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Posts from — November 2009

SMS tackles farmer literacy in Niger

In this, the sixteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Joshua Haynes – a Masters student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University – describes their application of the software to help improve the lives of farmers in Niger, West Africa

Projet Alphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire (ABC), conceived of and spearheaded by FrontlineSMS’s newest Advisory Board member Jenny Aker, uses mobile phones as tools to aid in adult literacy acquisition in rural Niger. This project is funded by UC Davis, Oxford University, Tufts University and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and housed at and managed by CRS/Niger.

Adult literacy in rural areas faces an inherent problem. In Niger, for example, there are no novels, newspapers or journals in native languages like Hausa or Zarma. The 20% of Nigériens who are literate are literate in French. The vast majority of rural villagers have struggled to maintain their livelihoods since time immemorial without ever knowing how to read a single word. What’s the point of literacy if there is no need for written materials?

Mamadou Issoufou, like 80% of people who live in rural areas, has access to a couple of different weekly markets where he can buy and sell his millet. One market, Dogon Kirya, is 11 kilometers away and the other, Doubélma, is 15 kilometers away. As Dogon Kirya is closer, he usually travels there, but he knows that sometimes he can get a better price when he goes to Doubélma. If a fellow villager who traveled to Doubélma the previous week indicates that prices were better there than in Dogon Kirya, then Mamadou might decide to go the extra four kilometers, but he’s not sure he’ll get the same prices this week, too. He leaves it up to chance.

On Wednesdays, the Service d’Information sur les Marchés Agricoles (SIMA) sends radio broadcasts on the prices of the most important staples like millet and sorghum for the largest markets in the country. Unfortunately, Mamadou, like most rural farmers, doesn’t have access to the broadcast, and if he did, his two main markets aren’t large enough to be covered by SIMA. Even if they were large enough, Dogon Kirya’s market is held on Tuesdays, so any information from the radio would be six days old.

Farmer, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

If Mamadou had access to some sort of real-time, demand-driven information, he could make better choices on where to buy and sell his goods. The mobile phone is a perfect device for transmitting information, but even though Mamadou may have access to a phone, he can’t read. The point of literacy in rural areas is increase access to information, and this is where FrontlineSMS plays an important role.

This past summer, between my first and second year as a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, I was fortunate to work with Jenny, the amazing staff at CRS and SIMA, including Djibou Alzouma, Aïchatou Bety, Sadou Djibrilla, Scott Isbrandt and Ousseïni Sountalma, to develop a system called IMAC – Information sur les Marchés Agricoles par Cellulaire. IMAC – pronounce ‘ee-mak’ – allows users to query for farmgate and market prices of agriculture products in a number of markets in four languages. It is built to work as one of the Projet ABC components, but can be used in areas with higher literacy levels.

Mobile training, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

In addition to the querying functionality, we added the ability for SIMA-trained CRS agents to update the crop prices by sending IMAC a specially formatted SMS. The prices are quickly checked for errors in Niamey, the capital, and then are live for all to use. Before, it could take up to three weeks for market prices to get recorded, go through a number of different administrative stages and finally end up in the database in the capital, but now it takes a matter of seconds before the data can be accessed.

Although the data is stored and updated in the database, FrontlineSMS is the primary access point which captures the message, sends it to the database for processing, waits eagerly for the response, and speedily sends the response to the waiting villager. By exploiting FrontlineSMS’ HTMLRequest functionality, we were able to access a backend system and turn FrontlineSMS into a demand-driven automatic information dissemination tool.

I was fortunate to return to Niger in October (2009) to not only see how well the system was still working – a big relief for developers – but to be surprised by the number of new markets and products that had been added to the system. Thanks to FrontlineSMS, CRS and SIMA, these additional markets will allow even more villagers, once at least semi-literate, to obtain information that will better help them make more informed decisions about their economic resources.

Joshua Haynes
Candidate, Masters of International Business, 2010
The Fletcher School
Tufts University
http://fletcher.tufts.edu

November 30, 2009   64 Comments

FrontlineSMS welcome video

We’ve been planning for some time to create a cool (possibly animated) introductory film for people interested in the FrontlineSMS basics, but haven’t managed to get round to it yet. So, as a stop-gap, yesterday I put together this quick eight minute welcome video, which covers most of the more frequently asked questions.

This video, and others, can be found on the FrontlineSMS Community. The “Quick Start Guide” mentioned towards the end can be downloaded from here (PDF, 1Mb).

