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Category — Fun

Back to the Future: Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS

This post was first published on the FrontlineSMS website last October to celebrate six years since the software’s launch. This week the FrontlineSMS team – which now spans three continents – are preparing for the release of the latest version. Launch events are being held in the US, UK and Kenya. Further details are available here.

With this, and our transition announcement a couple of weeks ago, it felt like a good time to reflect on the early days of the software. Thanks to the great support of our online community, users, staff, donors, bloggers and the media, FrontlineSMS today is well known throughout the wider ICT4D world. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s that post in full.

In late October 2005, an early beta – “proof-of-concept” – version of FrontlineSMS was released to the world. It took just ten months for the idea to shape itself into the early stages of what you see today. In this, the second and last of our sixth birthday celebration posts (you can read the first here), we dig deep into our email archives and reveal some of the more interesting early – and perhaps surprising – moments of the project.

The idea for FrontlineSMS was conceived in early 2005 with the help of several field trips to South Africa and Mozambique, a bottle of beer and “Match of the Day”. All is revealed in this fun, short National Geographic video made in 2010:

The very first email which specifically references FrontlineSMS was sent on 6th March, 2005 at 0853 to register the domain name.

Prior to that the working title was “Project SMS”. The first email to reference “Project SMS” was sent on Wednesday 26th January, 2005 at 12:02. In it, the entire concept was described in just 963 words with an initial estimated budget of just £2,000 ($3,000).

Factoring in equipment and other costs, personal gifts totaling £10,000 were secured on 16th March, 2005 from two former Vodafone directors.

“The potential for FrontlineSMS is very exciting, and I am very much looking forward to working on the project. The potential impact for conservation and development is considerable.” – Email from me to one of the supporters, 3rd May, 2005.

Preparation for the project officially got underway with the purchase of equipment totaling £1,476.09 on 22nd May, 2005:

One month later the timeline for the project was laid out. FrontlineSMS was delivered bang on schedule. From an email on 22nd June, 2005:

“I will begin working on the specification over the next couple of weeks, and will then get stuck into the initial programming phase during August. I have allocated that whole month to FrontlineSMS. As per the original timeline, July will be preparation, and August to September development time, so by October we should have something to trial.”

August 2005: The Beta version of FrontlineSMS was developed on this kitchen table in Finland. In the absence of any other images, the forest view from the window was used as the main banner for the first FrontlineSMS website later that month.

News of FrontlineSMS was first revealed to the media in an interview with the Charity Times [PDF] in August, 2005. Software development was briefly paused on 26th August so that the first FrontlineSMS website could be hastily put together ahead of the article’s release.

“I have very high hopes that FrontlineSMS is really going to open the door to SMS technology to the wider NGO community” – Email to World Wildlife Fund, who were interested in trailing the software. 2nd September, 2005.

On 29th September, 2005 FrontlineSMS was presented for the first time at an internal event at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK:

On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).

Email, 6th October, 2005: “Google now gives us around 80 results when searching for FrontlineSMS”. Today the number is well over 100,000.

Email to supporters, 31st October, 2005: “The FrontlineSMS texting system is now ready for trial”. These nine words signaled our official launch exactly six years ago today.

Email dated 14th November, 2005 from the MacArthur Foundation: “The MacArthur Foundation’s Technology Grants Committee is always looking for innovative applications of technology for the NGO sector. I’d love to have a chat with you about your application if you have the time”. Two years later MacArthur would become the first donor to make an investment in FrontlineSMS with a $200,000 grant. This funded a major rewrite and a new website in 2008.

14th November, 2005: 160 Characters are the first mobile-focused news site to announce the release of FrontlineSMS.

15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation. Days later FrontlineSMS had its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.

Today, with fifteen staff over three continents, users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads, the rest – as they say – is history…  \o/

June 10, 2012   17 Comments

#uksnow

One day.
Two walks.
Three photos.

February 12, 2012   6 Comments

Football. Beer. Innovation?

Ever wondered where the original idea for FrontlineSMS came from? Find out in this fun 50 second video put together by National Geographic as part of their 2010 Explorers Symposium.

For more information on our work with National Geographic, check out our profile page.

September 7, 2011   33 Comments

When in Rome. Or Africa.

Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

Here’s my Top 15:

1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Finally, if you’re looking for advice on what to take on a trip to Africa, good friend Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican) has an excellent post here.

Additional suggestions

Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.

August 27, 2011   53 Comments

The past: Reframed. Re-lived.

It’s not every day that you stumble across something which blows you away, especially when you don’t quite understand why. It happened to me on Sunday, and I’m still more than a little fascinated.

Described by MSNBC as “a site that will make you call your Mom”, Dear Photograph is a beautifully simple idea. Find an old picture, go back to where it was taken, hold it up, line it up, and re-take it. For loved ones long gone, it almost brings them back. To re-live good times (or bad), it almost brings them back. I can imagine that for many people doing this, it’s quite an emotional exercise. There’s something magical and challenging about re-living – and re-imagining – the past.

The site has only been going a short while, so it’s unclear if it’s going to “go viral” or not. Either way, it reminds me a little of PostSecret, which did turn out to be a huge success.

