FrontlineSMS gets active

FrontlineSMS has so far managed to achieve quite a lot with really very little, but that’s about to change. After two-and-a-half years of promise, it’s finally beginning to look like the software I dreamt of that wet Saturday evening in Cambridge back in early 2005. I’ve spent the past week putting six months of development through its paces, whilst writing the new User Guide, and am as excited as ever about what this thing can do. One of the most exciting new features are things we’ve called “FrontlineSMS actions”. Here’s what they do.

“FrontlineSMS actions” are triggered by keywords which arrive via incoming text messages from patients, farmers, staff, fieldworkers, members of the public or whoever. Once a keyword or phrase is detected, FrontlineSMS can be told to do one of a number of things. These are our “actions”:

Auto Reply
FrontlineSMS will automatically send a pre-determined SMS back to the sender of the message (maybe a “Thank you for your message”, for example, or clinic opening times, or the current price of matoke)

Auto Forward
FrontlineSMS will automatically forward the incoming message to all members of a pre-determined Group. This can be useful for users who want Group members to be able to contact each other via SMS with latest news, or with urgent announcements (Auto Forward does a similar thing to Twitter)

Join Group
FrontlineSMS will automatically add the sender of the SMS to a pre-determined Group. Again, this is useful for users running a series of user Groups or clubs, and who want people to be able to join automatically by publicising the keyword without them having to make direct contact. A campaign, for example, could say “To join our Control Arms Campaign, text in the word JOIN to 123456789”

Leave Group
Members of Groups can leave any time they like by sending an SMS with a pre-determined keyword or phrase (for example, LEAVE GROUP)

Allows the running of competitions, Surveys or the soliciting of opinions from people. Any time a message comes in which starts with the pre-determined Survey keyword, FrontlineSMS will keep track of it and allow all responses to be analysed in the SurveyAnalyst module. Surveys or competitions could ask people, for example, to text in the word OPINION followed by their opinion on a certain topic or subject

Keywords can be used to instruct FrontlineSMS to automatically forward an incoming text message to a pre-determined recipient, by email. This might be useful if a Project Manager, or someone in a different country or office, needs to receive emailed details of incoming Survey or campaign text messages, or if users want their messages to be backed up in an email system such as Outlook or Google Mail, or held somewhere for wider forwarding

External Command
To provide maximum functionality, keywords can be set up to trigger the running of external commands or programs on the computer (for example, a batch file or a script). Advanced users could write a batch file which finds out how much free disk space is left on the computer, for example. An incoming SMS with, say, the keywords FREE SPACE could then be set to trigger the running of this batch file, with FrontlineSMS texting the result (i.e. the amount of free disk space) back to the message sender. The External Command function can also be used to instruct FrontlineSMS to send incoming messages to remote servers over the internet, which may be useful as a method of backing up data, or for a website with a news ticker which needs to display all incoming messages for a campaign or event

As I speak – or should that be write? – FrontlineSMS is being tested by around twenty-five NGOs. Over seventy requests to use the new version have been submitted via the website in the past three weeks. Right now we’re just ironing out the last few kinks before we make it more widely available to the NGO community. These are exciting times, and going by the feedback we’re receiving, we’re not the only ones getting excited…

Whose “revolution” is it anyway?

Revolution (rĕv’ə-lū’shən)
A drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving

One thing that’s particularly struck me over the past couple of years – in addition to the onward march of the mobile phone – has been the way its impact has been described by the press, academia and the blogosphere. Although some people take objection to the term mobile revolution, it’s probably the best we’ve got, particularly if we’re describing the impact from a developing country user perspective.

For reasons I’ll describe later, I’m quite happy calling it a mobile revolution. Not everyone agrees. In a recent id21 insights paper, Richard Heeks and Abi Jagun specifically warn us that “tempting though it may be, we should avoid talk of a mobile revolution”, and in a Boston Review paper this very month, Edward Miguel asserts that, on a macro level at least, the impact of mobile telephony is “hardly revolutionary”. Taken from a ‘developed world’ standpoint they’re all correct. But this isn’t a standpoint I share.