November 27, 2009   4 Comments

Footsteps

Mount Elgon, Uganda (1998)I’m something of a walker. During my time at Stanford University my battered old trainers got me to and from most places, as they did in San Francisco and as they continue to do today in London, Cambridge and anywhere else life takes me. Walking – accompanied by my trusty iPod – is the only time I really ever get these days to think and contemplate. Classic downtime, I guess.

So it should come as no surprise to hear that three years ago I was planning the mother of all walks – across the African continent. It was a bold (and perhaps crazy) idea, and a ‘Plan B’ at that. ‘Plan A’ was to get a Fellowship at Stanford University and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, it came off. Stanford was the start of a real acceleration in kiwanja’s work, and since arriving there one sunny September back in 2006, things haven’t really stopped for me.

But there’s still the little matter of that walk…

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated in exploration, and the bygone days of early African exploration in particular. John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Mungo Park and, of course, David Livingstone, all embarked on some incredible journeys. For someone with a fascination for exploration and adventure, a love of walking, a strong personal attachment to the African continent and a need to do a lot of thinking, following in the footsteps of someone like David Livingstone probably doesn’t sound too crazy after all.

I hadn’t got too far in my planning before the Stanford offer came through, but I had done enough to realise that the walk was likely to take a very long time and be pretty treacherous. Looking at a map of Livingstone’s mammoth 1851 to 1856 walk from the west to east coast of Africa, following it today would take you through more than the odd trouble spot.

In my very rough mockup (pictured), the journey would start off in Luanda (Angola) and take you east through the DRC, then south into Zambia, down into Zimbabwe (just – that would be where Livingstone “discovered” Victoria Falls), onwards through Malawi into southern Tanzania, and then on through Mozambique to Quelimane, our final destination – and time for a very long, cold beer and a good bath, no doubt. (Quelimane is a little further north than Livingstone’s finishing point, but it’s close enough).

I’m not sure how many miles this walk would total, but it’s looking like somewhere in the region of 4,000 to 5,000. At a walking speed of, say, four miles per hour for ten hours per day, you’re talking about 1,000 days (or three years). Livingstone took five but he – or rather his porters – had to walk around a lot of lakes and hack through a lot of forest. There are likely to be a few more roads around today, and sadly a lot less forest.

I still harbour dreams to do a walk – maybe combined with a kiwanja Foundation fundraiser –  but maybe not this one. For me there’s something very magical about walking, and walking in Africa in particular. After all, feet are the mode of transport we used about two million years ago when the first humans emerged from the continent to colonise Asia. On many of my Africa trips, starting with Zambia in 1993 (where I stayed in Livingstone for a couple of days, funnily enough) I’ve always taken every opportunity to head off on foot, to take in the sights, sounds and smells. You see so much more when you walk, not to mention meet many more people. Many of my Mobile Gallery photos have been taken that way.

My first ever website – dating around 2001 – was called Igisi Hill, one of two small hills in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda where I spent three months working on a conservation project in 1998. For a couple of weeks I’d take a daily walk up that hill to sit and experience the wonderful surroundings. A shimmering Lake Albert in the distance remains a highlight. Igisi Hill is the kind of place I’d like to have my ashes scattered, funnily enough.

Once I’ve taken kiwanja.net – and projects like FrontlineSMS – as far as I feel I can, I imagine the day coming when I’ll hand them over and fulfil this dream. I’ve never quite understood my fascination for Africa, but it’s had a strong grip on me for over sixteen years now. Maybe the best way to find out is to take a journey through it.

November 25, 2009   23 Comments

A fast track to SMS success

Earlier this year, Ashoka deployed FrontlineSMS in four African countries to help promote one of their Changemakers campaigns. In Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Senegal, members of the public were invited to nominate a great teacher – a champion of quality education – who had made a profound impact on their lives. Previous campaigns had used more traditional media. When Ashoka decided to try text messaging for the first time, they turned to FrontlineSMS.

Ashoka advertisementThe campaign was a success. Ashoka said at the time: “We are very excited that we are using this technology. We are reaching out to an audience we couldn’t have accessed otherwise. We received over a hundred SMS in the first day and only one email”. Since then, kiwanja.net and Ashoka have collaborated further, starting with the creation of the Social Changemaking with Mobile Phones Group in May.

With interest in text messaging continuing to rise, Changemakers raised the idea of creating a guide, based on their experiences, to explain to other organisations in their network how to get SMS campaigns up-and-running in the shortest possible time and with the minimum of fuss. There are numerous SMS guides and reports on the web, but few talk NGOs through a simple set of steps to help them physically set up their own messaging hub.

