FrontlineSMS comes of age

Two-and-a-half years in the making, FrontlineSMS is finally shedding its Beta status and will soon, finally, be launched to the NGO community as a fully-blown product. Although it’s taken much longer than I’d have hoped, at least we’ve had ample time to listen to the users and got the clearest possible indication of what we needed to add, remove, tweak and improve to make it more useful and relevant. The Beta – proof-of-concept as it was – naturally had its problems, but thanks to a great team of developers the new version is on target to exceed even my own expectations.

We’re still in Beta in the new release (but at least it will get out of it this time!) and things are still a little rough in places. Many of the finishing touches are scheduled for later in the development cycle, but the software is already beginning to take shape and neatly builds on the current FrontlineSMS look and feel which we know works well.

Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the things we’ve been working on.

We’ve built two user interfaces in the new version – a Classic and Advanced view – allowing the user to determine how much functionality they want to be exposed to. Beginners will be happy with the Classic, which looks and feels pretty-much like the current release. We’ve also added right-click menu functionality, making things quicker, easier and more accessible throughout, and ‘handles’ which allow different elements of the screen to be expanded or reduced in size depending on how much the user needs or wants them.

A choice of database options are now available, allowing incoming and outgoing message data to be read and shared by other applications. Incoming messages can also be ‘posted’ automatically to web servers, or passed to other running programs which can then deal with them independently. There are also improved data import options allowing, for example, groups of contacts to be easily brought into the database, with generated message data more easily exportable from a number of modules in a number of popular export formats. One of the problems with the current version was that the data, useful as it was, wasn’t easily accessible by anything other than FrontlineSMS. Not quite so useful.

Device installation and configuration is now largely automated in the brand new PhoneManager module, with auto-detect and auto-configure functionality. FrontlineSMS scans the host computer, looks for modems and phones (which can be internal devices, or connected via USB or bluetooth), determines whether they’re any use, and then sets them up if they are. Multiple devices can be used at the same time, and each can be configured exclusively to send messages, or purely to receive, depending on what the user requires. A wide variety of GSM modems and phones will be supported at launch, with simple driver creation possible for new devices as they hit the market. Long gone are the handset headache issues of version 1.0

Additional functionality includes support for SMPP, which will allow messages to be blasted through SMS aggregators such as Clickatell. This will make it possible to send large numbers of messages far more quickly and cheaply than via any attached device, if and when an internet connection is available. The new FrontlineSMS will also be platform independent, so Mac and Linux users no longer need feel left out.

Of course, this is only half of the project. A team at Wieden+Kennedy are working hard to re-brand the software and build a simple, functional, accessible website, work which is also going fantastically well. But that’s the subject of an entirely different blog post altogether…

All of this work – the application itself and the website – will be publicly launched on 8th May at Global Messaging 2008 in Cannes, where I’ve been invited to give a keynote speech – “Mobile messaging as a means of empowerment: How has SMS been harnessed by NGOs around the globe?”.

Two weeks later, 22nd May, sees FrontlineSMS feature as a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge where it’s been selected for its use in monitoring the 2007 Nigerian elections. The project then enters a new phase on 1st June as the MacArthur Foundation funding ends and a new grant from the Open Society Institute (OSI) begins.

I’ve always felt that FrontlineSMS had a huge amount of potential. Thanks to a dedicated team – supporters, users, developers, bloggers and donors among them – we may soon start to see it.

From conception to replication

Tonight, a hundred and fifty farmers and their families who I have never met will be going to bed better off. Not only is this significant for the farmers, it’s also significant for me. Because without FrontlineSMS, which is being used to provide coffee prices to these smallholder farmers, this would not be happening.

There’s a tendency to think that, as a free entry-level texting solution, FrontlineSMS is only relevant for smaller, grassroots non-profits who are most likely to lack the funds or in-house expertise to develop their own solutions. Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to see otherwise. As a case in point, this coffee project is being run by the UN. Not the suited, New York-based UN you see on TV, but a field-based team of UN staff and volunteers who simply wanted to try something. All they needed was a simple, low-cost tool which allowed them to rapidly prototype their idea.