Phonetically, the words ‘mobile’ and ‘revolution’ seem to fit together so well we’ve been unable to avoid the temptation, and in a frenzy of over-use maybe we’ve stopped questioning whether or not there really is one to speak of. Suddenly, almost everything is a revolution.

“Youth drives India’s mobile revolution” (BBC News, April 2004)
“Television’s mobile revolution” (The Guardian, December 2005)
Mobile Linux revolution on the way” (, June 2006)
Mobile VoIP revolution” (, September 2006)
“Free mobile call revolution” (Evening Standard, October 2006)
“Leading the mobile revolution” (Growing Business, October 2007)
“Microsoft will power mobile revolution” (Register, October, 2007)

Take the iPhone as a more recent example. Sure, its introduction was a significant event, but did it truly represent a revolution as many people assert? The continued misuse of the term leads us to question true revolution, such as that which is happening as we speak in much of the developing world.

For the majority of us in the ‘developed world’ with access to high-speed broadband internet connections, landline phones, public payphones, computers and laptops, televisions, city-wide wi-fi networks, and public transport and mains electricity, mobile phones are certainly a useful complimentary technology in our lives, but it would be hard to argue that, for many of us, they’re revolutionary. Okay, so we don’t have to wait until we get to the office to take that call, or read that email, and being ‘always-on’ makes business more efficient and nights out easier to organise. Mobiles, in this context, have done just what they say on the tin – taken our already available communications tools and made them mobile.

But if you’ve never had high-speed broadband, or a home phone, access to a landline, a computer, laptop, television or reliable mains power, and aren’t likely to get them for some time, then I’d argue that a mobile phone does have the potential to be revolutionary. And I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world would agree.

An SMS is an SMS in any language

With users in over forty countries around the world – and growing – keeping FrontlineSMS an English language application was never going to be the way forward. Thanks to some great work from the developers, and with the new FrontlineSMS a matter of days from launch, we’re turning our attention to widening language support. Volunteers and supporters from around the world – some of which are members of the FrontlineSMS Supporters Group on Facebook – have been helping us translate the software into other core languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French and Swahili. FrontlineSMS will support these at launch, with additional support in the pipeline for Filipino and Cambodian.

Of course, if we’re talking about NGOs, activism and human rights, no SMS platform would be complete without Chinese language support. So here we have it – another one we’re including at launch. It’s going to be interesting to see how this impacts adoption in China, a country which, so far, has no FrontlineSMS users.

FrontlineSMS and the culture of the goodie-bag

This week sees the launch of the new and improved FrontlineSMS (or, at the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, FrontlineSMS2.0 as I prefer not to call it). As well as support for Windows, Mac and Linux, we’re also launching a new website and, through a growing band of global volunteers, gearing up our awareness-raising campaigns. Although this feels like something of a fresh start, FrontlineSMS already has users in over forty countries around the world and continues to generate a buzz of excitement among NGOs who come into contact with it.

Next week will also see the new FrontlineSMS debut at Global Messaging Congress 2008 in Cannes, where I’m doing a keynote address on the use of mobiles – text messaging, more specifically – among the global NGO community. This follows on from my February talk at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Although most mobile industry events continue to be dominated by money-makers, aspiring money-makers and deal-breakers, it’s refreshing to see NGO work finally gaining traction. Clearly, as more and more companies turn their attention towards emerging markets we’ll see an increasing emphasis on the ‘bottom of the pyramid‘ at these kinds of events.

With the exception of my twenty-five minute talk, the remainder of the two-day conference turns its attention back to mobile advertising, the mobile web, user experience, messaging business models, the role of IM and the future of mobile messaging. There will also be the chance to unwind with colleagues at the Global Messaging Awards bash, which I helped judge last month. It’s going to be a very interesting couple of days, and I’m looking forward to hearing from some of the leaders in their field and exploring ways of leveraging some of this innovation for the benefit of the non-profit community.

And, just to be sure that on their way home no-one forgets the considerable impact of mobile technology to promote positive social and environmental change around the world, delegates will get a FrontlineSMS goodie-bag. I won’t spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that the contents will help remind them of the considerable challenges many mobile users face in the developing world.

Thanks to Wieden+Kennedy for the cute photo.