you need to listen to ensure you’re being heard. This is one of the main reasons why SMS - as a widely accessible and inherently interactive communications channel  - is an ideal tool for campaigning.

This is the topic explored in a new resource which FrontlineSMS is releasing with Text to Change today; best practices when using SMS as a behavior change campaigning tool. This resource has been put together collaboratively to provide an introductory guide, suggesting some key points which can usefully be considered if you are planning to use SMS as a campaign tool. The resource is by no means exhaustive, but it outlines some key considerations which can hopefully serve to help guide discussions around best practices in SMS campaigning.

Mobile phones are now everywhere. As we mention in this resource, global penetration of mobile phones now reaches 87%, with 79% penetration in the economically developing world.[i] There are 5.9 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, and the total number of SMS sent globally tripled between 2007 and 2010, from an estimated 1.8 to 6.1 trillion[ii]. It is the ubiquity of mobile that makes it such a useful tool for campaigning.

However, using mobile phones for campaigning is by no means simple. In this resource we cover suggestions on effective context analysis, tailoring SMS content for your campaigns, creating a sustainable change with SMS and measuring impact. Through outlining best practices it becomes clear that the right content, delivered at the right time in the right context, is critical to a successful SMS campaign.

The case study examples within this resource demonstrate how text messages can help encourage people to change behaviors and attitudes toward issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights. The case study examples come from both Uganda and India. These are completely diverse geographic regions, but in both locations, SMS behavior change campaigning proved to be a success.

FrontlineSMS has worked with Text to Change to create this resource. Both FrontlineSMS and Text to Change use mobile technologies to address a range of vital needs in the non-profit sector. It has been fantastic to work together on collating some advice on how to make the most of mobile technology specifically for campaigning.

The resource will be launched at ‘The world in the palm of your hand: SMS and mobile communications’, an event in London at which both Text to Change Founder, Hajo van Beijma, and FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks will be speaking. Presentations at the event will explore the power of SMS and mobile in the third sector.

Check out the resource itself: Communications for change: How to use text messaging as an effectivebehavior change campaigning tool. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this resource, and we'd love to hear about your experiences of using SMS as a campaigning tool. Please feel free to connect with us through our community forum or get directly in contact.

Many thanks to Megan Goldshine for her hard work on the graphic design of this resource.


[i] http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/material/FactsFigures2010.pdf

[ii] http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf

Planet Text: How SMS is Changing the World

Recently a fun infographic was shared with the FrontlineSMS team, which visually explores the impact SMS is having across the world. Check out the description and the infographic itself below.
Try looking up the average human attention span over the last decade -- you'll likely notice that it has decreased significantly. With the advent of the Internet, a near golden-age in video game design, and the proliferation of mobile devices, it's simply impossible to remain tuned-in to a single task at one time. Text messaging is a unique language that has evolved with the widespread use of cell phones and is essentially a compression of normal speech that includes abbreviations, short meanings, and a lack of grammar. It's probably not a surprise that almost 200,000 texts were sent every second in 2010, or that by 2012 more people will have a cellular phone than a bank account.Text messages are changing human life as we know it, and SMS is far outpacing many other services on the globe. Welcome to planet text.  By Tony Shin

Planet Text Created by: MBA Online