With the help of the Group we’d set up earlier in the year, and input from other FrontlineSMS users, Ashoka released the completed “SMS Quick Start Guide” last week.

SMS

Two further collaborative reports will be released in the coming months. For now, the “SMS Quick Start Guide” can be downloaded here (PDF, 1Mb).

November 23, 2009   18 Comments

Celebrating the art of the possible

Tonight in Santa Clara, California, several thousand people will be standing on the stage with me as I collect a Tech Award for FrontlineSMS. It’s been an incredible four years – the last two in particular – and it’s amazing to think how far we’ve all come. FrontlineSMS stirs genuine enthusiasm and excitement everywhere I go, and people resonate just as much with the story as they do with the simplicity and impact of the technology.

The Tech Awards is a prestigious Silicon Valley-based international awards program that honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. This is the second time FrontlineSMS has been nominated, snapping up one of three awards handed out this year in the “Equality” category. Fifteen awards in total are being given out on the night, along with one to Al Gore who’s being honoured with the “Global Humanitarian Award 2009″.

The Tech Awards

I may be the one picking up the FrontlineSMS trophy, but this is very much a team effort if ever there was one. This would never have happened without the faith of donors, an incredible (and growing) user community, volunteers, partners, numerous bloggers and members of the media, academics, advisors, designers, lawyers and solicitors, photographers, competition judges, programmers, members of the public, students, techies, and friends and family. There are simply way too many to mention. Remove just one piece and it all comes crashing down.

This Award is also, more importantly, a celebration of the art of the possible. It shows what’s possible if you build tools for underserved places – where they’re often most needed – and what’s possible if you remain totally focused on your goal. It also shows what’s possible if you don’t lose sight of your users, and if you focus on building solutions and not just technology for technology’s sake. And it shows that you don’t need significant amounts of money or abundant resources to build tools which can have real impact.

The story behind social mobile tools are an important motivator to budding entrepreneurs, and I’m happy to continue sharing that story for as long as people find FrontlineSMS an appropriate, useful and relevant tool in their social change work. Thanks to everyone for making the journey as rich and exciting as it has been, and I look forward to continuing to work with you all as ours – and your – work continues. There is still much to do.

\o/

November 19, 2009   56 Comments

Development best practice for beginners. #5

#5

Find more in the best practice series here

November 14, 2009   5 Comments

Video intro: FrontlineSMS in agriculture

Earlier this year we were asked to work with some colleagues over at the Gates Foundation to highlight a few of the uses of FrontlineSMS in the agriculture sector. There have been numerous projects in Aceh, El Salvador and Cambodia, and the number of initiatives continues to grow.

Here’s a short five minute video which they put together. You can find this, and other videos, on the FrontlineSMS Community site.

November 12, 2009   23 Comments

Ushering in the Advisors #2: Larry, Jenny

Following the launch of the FrontlineSMS Advisory Board last month, we’re honoured to announce news of our latest two appointees – Larry Diamond and Jenny Aker. Larry and Jenny join previous recruits Jan Chipchase and Erik Hersman.

Rather than formulate a general board of Advisors, we’re trying to be strategic by appointing individuals in areas we consider key for the ongoing success and growth of the project. Jan and Erik were chosen because of their user focus, and their experience in the field, and Larry and Jenny join us as strong and widely respected members of the academic community. Both have a strong interest in ICTs and their impact around the world. FrontlineSMS has many unanswered questions – not to mention presenting some meaty research opportunities – and we hope they will be able to help us figure those out, and move our analysis and understanding of its impact forward.

Larry DiamondLarry Diamond is based at Stanford University and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he also directs the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. During the first three months of 2004, Larry served as a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Since then, he has lectured and written extensively on U.S. policy in Iraq and the wider challenges of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, and was one of the advisors to the Iraq Study Group.

During 2004–5, Larry was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force on United States Policy toward Arab Reform. With Abbas Milani, he coordinates the Hoover Institution Project on Democracy in Iran. Larry has been a strong FrontlineSMS supporter over the past two years, and continues to advise, promote and explore the use of the software in the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.

Jenny AkerJenny Aker is an Assistant Professor of Economics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.  She obtained her PhD in agricultural economics from the University of California-Berkeley, a M.A. from the Fletcher School (Tufts University) and a B.A. from Duke University.  In addition to her work at Tufts, she is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor at the Center for Studies and Research in International Development (CERDI) at the University of Auvergne.