Today, using FrontlineSMS, their pilot project is distributing prices from five large buyers to about 150 farmers, village leaders and farmers groups by SMS in a classic “market transparency” intervention. And it’s working. Prices are going up for farmers, and the buyers are getting access to more quantity and better quality. Prices are collected via phone once a week and within ten minutes are entered into FrontlineSMS and sent out. The project has been successfully running for several months.

What’s notable is the benefit this project brings to the coffee dealers, the middlemen. Usually tarnished as unscrupulous and exploitative, they also have families and also need to make a living. Rather than cutting them out altogether they have been brought on board, and their reward is better quality coffee and access to larger quantities of beans.

Of course, there are countless “market price” examples out there, but what makes this significant, for me at least, is that they used a tool that any organisation working on economic empowerment or market issues could use. Unlike the Kerala fishing example, where mobile phones helped fishermen in southern India increase their profits in a similar way, this latest UN project is using freely available, NGO-specific, easy to implement named software. Interested NGOs simply have to Google “FrontlineSMS” and – if they choose – learn about it, download it and use it themselves. Barriers need to come down, and they are.

But issues of cost, replicability and knowing what’s possible remain three of the biggest hurdles to mobile adoption among the grassroots conservation and development communities, something I regularly blog about. As yet, this UN project is undocumented (which is why I can’t be more specific), so the knowledge is largely confined locally to where they work. Hopefully this will change. For the hundred and fifty coffee farmers involved in this project the concept has been well and truly proven, but for countless thousands of others, it hasn’t. Our challenge is to make it so.

Going… Going… Gone.

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get easily attached to material things, but this was a little different. Since my second month at Stanford – way back in October 2006 – this particular “material thing” has been my home, kiwanja’s North American HQ and my Sunday morning ride to Trader Joes, Peets Coffee and the laundrette. Until today, that is.

I decided soon after arriving in California to get a VW camper, not just because it was going to work out better on my finances but because I felt that living the simple life in the complex Stanford environment would keep me focussed and “real”. It became apparent after my first few days here that it would be very easy to get caught up in a place like this, very easy to lose focus and forget why I was here, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I blogged about my thoughts last summer, as my Fellowship came to an end and many of my friends returned to their own particular corners of the globe.

Now, with just two weeks left here at Stanford myself, it was time to move on. The van had to go. I didn’t realise it, but last night literally was my last night.

This was the van I retired to late at night after a long day working on my – and the other Fellows – projects. It was the van which kept me warm during one of the coldest winters in California for a century, and the van in which I read numerous Africa and technology books, strategising my future direction. It was the van that brought me NPR radio and an hour of the BBC World Service each evening, and the van in which I lay while I edited and re-edited my proposal for the new FrontlineSMS. It was my home when I got my first ever grant, from the MacArthur Foundation last summer, and pretty-much the only home I have known since moving here.

This old van has been very much a part of my life here as have the people, the places, the coffee and the Fellowship. I had dreams of keeping it, storing it away somewhere and coming back for it some day, or shipping it over to England. But none of this was ever really that sensible, because at the end of the day this van was only really meant to keep me real, right?

Job done, I’d say.

Mobile apps for the long tail

Even though I regularly blog about things which directly relate to my work, I rarely make use of any of them in my work. But then a few weeks ago I blogged about “Social mobile and the long tail“, an entry in which I tried to imagine what the non-profit/developing country/mobile applications landscape might look like. I had been toying with the idea of blogging about it for a few months, but just hadn’t come up with an image I was happy with. For a while I’d had the long tail in mind, so eventually I plumped for it even though it was originally conceived for something entirely different (consumer demographics in business, of all things).

During my recent presentation at the Texting4Health conference at Stanford, the graph caused quite a stir (you’d have to have been there to know the context), but it proved an incredibly useful visual for something which would have previously taken me a minute or two to explain. Since then it’s effectively got me an invite to another conference, this time in San Francisco, which has an interest in the focus areas for mobile applications in the developing country/NGO world. The fuller blog posting has also proved popular – a document I’ll be using later this week at a gathering in Washington D.C.

Reactions to the relevance of the long tail in the mobile applications space have been mixed. Some people just got it, some people debated and discussed it, while others just didn’t click. But that’s fine. The whole purpose of the graph was to try and generate awareness around something I see as extremely important. There’s a lot of energy, and increasing amounts of money, being funnelled into the social mobile space right now. If – in the context of grassroots NGOs in developing countries at least – mobiles are to live up to their full potential we need to make sure that all this time, money and effort are concentrated in the right place.

