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/

Reflections on eight years in mobile

It was exactly eight years ago that I hesitantly took my first steps into the fledgling world of “mobiles for development”. It was December 2002, and Vodafone live! was the platform I would develop on. I was filled with self doubt. Not only had I never done any technical development with mobiles before, I also had little idea how phones might be used to solve social and environmental problems around the world. To be honest, few people did, and that was probably the reason I got the job.

Much of the latter half of that December was spent meticulously studying the limited range of Vodafone live! handsets. The very idea of cameras, colour screens, music, video, web access and downloadable games on phones was still pretty new back then, and I’d never even owned a handset with that kind of functionality before, let alone tried to build a service on top of one.

Much has changed over the past eight years. Not only have mobiles got one heck of a lot smarter, but there are a couple of billion more out there, and they’ve become a useful tool in the fight against all manner of worldly ills. “Mobiles for development” (m4d) has also matured somewhat as a discipline, and if my original job back in 2002 was advertised today there would likely be hundreds – maybe thousands – of applicants.

All-in-all it’s been a fascinating, action-packed eight years, and a journey I never expected to be on. As I look back and reflect, here are a few of the highlights.

2003

Most of my first year in mobile was spent trying to understand how they could be used to promote international conservation efforts. Eleven months working closely with the Vodafone team and many of the staff at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) culminated in the launch of wildlive! in December 2003 at FFI’s centenary celebrations at the Natural History Museum in London. This innovative new service combined conservation news with live field diaries and downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and games, which we’d developed all from scratch. Over £100,000 was generated through wildlive! in the first year, and throughout 2004 it was localised and rolled out in several additional European countries. Sadly, due to management restructuring and a shift in focus the following year, the service was shut down. A painful lesson.

(Interestingly, the “Silverback” game (which we later relaunched after a series of gorilla killings in the DRC in 2007) was designed and developed my Masabi, a UK-based company who, four years later, would re-write the early version of FrontlineSMS).

2004

Between work on wildlive!, a colleague and I were dispatched to South Africa and Mozambique to try and understand how mobile technology was being applied to conservation and development in the developing world. Over 2o03 and 2004 we made several trips, working with numerous local FFI partners, and in the process made one of the earliest attempts to try and document the emerging “m4d” field. It’s quite fascinating reading even today, not just because so much has changed but also because so much hasn’t. The report – “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” – can be downloaded in full from the kiwanja Mobile Database here.

2005

This year began innocently enough, but was to prove pivotal because of the birth of FrontlineSMS. It was a few months after my final field trip to South Africa and Mozambique when I was sitting at home when the idea for the software first struck. I had already come across countless grassroots NGOs on my travels who were thinking about how they could use mobile phones in their work, yet there was no simple, out-of-the-box system they could easily deploy.

There were a number of reasons for this, but the idea behind FrontlineSMS seemed to solve all of them. Build a messaging system which could run without the need for the Internet, make it simple to use, design it so that NGOs could deploy it themselves with little or no technical skills, and make it free. Despite only a small amount of private funding, in October 2005 – after a five week software development cycle on a kitchen table in Finland FrontlineSMS was released to the world.

2006, 2007

Shortly after the very low-key launch, I was contacted by someone at Stanford University who was himself beginning to experiment with SMS messaging hubs. Erik Sundelof and I became friends over the proceeding months, and he encouraged me to follow him and apply for a Fellowship at the Reuters Digital Vision Programme. It took a couple of tries, but I got in that year and headed out to Palo Alto in the late summer of 2006.

Stanford gave me the platform I needed to accelerate my work – and my thinking – around mobile technology and development. I was able to attend lectures, meet academics and give talks throughout campus, and use the Stanford connection to open doors which had previously been well-and-truly shut.