Jenny’s research focuses on the impact of information, particularly information technology, on individuals and households’ behavior, agricultural markets and producer and consumer welfare in low-income countries, with a primary focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Based upon her previous work in Niger on the impact of mobile phones on agricultural markets, she is currently partnering with Catholic Relief Services on Project ABC (Alphabetisation de Base par Cellulaire), a project which uses mobile phones as a platform for functional literacy and for obtaining price information via SMS.  She is also working on a mobile-phone based civic education project in Mozambique. Both of these projects utilise FrontlineSMS, making Jenny – and her focus areas – an ideal Advisory Board candidate.

We’re incredibly excited to be able to draw on the considerable experience of our new Advisory Board members, each of whom will help steer and direct our technical, marketing and organisational development. With software downloads now in excess of 4,000 and the imminent launch of a FrontlineSMS Developer Community, not to mention the emergence of new spin-off organisations such as FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit, there’s without doubt plenty to be getting on with.

The Board of Advisors will all be profiled on the FrontlineSMS website once all appointments have been made. Two more will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Welcome Larry and Jenny! \o/

November 11, 2009   16 Comments

Mobile meets health on the margins

The timing of this article could not have been better, given the discussions last week on the merits of mobile-based “cloud computing” and the clarification of our position a couple of days later. Despite advances in mobile devices and data connectivity, the need for mobile tools to also be able to work in less than optimal conditions is still as strong and as relevant as ever, as this use of FrontlineSMS by Telecoms Sans Frontiers in Nicaragua shows us all too well.

TSF – No Bugs In This Software That Fights Disease
(re-printed with the kind permission of SatNews.com)
November 5th, 2009

“Since the beginning of October, Nicaragua is facing a huge rise of dengue cases, which has become a major public health concern in the country. The Health Ministry of the Central American nation (Minsa) has a crisis unit (SILAIS) which currently focuses its activities in response to both the dengue and H1N1 plagues. An Internet monitoring system has previously been set up to control the health situation in the country; nevertheless access to computer is often difficult in some regions where only few health centers are equipped.

TSF and FrontlineSMS TrainingDue to this serious situation, and the necessity to improve the collection of information, TSF, in collaboration with PATH (an international non-profit organisation that aims at enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycle of poor health) is reinforcing SILAIS’ capacities in Information and Communications Technologies.

In order to monitor the spread of the dengue in Managua and to conduct mobile health actions, TSF has been implementing for the first time a very innovative system based on a widespread, cheap and solid technology, GSM.

To set up the program, TSF uses FrontlineSMS software. Developed by a TSF partner NGO, FrontlineSMS is free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Thus, GSM technology is used to reach as many geographical zones as possible to control health issues in those areas. The server in SILAIS is connected with the 32 health units in Managua.

Each health unit has been delivered a mobile phone by TSF, so that they can send different kinds of information through SMS to the server. Hospital and health centers fill in predefined forms from their mobile phones and send them by SMS to SILAIS. Designed by PATH and the SILAIS, those forms provide data about the classic and hemorrhagic dengue cases, about the H1N1 2009 ones and the need for medicines when the stock nearly runs out. Once the forms received, the server stores information and puts them in databases in order to facilitate statistical analysis, on Excel format for example.

TSF provides two-way communication to health units enabling SILAIS to receive a daily report and gather messages from the health units and will have an updated situation in each center. At the meanwhile, SILAIS will also be able to communicate important information to them through SMS (such as an alert or a warning about coming meetings for example) or give them automatic answers to predefined questions sent by the health units.

Image courtesy Telecoms Sans Frontiers

By providing communication links between health structures and the SILAIS, TSF will allow the Health Ministry to have more accurate information about the diseases spread within Managua and quickly survey and assess the needs in affected areas. TSF helps health professionals use advanced methodologies such as smart phones and open-source software. Mobile devices are great tools to track and transmit crucial data in order to detect an epidemic threat at an appropriate time. Through this program, TSF participates in strengthening health systems in Nicaragua.

Following the installation of the system, on October 24th, TSF organized training for all the beneficiaries of the project. The health units and SILAIS staff were trained on the application’s functionalities and available services”.

For a related article on FrontlineForms, the FrontlineSMS data collection tool used by TSF for the project, go here.

November 9, 2009   32 Comments

Our “social mobile” line in the sand

The depth and range of discussion generated by my last post on “the cloud” and “appropriate technology” may have come as something of a surprise, but one thing is clear. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding around the topic, particularly with people who are either developing or promoting tools based on the very technology I was challenging. The only way to avoid this kind of confusion is to spell out our positions clearly, and I made this point in that very same post. So how do we move on from here?

