Three years on, but still some way to go…

I’m writing this from seat 7D at exactly 38,000 feet somewhere between Forssa and Cambridge. Normally seat 7D would be in first- or business-class, but unfortunately for me I’m on a Ryanair (low cost airline) flight. Nothing fancy here. I’m returning from a short combined work and pleasure trip to Finland, where exactly three years ago I was knee-deep writing the first version of FrontlineSMS.

It was ‘seat of the pants’ stuff back then. I remember giving a very early interview about the software to Charity Times, even though it was only a third complete and it wasn’t totally clear what it was or wasn’t going to do. If that wasn’t enough, I was also asked for a URL so people could go online for more information. “Of course”, I said. With no website yet in place, programming was quickly put on hold for an afternoon while one was hastily deployed. In the absence of an obvious graphic to use for the main banner, and no logo to speak of, I took the liberty of taking a photo of the forest outside (the same forest I used to stare into while trying to decipher numerous unfriendly VB.NET error messages). My forest banner – which did resemble something of a ‘frontline’, I guess – held firm for two-and-a-half years until it was finally replaced when the new website – properly planned and commissioned, I hasten to add – went live in May.

A lot has changed in three years, and we’re not just talking website banners. The initial launch, back in late 2005, went largely unnoticed. I remember spending my evenings trying to identify people who might be interested in writing about it, but it was new, was written by somebody nobody had heard of, had no users, nobody knew if it worked (not even me, to be honest) and nobody knew if anyone would want it. Talk about an uphill struggle. Mike Grenville at 160Characters was the first to see some potential in it, and his post got the ball rolling. A few other sites followed suit, most liking the thinking behind the program more than the program itself. Things slowly began to move, and a few enquiries came in from here and there. One was from Kubatana, who have the great honour of being the first organisation to take a punt on FrontlineSMS (they still use it to this day). Significantly, another email was from the MacArthur Foundation. The huge significance of that mid-November telephone conversation with Jerry wasn’t to become apparent for another year-and-a-half or so.

Today, news of the latest version is effortlessly working its way around the web and my Inbox is regularly hit with NGO and press enquiries, people wanting to know if they can help in any way, and a stream of messages of support (there are one or two negative individuals, but luckily they remain well in the minority). There are some great, hugely supportive Blog posts out there, including those by Erik Hersman, Mike Grenville, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Clark Boyd, but also some insightful, short and unusual ones. FrontlineSMS is work in progress, and people seem interested enough to want to come along for the ride.

Cellphone 9 described FrontlineSMS as “The NGO Twitter”, while Unthinkingly thought it was “a thoroughly wonderful idea in many ways … If you’re into international rural research with mobile phones. A tool worth watching very closely, it’s what I think is the leading platform of the mobile research ‘industry’ if there is such a thing”. Chromosome LK won the Dramatic Headline competition with their “FrontlineSMS and Sri Lankan Gays” (referring to its use in Sri Lanka by a gay rights group), while Aydin Design decided that one of the really exciting things about FrontlineSMS was “the speed of development – with low resources, putting it in the hands of people now – so they can do things to improve their lives – now”, which is exactly what it is trying to do. Isis-Inc – who’s strap line is “Technically, it’s about sex” (?) – concluded their coverage with “Yay FrontlineSMS!! Access meets elegance!!”.

It was Clark Boyd, however, who hit the nail right on the head when he wrote:

Today, FrontlineSMS announced version 2.0. To get a handle on what goes into this, think about it. This platform has to work on hundreds of different handsets and modems, and in languages ranging from Swahili to Cantonese. And it needs to work with Windows, Mac and Linux. Not child’s play, and not something that’s been done with millions of dollars of backing from major funders

Not one to sit on my laurels, I’m already working on ideas for the next version of FrontlineSMS, and a number of exciting related initiatives, with the support of another major US foundation. FrontlineSMS is a major step forward in kiwanja’s efforts to build affordable, appropriate technology solutions for the grassroots NGO community.

But we’re by no means there yet…