And for me, at least, that means putting most of it in the long tail.

Seizing the moment

Back in the summer of 2005, a few friends and colleagues gathered in a corner of the Commonwealth Club in London. There were environmentalists, conservationists, communications experts, senior mobile industry executives, businesspeople and a couple of potential investors. What brought us there was the Galileo Masters, an annual competition which awards incubation opportunities for innovative satellite navigation applications. FrontlineSMS development was just about to begin, was beginning to grow and it was a time rich in ideas. Not surprisingly for a meeting dominated by conservationists, it was an environmental application which won through. On 8th June 2005, our Mobile Environmental Monitoring Device was born. Our idea was this.

A Mobile Environmental Monitoring Device (MEMD), tracked by Galileo, would gather environmental information as people move through their landscapes. Indicators such as temperature, air quality, CO2 levels and air pressure would be recorded along with a fix on each location. For the first time individuals will be able to monitor their own exposure to local, relevant environmental hazards. Although initially a standalone unit, MEMD could converge with other technologies in the future, such as mobile phones and PDAs, providing enhanced functionality and communications ability. Each data set, gathered by each MEMD unit, would provide the user with a snapshot of the state of their environment

The idea was a bit on the grand side (see a bigger diagram) and we didn’t win, which was probably a good thing since none of us really knew if the thing was possible. MEMD was consigned to the archives like an earlier mobile payments concept (which has also since taken off). I started work on another project which later became FrontlineSMS, and life moved on.

The idea was well and truly buried until recently, when I came across this – the Nokia Eco Sensor Concept. According to Nokia:

Our visionary design concept is a mobile phone and compatible sensing device that will help you stay connected to your friends and loved ones, as well as to your health and local environment. You can also share the environmental data your sensing device collects and view other users’ shared data, thereby increasing your global environmental awareness

Interestingly, their monitoring device pairs with a mobile phone – which was what we had in mind – collects similar kinds of environmental data, allows it to be shared and aggregated and is designed to increase environmental awareness. It looks like we were just a little early on this one.

Ideas, of course, are one thing. Having the resources to execute them is another (something which, to this day, remains a challenge). Back in 2005 we were left to wonder if MEMD would ever have been possible.

Two years later, Nokia have shown us that it is.

London calling

In a sense, is something of a deception. With so much going on so much of the time, it exudes the aura of a small, tightly-knit organisation, a team of people busily working their way through a range of mobile and ICT-related projects. If, back in 2003, I had called the site as I originally planned – thank goodness it was taken – this confusion probably wouldn’t arise today. Many people assume there are at least a couple of people behind, nGOmobile or FrontlineSMS. The deception is well and truly driven home when I get emails asking to speak to someone from my London office. One day, my friend. One day.

The last couple of weeks or so – a few days either side of my return to Stanford, in fact – have been particularly productive. Here’s a wrap up of some of the latest News. was appointed a member of the Program Committee for the W3C Workshop on the Role of Mobile Technologies in Fostering Social Development. Scheduled for Sao Paulo in June, the Workshop aims to understand the specific challenges of using mobile phones and web technologies to deliver services to underprivileged populations in developing countries. A Call for Participation for the 2008 event went out at the end of February.

A talk on the uses of FrontlineSMS by grassroots health NGOs, and a live demonstration of the software, took place at Stanford University’s Texting4Health Conference. This followed closely on the heals of FrontlineSMS’s inclusion in a new UN “Compendium of ICT Applications on Electronic Government“. The first in a series of volumes, this one focuses on the use of mobile technology in the areas of health and learning.

After a series of discussions which started last autumn came an appointment to the Advisory Board for Open Mind, a non-profit organisation which houses Question Box, a project developing a simple telephone intercom which connects rural people to the internet. After blogging about it a few days ago (see the entry below), Question Box was picked up by the popular Boing Boing website.

After successful outings with the Global Mobile Awards 2008 and kiwanja’s own nGOmobile competition, 160 Characters appointed a judge for the forthcoming 2008 Mobile Messaging Awards. FrontlineSMS, which was short listed for a 2007 Mobile Messaging Award, will be at the centre of a speech I’m giving in Cannes – where the 2008 winners will be announced, and where I’ll be making the non-profit keynote address on the use of SMS by grassroots NGOs around the world.