Well, we need to set out our positions clearly as a marker in the sand for future discussion. So, let me go first. To clear up any present and future confusion, here’s the official FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net position on what I consider five key “mobile tools for development” areas – location in the “long tail”, scaling, replication and growth, open sourcing and access to “the cloud”.

1. Who are your target audience?

Some time ago I butchered Chris Anderson’s “long tail” concept and adapted it for mobile. It seemed like the best way of categorising the different focus areas for mobile tools – high-end for larger organisations down to low-end for small grassroots ones. Here’s what I came up with.

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

The basic rationale behind the diagram is this. Tools in the red area are technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don’t require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated – within hours – whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.

Note: There is no right or wrong or good or bad place on the tail. There are just different places

From its early beginnings in South Africa in 2004, FrontlineSMS has been totally focused on grassroots NGOs in the green space, an area which I believed back then was heavily underserved (and to a large degree still is). We’re not particularly interested in big users such as international NGOs or government departments. So if our tool isn’t considered right for the kinds of big projects they’re likely to be running, then that’s fine with us.

I wonder where the other social mobile tools would place themselves on the tail?

2. What is your position on scaling?

Believe it or not, not everyone wants to build tools that can grow into large centralised solutions, which is how many people seem to define scale. No one is ever going to run a nationwide election monitoring campaign running into millions of text messages using a single laptop, cable and mobile phone. FrontlineSMS is based on “horizontal scaling”, gained by an increase in the numbers of individual users with their own systems. In other words, a hundred systems in a hundred clinics serving 10,000 people each, rather than one system adapted and “scaled up” to serve a million. We’re happy and comfortable with this approach, as are our target audience of grassroots NGOs.

3. How does it replicate and grow?

Growth is based on patience, and a “pull” rather than “push” approach, i.e. awareness-raising and then letting NGOs decide if they want to try out the tool or not. Those that do then go and request it from the website. Everything is driven by the end user, who needs to be independently motivated to download and use the tool. There is no need for us to be involved at any stage, so no-one flies anywhere and no-one does any training – note that the approaches of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit may be different – and no-one tries to “sell” FrontlineSMS to anyone. The solution is designed to allow users to do everything themselves. No core FrontlineSMS implementations are driven by us, and none are our projects. Use is replicated by users sharing experiences, talking about their use of the tool to others, and growing numbers of champions who are either building their own solutions around FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and researchers who write about its use and impact.

4. What is your position on open sourcing?

Again, from the very beginning we have been unashamedly focused on our end user – NGOs in developing countries seeking easy-to-deploy mobile tools. Our end users are not programmers, coders or technical developers, and few if any of our FrontlineSMS user base would have any idea what to do with source code. We decided that we would focus on the open source community once we believed we had something worth working with, and that time is about now. In between working on everything else, we plan to launch a developer community soon. That all said, there are already a number of developers bolting on new functionality to the core FrontlineSMS platform, and 90% of the code is already available online and accessible through SourceForge.

5. Does access to “the cloud” matter?

Cloud image courtesy versacevistas.wordpress.com

FrontlineSMS only came about four years ago because of a critical lack of tools that allowed for group messaging without the need for the Internet. Building a tool which is able to operate in Internet-free zones has therefore been central to our thinking since the very beginning, and continues to this day. Beyond basic messaging, FrontlineSMS can make use of an Internet connection when and where available – messages can be forwarded via email, or posted to websites, for example (that’s the functionality Ushahidi takes advantage of) – but no Internet is not a show stopper for us. And as time moves on and connectivity does improve, we’ll be ready. We’re adding picture messaging in the next couple of months (for example), and other web-based features are in the pipeline. We are not anti-Internet, but realistic when it comes to its availability and reliability.

So, that’s our line in the sand. If anyone else has a mobile tool – or is working on a mobile tool – I’d encourage them to clear up any possible confusion and write a post outlining their thinking in these five areas. The alternative is more confusion, and more false arguments and comparisons.

I know I’d love to know the thinking behind more social mobile tools, and going by the reaction earlier this week, it looks like I’m not the only one. Now is a good-a-time as any to join the conversation.

Read responses and “lines in the sand” from:

FrontlineSMS:Credit
FrontlineSMS:Medic

(As of 20th December, no other mobile tools providers have responded, which is a shame. May the confusion and misrepresentation continue…)

November 5, 2009   40 Comments