Students to debut FrontlineSMS on Android?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SMS-powered rural healthcare in-a-box

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

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

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

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

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

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