On the subject of Awards, FrontlineSMS has been nominated in the “Equality” section of the Tech Awards, an international Awards program that honours innovators from around the world applying technology to benefit humanity. made its fourth appearance on the BBC World Service, this time talking about the recently announced winners of the inaugural nGOmobile competition. The interview, broadcast on Digital Planet, profiled the projects in Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan and covered more broadly the continuing relevance of SMS as a tool for grassroots NGOs in the developing world.

The Social Mobile Group on Facebook, set up by kiwanja in November 2006 (and which has just hit the 1,400 member-mark) was praised in a blog posting by Social Media Guy in an entry titled “Facebook Groups Done Right“. The use of Rotating Group Officers, relevant discussion topics, the presence of an external site for non-Facebook users and a voluntary Members Directory were all highlighted as innovative ways of developing and maintaining groups on the platform.

Finally, “Design Traditionalist“, a blog run by Alan Manley (a lecturer in product design in India) has named the website among several others in its “Good site” section. As someone forced to do their own web design and development (it would normally be a job for the London office, right?) it’s always quite pleasing when a qualified observer has a “positive interaction”.

Maybe I won’t make those changes after all…

In the know

We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. These are the services you’ll get to hear most about when you search the web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side – I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day (at most) possibly want?

I remember my days back in Nigeria, where I worked for the best part of 2002 at a primate sanctuary in Calabar. The mobile phone networks weren’t quite operational yet – there was sometimes a signal and sometimes it worked – but the number of internet cafes was on the rise. I remember going in during the evenings, usually to find people doing one of four things – entering competitions to win cars or holidays, looking at females (and males) in varying degrees of undress, trying to find a partner on a dating site, or sending and receiving email (which was perhaps, in some cases, related to one of the first three activities). Clearly, this wasn’t the only use of the internet in Calabar, but nevertheless it interested me to see what people did online once you gave them the opportunity to get there. Let’s put it this way, few people were doing their homework, looking up university education options, checking the price of matoke or learning how to stay fit and healthy.

Last Autumn I met Rose Shuman, a young entrepreneur based out of UC Berkeley, California. With a background working in developing countries and a Masters in International Development from Brown University, Rose had developed a clever ‘intercom’ style box which, when placed in a rural location, allowed people access to the information they sought in a slightly unusual, but innovative manner. It was a ‘one-step-removed’ type of internet access.

It works like this. A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who’s sitting in front of a computer attached to the internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the internet and reads it back. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues. And during early trials at least, no cost. Put simply, Question Box provides immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication – speaking and listening. I thought it was great.

When I met Rose she was trialling her first Question Box, which had been placed in Phoolpur village in Greater Noida, close to New Delhi, in September 2007. These early prototypes have been using landlines to connect the Box to the operator, and this has proved to be the weakest link in the technological chain. A reliance on landlines also severely restricts the location where a Box can be placed. It was clear we had a fixed-line problem waiting for a mobile solution. That’s what Rose and I talked about five months ago. Soon we’ll begin exploring options, both technological and financial.

Last week Rose sent me the data from the first trial. It’s priceless. When you allow rural people in developing countries – in this case a single village in India – to ask any question they like, what do they ask? What’s important to them? Does it follow our health information model, or market prices idea, or an anticipated need for paid employment? Rose is still working through the data, trying to knock it into meaningful shape so we can present it to potential funders, so I can’t go into too much detail right now for obvious reasons. But I can tell you that the results are cool.

Sure, there were a few of the more likely suspects in there – people asking for exam results, health questions, enquires about land rights and food commodity prices. But there was also a demand for all sorts of other types of data, much of which I’d never have anticipated.

Often when we plan and build mobile solutions for developing (or emerging) markets, we forget, neglect or are just plain unsure how to ask the users what it is that they want. The irony might be that, here at least, Question Box might end up being the answer we’re looking for.

(This Question Box blog entry was picked up by Boing Boing the very next day, and an interesting discussion ensued. Visit Boing Boing to see what people there had to say. Then, a couple of days later Ned Potter, the science correspondent for ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” reported on Question Box. What a great week for the project!))