My time at Stanford University was also notable on a more personal level in that it gave me my first proper chance to own a VW Camper, something I’d dreamed of for years. It also doubled as my home, and my global HQ, and saved me a fortune in rent. Selling it was one of the hardest things I’d have to do. On a more positive note, my time at Stanford coincided with the first big break for FrontlineSMS when it was used to help citizens report on the Nigerian elections, and that lead to our first major grant – $200,000 – courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation. Later that summer I also randomly met Josh Nesbit for the first time, a young human biology major who was to help take FrontlineSMS off in a whole new direction.

2008, 2009

On June 25th, 2008, a new and improved version of FrontlineSMS was released, along with a new website and \o/ logo (courtesy of Wieden+Kennedy). By this time FrontlineSMS was becoming firmly established as a tool with potential (we were yet to fully understand what that potential was, mind you) and funding and media attention began to flow. In late 2008 we received a second significant grant, this time $400,000 from the Hewlett Foundation. The Open Society Institute (OSI) also stepped in with some valuable funds to help tide us over during a tricky few months.

Finally, as 2009 drew to a close, FrontlineSMS won a prestigious “Tech Award“.

2010

This year has seen no let-up, and from humble beginnings FrontlineSMS has become a full-time job. As the new year dawned we received a grant of $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to help strengthen capacity, and the Omidyar Network came in over the summer with a $350,000 grant to help with organisational development. Our team now stands at eight strong over three continents, and FrontlineSMS has been downloaded over 11,000 times by NGOs in well over 60 countries.

This year draws to a close with an exciting new collaboration with National Geographic, who earlier in the year rewarded us for our work. The “Mobile Message” is a series of articles which will be published on the Nat Geo News Watch site, aimed at taking news of the ‘mobile revolution’ to a new audience.

It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed, and that for the past five I’ve been focusing almost solely on the simple text message. No doubt 2011 will be the ninth year I hear a “death of SMS” prediction. If my experience is anything to go by, there’s plenty of life left in the old dog yet.

To see what happens over the next eight years, watch this space.

FrontlineSMS:365

As the latest iteration of FrontlineSMS celebrates its first birthday, now is as good-a-time as any to sit back with a double latte and reflect on the successes – and challenges – of the past twelve months

Happy birthday to \o/

Exactly one year ago today – 25th June, 2008 – saw the release of the revised version of FrontlineSMS. Originally written in 2005 over a five week summer break in Finland, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in a couple of years later to fund the development of an improved, Java-based multi-platform version following its successful deployment in the Nigerian Presidential elections, an event which turned out to be pivotal in the short history of the software.

FrontlineSMS election monitoring

Since then there have been numerous interim releases thanks to follow-on funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Hewlett Foundation, funding which has allowed us the luxury of pushing out new and improved features to users. In three months time we’ll see the release of a significant upgrade with a range of new features – including picture messaging – which promises to open up the platform yet further.

Suffice to say it’s been an exciting if hectic past twelve months. From a standing start last summer almost 2,600 NGOs have – one way or another – got to hear about the software and downloaded it. The online community is picking up steam and currently stands at just shy of 600 members. We’re about to launch another community, this time aimed at developers, although thankfully we won’t be starting from scratch on this one. Numerous programmers, projects and organisations have already begun working with the code, and others have used it to build diverse applications including human rights- and agriculture-based SMS solutions. We’re very excited where this could be headed, but hold no illusions that an active, engaged developer community is essential if FrontlineSMS is to ever become sustainable, developmentally at least.

Over the past twelve months the software has also been profiled in the international media and presented at dozens of ICT4D and non-ICT4D conferences around the world. Thanks to the efforts of the FrontlineSMS:Medic team it also made it onto the CNN and Discovery Channel websites (a selection of videos are available via the community site). Recent efforts by the University of Canberra have also attracted the attention of Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie.

FrontlineSMS Chinese

In addition, volunteers have helped translate the software into over half-a-dozen languages, numerous non-profit organisations have held FrontlineSMS training sessions for their staff, and Plan International went a step further and made their own introductory videos to distribute to Plan field offices via DVD. The software has a growing following on Facebook and Twitter, and continues to get good traction in wider non-profit circles. Many people are beginning to hear about FrontlineSMS through their own networks, and that’s a simple yet significant first step for many NGOs looking to deploy SMS services in their social change work.

