Three is not the magic number…

It’s 1.4.7…

One month ago the new version of FrontlineSMS was released. Well over three hundred NGOs responded and downloaded the software, and over a hundred of them have joined the new online community. Apart from the excitement surrounding the software itself, the new community is already proving its worth. I’d easily have settled for a hundred members after one month – hopefully the other two hundred will also see the value and sign up and engage soon.

I’d also have settled for the level of enthusiasm among the practitioner community. As you’d expect, many of the smaller NGOs won’t have had a chance to do much with FrontlineSMS in such a short space of time, other than get familiar with the software and maybe run a few internal tests and trials. Some of the larger or better resourced projects have made some headway, however.

One of the most active users is Josh Nesbit in Malawi, who’s using FrontlineSMS to drive field communications between a local hospital and its six hundred roaming community health workers (CHWs). He’s also managed to set up a number of innovative services, such as automatic cellphone top-ups and a facility which allows CHWs to text in drug names and automatically receive responses on recommended uses and doses. A lot of people seem to be watching what Josh is doing very closely. What makes it so exciting is the fact that it’s so highly replicable, not to mention the immediate impact it’s having on the hospital and the community it is seeking to serve.

In one of the first microfinance-related applications of the new version, FrontlineSMS is being used by Grameen in Uganda to open up text-based communications with their Village Phone Operator (VPO) network. According to the project:

… We have been using FrontlineSMS to survey VPOs on their experiences at our training sessions and events, distributing information to them ranging from airtime to announcements to outages, and inviting feedback on other selected items through SMS. It really makes our lives easier by giving us a clear record of what’s been sent and responded to that can be reproduced and re-used elsewhere. It also helps us promote a culture of SMS use for communications

FrontlineSMS is also being lined up by the Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP). Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, their aim is to improve agricultural value chains as a key to sustainable growth and poverty reduction in Western Cambodia. CCPMP plan to begin workshops and trials of FrontlineSMS in August and September. Further details are available on their project wiki. (FrontlineSMS is already being used to provide coffee prices to smallholder farmers in Aceh, something I blogged about a while ago).

Another project considering FrontlineSMS implementation is a text-based SOS/distress facility for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). The programme attempts to maximize the widespread ownership and use of mobile phones by Filipinos at home and abroad, and provide a 24/7 service in case of emergency. Incoming SOS text messages will be forwarded to numerous organisations and agencies capable of responding to various emergency situations. The project has just completed a round of comprehensive testing on the latest version – 1.4.7 – and posted the results on the FrontlineSMS community web pages.

Finally, Ushahidi have just completed their own period of FrontlineSMS evaluation, and are now putting together plans to integrate the platform into their web-based “crisis alert system”. Ushahidi was recently listed as one of “Ten Web Startups to Watch” by MIT’s Technology Review.

Behind the scenes there’s also considerable activity, and we’re working with a number of large donor organisations and academic researchers to help them understand the FrontlineSMS user base. Expect some interesting field-based research in the coming months. And in a couple of weeks or so we’re releasing the software source code, with a number of developers looking to build on the work we’ve already started.

I’ve always believed in the immense value of building an NGO community around a single powerful, shared, open, flexible mobile-messaging solution. After a couple of years it finally looks like it might actually be happening.