If you decide to give it a go, you can submit photographs to dearphotograph@gmail.com. They’re also @dearphotograph on Twitter.

July 21, 2011   20 Comments

The FrontlineSMS trump card

This time last year I was on my way back from Washington DC where I’d spent a week at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium. It was one of those am-I-really-here? events where you randomly share a lift with the likes of Bob Ballard – who discovered the wreck of the Titanic – or Spencer Wells, who’s trying to figure out where we all came from.

I couldn’t be there this year, but I did receive a nice surprise in the mail from a friend who works for National Geographic Traveler Magazine. At this year’s event they produced a deck of cards with the names of each of the Explorers and Emerging Explorers. I love what they’ve done with ours.

All that’s missing is the \o/ logo.  ;o)

That aside, hearty congratulations to everyone who made the Explorers Class of 2011!

June 28, 2011   7 Comments

The “Ultimate Music Awareness App”

Close friends will know that I’m a bit of a walker. In fact, a few years ago I did start to put down tentative plans for a walk across the African continent, but a Fellowship at Stanford put pay to that. I rarely use public transport when I’m on the road, preferring to remain above-ground and on-foot to get a better sense of where I’m staying. And although I’ll sometimes carry my camera with me, I almost always carry my iPod.

Most of my thinking is done while I walk, and most of my blog posts take shape that way, too. I carry a note pad a lot of the time, stopping often to jot down ideas. This post came together while I was listening to music, walking through Cambridge earlier this year. That walk witnessed the birth of the “Ultimate Music Awareness App”, and Apple’s announcement of iCloud this week prompted me to dig it out again.

So, what would my app do? Well, it’s quite simple really.

  • It would have an option to plays songs written on that day’s date, or which reference that day’s date
  • It would be location-aware, and create an auto-playlist of songs written about the place I’m walking through, or with name-connections
  • It would play songs by artists who were either born, or lived, in the area
  • There would be an option to play songs based on that day’s news headlines (for example, if a study found annual rents were increasing – or decreasing – then it would play “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys). A summary of the news story in question would also be displayed on-screen for context
  • All of the playlists would be compiled in real-time, and streamed/buffered from the web
  • Playlists could be uploaded and shared on-line (and mapped) for other music lovers/walkers

If anyone ever developed this, I know I’d buy it. After all, it would be my ultimate music awareness app.

June 8, 2011   16 Comments

Lost [and found] 2.0

“Lost and found” meets street notices in a mobile world… Spotted on a lamp post in a residential area outside Cambridge in the UK.

April 7, 2011   1 Comment

Seasons greetings…

Here’s wishing friends, staff, partners, donors, readers, users, followers and all-round good people a happy holiday and a prosperous new year. Thanks for all your support throughout a frenetic twelve months.

See you for more in 2011!

December 24, 2010   8 Comments

Tim Smit. In tweets.

Tim Smit may be an extraordinary individual, but he’s no ordinary entrepreneur. Founder of The Eden Project – described by some as the “Eighth Wonder of The World” – Tim has taken an unconventional if not fascinating path. By all means read those Business Bibles – but then tear them up. Read Marketing 101 – but then toss it aside. In the sometimes rigid and stuffy world of social entrepreneurship, Tim is a breath of fresh air. And his short talk last weekend at Emerge 2010 in Oxford was nothing short of inspirational.

Courtesy of Twitter, here’s a short summary of a “lucky 13″ key points that stood out most for me.

Context: Never forget what you were like as a child. Push the boundaries of your imagination, live out your dreams, find that one thing which truly “switches you on”. And then relentlessly pursue it.

Context: Don’t get caught up in the lingo. Buzzwords mean little if they’re not backed up by very real action.

Context: Inspiration and innovation can happen any time, any place. No person and no structure have exclusive rights over the best ideas. Unconventional can be king. It usually is and, what’s more, it will usually come with the most compelling story.

Context: Seize the moment – it won’t last forever, and there will likely never be a “best time” to execute your idea.

Context: Not everyone will be able to take that “big risk”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to join you on a journey. Inspire others to join you. Don’t travel alone. Build it, and they may just come.

Context: In ICT4D we talk about silos. Take every opportunity to step outside yours. Be open minded. Meet people who, on the surface, have very little in common with you. Explore new horizons. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Context: If you don’t follow your instincts, you may always regret it. Don’t put yourself in that position. Success is just as much about “positive thinking” as “positive doing”.

Context: Make the art of the possible seem possible for everyone. If people can imagine themselves in your shoes then your story will not only resonate, but will gain a reality and life of its very own.

Context: Organisations are only as good as the people who show up every day to work for them.

Context: Actions speak louder than words. Anyone can talk about anything. Creating and building doesn’t happen on the sidelines. Beware of the inexperienced “expert”.

Context: If you have good fortune, pass it on. Use it to help others. Think about who you were, not what you’ve become.

Context: For some people, anything they haven’t had a hand in is rubbish. Quite often, they’ve never actually done anything themselves. Avoid negativity. It’s a cop-out. (Note: Negativity is different to constructive criticism).

Context: Language is EVERYTHING.

This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Tim speak. If you ever get the chance, grab it. After all, Tim might be the person you never knew you were meant to meet.

November 30, 2010   53 Comments