But the past year – and the three before that, if we’re to be honest – have presented their fair share of challenges. When FrontlineSMS was originally conceived in 2005 it was highly experimental. Every step since has presented its own mini mountain to climb.

#1 Applications development and deployment

We’ve certainly learnt a lot on the development side of things – everything from the technical, geographical and financial challenges of creating mobile tools for use in resource-constrained environments, through to ways of encouraging adoption among the hard-to-reach grassroots NGO community. Best practice – such as understanding the fundamentals of the problem at the very beginning, researching existing solutions, rapid prototyping, choosing appropriate platforms and leveraging existing structures, are among a number of important key steps we’ve learnt along the way.

#2 Dismissing myths

By far the best way to fully understand the geographical, cultural and technical challenges of building mobile tools is to go out and build tools. It’s also imperative to spend a little time with the people or organisations you’re trying to help, ideally before you start designing anything. Neither of these are easy, mind you – time and cost are two factors – but you’ll gain far greater insight than you could ever do basing your project entirely on what other people say. Misconceptions and hype can be dangerous distractions and blind alleys, particularly if you base some of the fundamentals of your project on them. Scaling, “big is beautiful”, centralised versus distributed and “collaboration at all costs” are just a few. Proceed with caution.

#3 Fragmentation

Although things are much better than they were with the 2005 release (which only supported half-a-dozen devices), today we face the challenges created by a hugely fragmented handset market which innovates and releases new models at a remarkable rate.

Photo: kiwanja.net

We could, of course, make things easy for ourselves and insist users get hold of a GSM modem, but the whole point of FrontlineSMS is to try and lower the barrier to entry, and only supporting modems (and not the devices most readily available to NGOs – mobile phones) would be entirely counter-productive. Over the coming weeks we hope to gain access to test facilities which will allow us to test the software on a wider range of more recently-released phones, but keeping up with the industry will be an ongoing challenge.

#4 Device configuration

Getting their phone connected and working remains one of the bigger challenges for end users. We’ve made things as easy as possible with built-in automatic detection and configuration, but this can be totally thrown by cheap or fake/imitation cables, handsets not put into the right ‘mode’, incorrect or corrupt software drivers, software running on the computer ‘locking’ the phone and not allowing FrontlineSMS access, or by the phone communicating using different ‘non-standard’ protocols. Again, this is a problem which won’t go away, but one we’re going to have to do our best with.

#5 Outreach

Finally, how do you promote a grassroots messaging tool to grassroots NGOs who by their very nature are largely ‘offline’? It may have taken four years, but FrontlineSMS is today relatively well known among our target communities, and much of the adoption is driven organically, i.e. by one NGO talking about it with another. We’re very happy with our 2,600 NGOs in the past year, but we should be reaching out to many more. Getting it up to nearer 5,000 over the next twelve months is the target we’ve set ourselves.

#6 Bandwidth

FrontlineSMS is run by the smallest of teams – one project manager and two part-time software developers. As the software begins to get serious traction in a number of target areas, we need to plan very carefully to ensure that we don’t miss out on key opportunities, that we keep up with the users’ needs, that we remain responsive, and that we don’t become too overstretched. Some of the signs tell us that perhaps we already are.

#7 Evaluation and impact

A number of researchers and larger international NGOs are beginning to take an interest in helping us assess the impact of FrontlineSMS among the user base. There is still much we don’t really know – how many downloads lead to regular use (and how many don’t), what barriers stop people using it, what impact the software has on the work of the NGO, and the benefits it brings to the communities they serve. These are all critical questions.

FrontlineSMS around the world

As we enter the second year, we’re just about ready to start making sense of the map and what it represents. And that means our successes, our failures, and where we go from here.