Fireside chat

If I was ever asked to give a short, informal introductory fireside talk about FrontlineSMS, it would probably go something like this…

FrontlineSMS was originally released at the end of 2005 based on a hunch that there was a need within the grassroots non-profit community for a simple, easy-to-use replicable text messaging tool which didn’t require the internet or expensive infrastructure or equipment to use. The idea came during fieldwork in South Africa, where I was looking for something that South Africa National Parks could use to re-engage the local communities within the conservation effort through their mobile phones. I couldn’t find anything.

Several months later the idea of a mobile-based messaging hub came to me, and I decided it might be worth trying to write something. Over a five week period I sat at a kitchen table in Finland developing a prototype FrontlineSMS (during development it was known as “Project SMS” until good friend Simon Hicks came up with the newer, better name). Clearly the hunch has paid off. FrontlineSMS is today in the hands of well over a thousand non-profit organisations, and increasing numbers are beginning to do some quite incredible things with it. (A nice little history of FrontlineSMS was published in the Stanford Journal of African Studies recently).

Bushbuckridge - the inspiration behind FrontlineSMS

Despite a warm reception to the launch from bloggers, reporters and activists, it wasn’t until April 2007 that the software really came to prominence when it was used by local NGOs to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections, the first time (it is believed) that civilians have helped monitor an African election. The story was widely reported, most notably on the BBC. Late last year news of its use in Pakistan during the state of emergency was reported in the Economist (bloggers were afraid to use the internet to report news and information, so turned to text messaging. FrontlineSMS enabled them to be anonymous). FrontlineSMS has since been featured a number of times on the BBC World Service, and more recently on PRI’s “The World” when it was used by activist groups to help spread news and information during the recent troubled Presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

Last spring and summer, with increasing numbers of people taking an interest in the software, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in to fund the development of a rebuild (at this stage FrontlineSMS was still technically proof-of-concept). The nine-month project created a new and improved version – one which now also runs on Windows, Mac and Linux machines. Main development work was carried out by an incredible team at Masabi in London. In parallel, Wieden+Kennedy carried out a full branding, communications and website-building exercise. Thanks to them there are now hundreds of former conference goers around the world in possession of much sought-after FrontlineSMS badges… \o/

When I think about the growing number of users and uses, and the kinds of projects that FrontlineSMS has enabled – not to mention the enthusiasm many NGOs have shown for what the tool has done for them – a quote in the Africa Journal from last year rings incredibly true:

“FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity”

The use studies are beginning to back this up. Since the new version was released at the end of June 2008, 932 NGOs have downloaded it. News of its availability has primarily been spread through news sites and blogs, driven in large part by incredible support from the NGO community, volunteers, bloggers, Twitterers, ICT4D professionals, professional and amateur reporters, and donors. A single person may have originally come up with the concept, but it’s been a huge team effort to move it on to where it is today.

If there was ever a paragraph that summed up the kind of impact FrontlineSMS is having, then this would be it. Take a deep breath…

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps are using FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organisations – including – and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections (it’s also being lined up to help register 135,000 overseas Filipino workers ready for their 2010 elections). In Malawi, FrontlineSMS is generating a huge amount of interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit – a Stanford University student – is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. It was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the October 2008 Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilise the youth vote. FrontlineSMS is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. Just this month it was deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS. It’s also being used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network, and has been integrated into the work of a major human rights organisations in the Philippines. Projects are lined up in Cambodia and El Salvador (where it will be used to help create transparency in agricultural markets) and a network of journalists will be implementing FrontlineSMS to help report and monitor forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

FrontlineSMS clearly has considerable potential if this smallest of snapshots is anything to go by. I’ve always believed that if we’re able to build an NGO user community around a single, common, appropriate mobile solution then amazing things could happen. If what we’re beginning to see now isn’t exciting enough, just remember that this is only the start. When we all work together, anything and everything is possible.