The unpicking of FrontlineSMS

Going by the title of this Blog post you might be expecting a little online session for prospective FrontlineSMS users. You know the kind – what it is, what it does, where it’s been used and so on. Well, however useful that might be, this posting is more for my benefit. It’s time for a spot of thinking out loud…

FrontlineSMS started life in 2005 as a classic example of evolutionary prototyping – in other words, the act of throwing something together and then sticking it out there and waiting to see what happens. Apart from a hunch and a small grant from a couple of early converts, there was little proof that anyone would be interested in the software, let alone make the effort to use it. I remember to this day talking about it during an interview with Charity Times in the early summer of 2005. I was still in Finland at the time, writing the code, when it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to put together a website if I was going to start talking to major industry magazines. (Incidentally, the Charity Times interview was already lined up – I just managed to convince them that it would be good to put out a “call for trialists” in the article). So programming was put on hold for a day while I very quickly put together a website. (In case you were wondering, the top banner on the FrontlineSMS website is actually the view from the lounge window where FrontlineSMS was written. It seemed kind-of relevant, in the absence of anything better to put there).

So, FrontlineSMS was let loose on the world during the last couple of months of 2005, and it was then a case of sitting back and waiting to see what happened. There never was a big plan, no big intention, no big vision. Not only did I not have the budget or capacity to do much else, I didn’t know what else I could do. But herein lay the beauty of the project, for me at least. If it was going to be a success then the very people it was meant to empower would need to play a big part. I never wanted to force anything onto anyone, never wanted to have to “sell” the idea, so it was down to grassroots NGOs to somehow find out about FrontlineSMS and then find a use for it. If that didn’t happen then there probably wasn’t a need in the first place. If that was the case, I thought to myself, I’ll let my hunch go and move on to something else.

Well, as it turned out the hunch wasn’t a bad one, and FrontlineSMS has come on a long way since that heady Finnish summer two years ago. In addition to there being funding (thanks to the MacArthur Foundation), there now is a plan, and a vision. But despite there being more structure to the project, the software continues to surprise me – and that’s why it’s such a great project to work on. Okay, the Nigerian election monitoring was great, as was its use in the Philippine elections shortly after (this wasn’t so widely reported) and the overall response from the community. But despite feeling more in control in recent months, it turns out that FrontlineSMS is doing some pretty exciting stuff out there that I’m only beginning to hear about. (Keeping in contact with grassroots NGOs working in pretty remote areas presents its own challenges, so I do have an excuse). So my learning continues…

So, what have I learnt recently? Well, two things in particular. Over the past few months it seems that FrontlineSMS has not only been merrily sending out security alerts to field workers in Afghanistan (a conflict zone if ever there was one), but it’s also been providing market prices to several thousand farmers in Indonesia. None of this should surprise me – FrontlineSMS is a tool, after all, and it can be used for many different things. I’ve always maintained that the software would end up being used for things I’d never dream of, and on that note at least I have been proved right.

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