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Posts from — July 2009

Taking on the grassroots challenge

Over the past four years FrontlineSMS has taught us a lot, and I write about it frequently (see my recent misconceptions and observations posts). One of the biggest – and most underestimated – challenges is outreach. If you’re building a tool for grassroots NGOs, particularly those working on the margins, promoting social mobile tools to them is inherently tricky.

Over the past year, and over the past few months in particular, increasing numbers of local, national and international NGOs have begun promoting FrontlineSMS themselves, to their own field offices, partners and NGO friends. This is hugely significant for us, amplifying our own efforts considerably. This short video, courtesy of United Methodist Communications (UMC), shows a handful of delegates at a recent crisis management conference talk briefly about their thoughts on the software.

They may only be a few words, but for us they speak volumes. We took on the grassroots challenge, and it’s great to see others joining in to help us.

After all, it doesn’t matter how good your mobile solutions are if no-one knows they exist.

July 27, 2009   48 Comments

Update: Domestic violence – An SMS SOS

This update is the twelfth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Anthony Papillion – Founder of OpenEMR HQ – shares the latest news on its use in his Oklahoma home town, where the software is helping provide relief to women suffering domestic violence

Anthony Papillion“In late May of this year, I assisted a local crisis center in deploying a solution we’ve now dubbed “FamilyFIRST“. FamilyFIRST is an SMS based system that allows victims of domestic violence to reach out to police, crisis counselors, and to document abuse incidents all via simple SMS messaging.

When the project first began, neither I nor the agency involved were sure how it would be received or if it would even be used. Educating victims to think pro-actively in crisis situation is a difficult thing. Their first reaction is to simply hide or get out of the situation if possible. This often means running without a purse or mobile phone.

So the agency decided to tackle the deployment in two phases: Technical and marketing. Technical, thanks to FrontlineSMS, was incredibly easy. By integrating the software along with a bit of custom software written by me, I was able to get a working system up and running bug free in less than a week. It includes message routing and archival, and is structured in such a way that the evidence stored inside of it has been deemed acceptable by the court.

Then, came the marketing side. Obviously, the agency didn’t have a lot of money so doing a huge PR blitz was out of the question. So they went about spreading word about the system in local PSA’s, victims groups, in seminars, and through area counselors working with the abused population. Because this was all very grassroots, they were able to accomplish this with a near zero budget and we were all totally shocked by the response it received.

Domestic violence (http://www.helenjaques.co.uk)

In the last two and a half months, FamilyFiRST has processed over 4,000 messages from victims of violence, not only in our local area, but around the state of Oklahoma. Evidence stored in the system has been used to help successfully prosecute 9 offenders and has resulted in combined sentences of over 110 years being handed down in those cases.

All in all, the system is a success and it couldn’t have happened without FrontlineSMS. Even though I’m a software engineer by trade, I wouldn’t have had the time or knowledge to build such a robust system from scratch and FrontlineSMS reduced ‘building the system’ to writing a few pieces of tie-in software and setting up a database.

Our future goal for the system is to work with other agencies in deploying in in health care (our core competency), domestic violence, and education. Thanks to this experience with FrontlineSMS, I’m confident that a robust system can be built quickly, easily, and very affordably (under $700 USD).

Thank you Ken and all the developers of FrontlineSMS. You’re helping to change the world, one download at a time”.

Anthony Papillion
Founder
OpenEMR HQ
www.openemrhq.com

(This post is also available on the FrontlineSMS community pages. Anthony’s original FrontlineSMS guest post, which describes the thinking behind the project, is available here. Congratulations to everyone at “FamilyFIRST” for such a great, inspiring and hugely valuable initiative)

July 22, 2009   80 Comments

SMS registration for Maker Faire Africa

Attendees of next month’s Maker Faire Africa will be able to register their attendance by text message, thanks to a clever hack by  Henry Barnor and Henry Addo, two Ghanaian developers.

Maker Faire AfricaIn the true spirit of Maker Faire, the two Henry’s have built the system using a phone with a Zain SIM card connected to a laptop running FrontlineSMS. When the software receives an SMS it sends the data via HTTP to a python web application running on Google’s App Engine infrastructure, where it’s processed and a registration code sent out to the originating handset. It’s another great use of the software and kudos goes out to the guys behind it. You can read their full post here.

Maker Faire Africa (MFA), a celebration of African ingenuity, innovation and invention, will take place between August 14th and 16th at the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Wish I could be there.  :(

July 20, 2009   32 Comments

Development best practice for beginners. #4

#4

Find more in the best practice series here

July 19, 2009   10 Comments

Poverty: The elephant in the room

A recent tweet by good friend Juliana Rotich on street/graffiti artist Banksy reminded me of another image he put together a couple of years ago. On display in Los Angeles for a limited time as part of an exhibition on global poverty and injustice, this was an incredible piece of “live art” which made it stand out from many of the other ‘works of art’ he has become famous for.

Elephant, by Banksy

Banksy created the image to drive home how widely world poverty is ignored, and I used it during my first talk at Stanford University in late 2006 to describe my first visit to the African continent in 1993. It was during this trip – to help build a school in northern Zambia – that I first noticed the elephant.

When was the first time you saw it?

July 15, 2009   34 Comments

The Million Dollar Homepage

Some of the best ideas are so incredibly simple that, after-the-event, we’re all left wondering why we never came up with them. When I first heard of The Million Dollar Homepage back in October 2005, that’s precisely how I felt (like millions of others, no doubt).

