FrontlineSMS comes of age

Two-and-a-half years in the making, FrontlineSMS is finally shedding its Beta status and will soon, finally, be launched to the NGO community as a fully-blown product. Although it’s taken much longer than I’d have hoped, at least we’ve had ample time to listen to the users and got the clearest possible indication of what we needed to add, remove, tweak and improve to make it more useful and relevant. The Beta – proof-of-concept as it was – naturally had its problems, but thanks to a great team of developers the new version is on target to exceed even my own expectations.

We’re still in Beta in the new release (but at least it will get out of it this time!) and things are still a little rough in places. Many of the finishing touches are scheduled for later in the development cycle, but the software is already beginning to take shape and neatly builds on the current FrontlineSMS look and feel which we know works well.

Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the things we’ve been working on.

We’ve built two user interfaces in the new version – a Classic and Advanced view – allowing the user to determine how much functionality they want to be exposed to. Beginners will be happy with the Classic, which looks and feels pretty-much like the current release. We’ve also added right-click menu functionality, making things quicker, easier and more accessible throughout, and ‘handles’ which allow different elements of the screen to be expanded or reduced in size depending on how much the user needs or wants them.


A choice of database options are now available, allowing incoming and outgoing message data to be read and shared by other applications. Incoming messages can also be ‘posted’ automatically to web servers, or passed to other running programs which can then deal with them independently. There are also improved data import options allowing, for example, groups of contacts to be easily brought into the database, with generated message data more easily exportable from a number of modules in a number of popular export formats. One of the problems with the current version was that the data, useful as it was, wasn’t easily accessible by anything other than FrontlineSMS. Not quite so useful.

Device installation and configuration is now largely automated in the brand new PhoneManager module, with auto-detect and auto-configure functionality. FrontlineSMS scans the host computer, looks for modems and phones (which can be internal devices, or connected via USB or bluetooth), determines whether they’re any use, and then sets them up if they are. Multiple devices can be used at the same time, and each can be configured exclusively to send messages, or purely to receive, depending on what the user requires. A wide variety of GSM modems and phones will be supported at launch, with simple driver creation possible for new devices as they hit the market. Long gone are the handset headache issues of version 1.0

Additional functionality includes support for SMPP, which will allow messages to be blasted through SMS aggregators such as Clickatell. This will make it possible to send large numbers of messages far more quickly and cheaply than via any attached device, if and when an internet connection is available. The new FrontlineSMS will also be platform independent, so Mac and Linux users no longer need feel left out.

Of course, this is only half of the project. A team at Wieden+Kennedy are working hard to re-brand the software and build a simple, functional, accessible website, work which is also going fantastically well. But that’s the subject of an entirely different blog post altogether…

All of this work – the application itself and the website – will be publicly launched on 8th May at Global Messaging 2008 in Cannes, where I’ve been invited to give a keynote speech – “Mobile messaging as a means of empowerment: How has SMS been harnessed by NGOs around the globe?”.

Two weeks later, 22nd May, sees FrontlineSMS feature as a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge where it’s been selected for its use in monitoring the 2007 Nigerian elections. The project then enters a new phase on 1st June as the MacArthur Foundation funding ends and a new grant from the Open Society Institute (OSI) begins.

I’ve always felt that FrontlineSMS had a huge amount of potential. Thanks to a dedicated team – supporters, users, developers, bloggers and donors among them – we may soon start to see it.

From conception to replication

Tonight, a hundred and fifty farmers and their families who I have never met will be going to bed better off. Not only is this significant for the farmers, it’s also significant for me. Because without FrontlineSMS, which is being used to provide coffee prices to these smallholder farmers, this would not be happening.

There’s a tendency to think that, as a free entry-level texting solution, FrontlineSMS is only relevant for smaller, grassroots non-profits who are most likely to lack the funds or in-house expertise to develop their own solutions. Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to see otherwise. As a case in point, this coffee project is being run by the UN. Not the suited, New York-based UN you see on TV, but a field-based team of UN staff and volunteers who simply wanted to try something. All they needed was a simple, low-cost tool which allowed them to rapidly prototype their idea.

Today, using FrontlineSMS, their pilot project is distributing prices from five large buyers to about 150 farmers, village leaders and farmers groups by SMS in a classic “market transparency” intervention. And it’s working. Prices are going up for farmers, and the buyers are getting access to more quantity and better quality. Prices are collected via phone once a week and within ten minutes are entered into FrontlineSMS and sent out. The project has been successfully running for several months.

What’s notable is the benefit this project brings to the coffee dealers, the middlemen. Usually tarnished as unscrupulous and exploitative, they also have families and also need to make a living. Rather than cutting them out altogether they have been brought on board, and their reward is better quality coffee and access to larger quantities of beans.

Of course, there are countless “market price” examples out there, but what makes this significant, for me at least, is that they used a tool that any organisation working on economic empowerment or market issues could use. Unlike the Kerala fishing example, where mobile phones helped fishermen in southern India increase their profits in a similar way, this latest UN project is using freely available, NGO-specific, easy to implement named software. Interested NGOs simply have to Google “FrontlineSMS” and – if they choose – learn about it, download it and use it themselves. Barriers need to come down, and they are.

But issues of cost, replicability and knowing what’s possible remain three of the biggest hurdles to mobile adoption among the grassroots conservation and development communities, something I regularly blog about. As yet, this UN project is undocumented (which is why I can’t be more specific), so the knowledge is largely confined locally to where they work. Hopefully this will change. For the hundred and fifty coffee farmers involved in this project the concept has been well and truly proven, but for countless thousands of others, it hasn’t. Our challenge is to make it so.

Going… Going… Gone.

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get easily attached to material things, but this was a little different. Since my second month at Stanford – way back in October 2006 – this particular “material thing” has been my home, kiwanja’s North American HQ and my Sunday morning ride to Trader Joes, Peets Coffee and the laundrette. Until today, that is.

I decided soon after arriving in California to get a VW camper, not just because it was going to work out better on my finances but because I felt that living the simple life in the complex Stanford environment would keep me focussed and “real”. It became apparent after my first few days here that it would be very easy to get caught up in a place like this, very easy to lose focus and forget why I was here, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I blogged about my thoughts last summer, as my Fellowship came to an end and many of my friends returned to their own particular corners of the globe.

Now, with just two weeks left here at Stanford myself, it was time to move on. The van had to go. I didn’t realise it, but last night literally was my last night.

This was the van I retired to late at night after a long day working on my – and the other Fellows – projects. It was the van which kept me warm during one of the coldest winters in California for a century, and the van in which I read numerous Africa and technology books, strategising my future direction. It was the van that brought me NPR radio and an hour of the BBC World Service each evening, and the van in which I lay while I edited and re-edited my proposal for the new FrontlineSMS. It was my home when I got my first ever grant, from the MacArthur Foundation last summer, and pretty-much the only home I have known since moving here.

This old van has been very much a part of my life here as have the people, the places, the coffee and the Fellowship. I had dreams of keeping it, storing it away somewhere and coming back for it some day, or shipping it over to England. But none of this was ever really that sensible, because at the end of the day this van was only really meant to keep me real, right?

Job done, I’d say.