Alex Tew was a student trying to figure out how to pay his way through university. Short of money and short of socks, he scrawled “How can I become a millionaire?” on a notepad and, twenty minutes later, The Million Dollar Homepage was born. The concept was simple – create a website and charge people a dollar-a-pixel to place an image on a grid a thousand pixels wide by a thousand high. ‘Selling’ all million pixels – if he could pull it off – would net him a cool one million dollars.

Launched towards the end of August 2005 the idea was so novel, quirky and brilliant, the least I felt I could do was part with a little of my own hard-earned cash and buy up a few in a show of support. At that time the site was far from full, and it was still unclear whether or not all the space was going to sell. Today, the completed image is something of an internet icon.

The Million Dollar Homepage

Around the same time Alex was raking in the dollars, I was putting together the final touches of a little project of my own. Somewhere in those million pixels you’ll find a couple of hundred dedicated to FrontlineSMS (no prizes, but see if you can spot them). Like Alex, I had no idea back then whether my idea was going to get any serious traction.

Looking back, neither of us needed worry.

July 13, 2009   12 Comments

Searching where Google can’t

“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. Only last week Grameen’s AppLab initiative, in conjunction with Google and MTN, launched a suite of SMS services in Uganda. 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?”.

Question Box. Photo courtesy Rose Shuman

kiwanja’s latest PC World article takes a look at an exciting and innovative project which started out in India but is now spreading to Africa – Question Box – which takes the internet to places where Google is yet to reach.

July 9, 2009   21 Comments

On a mission to aid farmers in Latin America

This is the eleventh in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Jorge Alonso – a veterinarian turned ICT4D practitioner – discusses his thoughts on the application of the software in agriculture in Latin America

Jorge Alonso“I am a veterinarian by qualification but, as often happens in life, ended up working with information and communication technologies… applied to agriculture. And I have no regrets. For some time I have been interested in the application of technology in agriculture, and these days I am particularly excited by the potential of mobile technologies in helping small producers improve the marketing of their products.

Over the past ten years I have managed a regional potato network (in Spanish). As its content manager my duties included searching for useful information to distribute among subscribers, and it was here that I first came across FrontlineSMS. My first, initial thought was how it could be used to spread potato prices among my group.

Since last year I have been thinking more about how FrontlineSMS could help small-holder farmers in San Juan, my province here in Argentina. I participated in two e-forums organized by FAO on Mobile Telephony in Rural Areas (which were held in both Spanish and English) and I paid particular interest to the experiences of participants using text messaging in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was a hugely beneficial exercise, and I think I found what I was looking for.

Diagram: Jorge Alonso

Based on the findings of my research I designed a process through which small producers could exchange information by SMS with organisations, with the end result being improvement in the marketing of their produce. What do organisations need to do this? A computer, a cell phone (or modem) and a copy of FrontlineSMS. Most organizations have a computer and cell phone. According to recent statistics, in Argentina there are 102.2 mobiles phones per 100 habitants. What’s more, 91% of mobile users in the lower income bracket have used SMS services. Using readily available and familiar technologies, my idea could be adopted by many institutions including associations, co-operatives, NGOs, independent and community radio stations, as well as rural and indigenous organisations.

I recently wrote a comprehensive article in Spanish which talks about mobile telephony, the global food crisis, what makes mobile phone technology so special, experiences in Africa, Asia and America, and finally my proposal in more detail. Please check it out. Comments and suggestions are welcome. Thank you”.

Jorge Luis Alonso G.
Content Manager
Red Electrónica de la Papa (Redepapa)
www.redepapa.org

July 7, 2009   86 Comments

Mapping medicine availability via SMS

Medicine stock-outs are a potentially lethal problem in a number of African countries, yet governments insist they don’t occur. What could be more powerful than a map which contradicts this claim?

Last week activists in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia started surveying clinics in their respective countries, checking stock levels of essential medicines, including:

  • First-line anti-malarials
  • Zinc 20mg tablet
  • Penicilin
  • First-line ARVs
  • Metronidazole 200mg tablet
  • Ciproflaxicin
  • Amoxicillin suspension
  • Ceftriaxone
  • Cotrimoxazole suspension
  • ORS – Diarrhea

Each of these are seen as essential in varying degrees to fighting disease and illness, and are widely used when available.

Armed with the data, activists report their results via structured, coded SMS – “x,y,z” – where the first number represents their country code (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda or Zambia), the second their district or city, and the third the medicine which they found to be out of stock.  These messages are received by a phone connected to a computer running FrontlineSMS, which then runs an automatic script which validates the data before it is sent over the internet to a Ushahidi-powered website.

From there the results are automatically displayed on a map, below (click to visit the live site).

Stockouts map

As of today, there have been over 250 stock-outs of these essential medicines.

Since the data is automatically populated, the map represents an almost real-time picture of stock-outs in the four target countries. After a successful launch and a week piloting the service, the “stock-out hub number” will now be distributed to medicine users throughout each country so that anyone with a mobile phone can send in a stock-out report. Unlike reports from official, known data collectors, these messages will firstly be checked by staff at Health Action International (HAI Africa) before being posted up on the map.

Stockouts Team

The technological portion of the campaign was implemented by Michael Ballard and Claudio Midolo, both Open Society Fellows from the Department of Design + Technology at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.  Ndesanjo Macha also helped in getting FrontlineSMS up and running in Uganda and Malawi.

For further background information and up-to-date news, visit the “Stop Stock-Outs” website.

July 1, 2009   39 Comments