FrontlineSMS: Now with Forms

It’s been a hectic few months, but we’re finally there. Today we’re excited to announce the release of the new FrontlineForms, an SMS-driven data collection tool which seamlessly integrates into our existing and growing FrontlineSMS platform.

Sure, data collection tools already exist, but many require mobile internet access to function, degrees in Linux to get running, or PDAs or the kinds of phones that just aren’t available to the masses in most developing countries. FrontlineForms runs on most high- and low-end Java-enabled phones, can be downloaded directly onto a handset over-the-air, doesn’t require internet access beyond installation, and utilises the already-proven simple user interface of FrontlineSMS. In short, FrontlineForms compliments our existing focus on empowering the social mobile long tail with an entry-level, usable data collection tool.

According to my thinking, tools for the long tail need – among other things – to run on readily available hardware wherever possible, and be simple to install and easy to use. These innocent little criteria can create huge challenges, though. Writing an application which runs on all desktops (Windows, Mac and the various flavours of Linux), that interfaces locally with the widest range of phones and modems, and connects remotely with a data collection tool which runs on as many Java-enabled handsets as possible is a huge technical challenge. Many other mobile solutions concentrate on one desktop operating system, or a small family of mobile phones (sometimes just a single phone), which is all fine if you want to concentrate on users higher up the long tail. With our focus on grassroots NGOs, we don’t.

FrontlineSMS Forms Editor

So, this is how it works. Using the new FrontlineSMS Forms Editor (above), users are able to create a form visually on their computer by dragging-and-dropping field types, giving them names and setting other parameters along the way. The form is then encoded and sent via SMS to any number of handsets running the FrontlineForms client, a small program which runs on a wide range of Java-enabled handsets. Once these handsets receive a new form, the Java client interprets the data, saves the form layout and displays a mobile version ready for the fieldworker to complete (see below).

FrontlineForms Client

The FrontlineForms client can hold many different forms at the same time, all selectable from a drop-down menu. As requirements change new forms can be built and distributed by simply texting them to the recipients handset through FrontlineSMS – they don’t need to travel to the office to be added. Once out in the field the user simply inputs their data, and once complete multiple forms are combined and compressed, ready to be sent back to the FrontlineSMS hub, again as SMS. If at any time users find themselves working out of range of a mobile signal, the data is usefully held in “offline” mode until connectivity is restored.

The addition of data collection functionality to FrontlineSMS is a significant step forward for the software. From today, non-profit organisations in the developing world can experiment with anything from simple two-way group messaging campaigns to prototyping SMS-based information services, or start collecting data in the field, all through a single software application. The modular nature of FrontlineSMS means that users are able to deactivate functionality they do not need, but then easily reactivate it as they grow into SMS services. Future “modules” will include mapping functionality – powered by Ushahidi – and multimedia messaging (due later this year) allowing the transmission of pictures, audio, video and text. More specialist applications, including those being developed independently by the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, will also appear as optional modules.

According to Dr. Luis Sarmenta of the Next Billion Network and MIT Media Lab – whose students worked on pre-release versions of the tool as part of their own projects:

“Data collection from the field is one of the most common needs we see among projects in the developing world today, and enabling people to use mobile phones instead of paper would empower a lot of groups and people out there to do their work more efficiently, more effectively, and with broader reach. FrontlineForms seeks to provide this profoundly useful capability while remaining true to the goal of ease-of-use that has been the key to FrontlineSMS’ success and value”

Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) were equally positive after spending several days putting the entire platform through its paces as part of a wider evaluation exercise. According to Grégory Rebattu, TSF’s Niger Representative:

“Crucially from our perspective, FrontlineSMS is extremely user-friendly, allowing partner organisations on the ground to rapidly deploy a data collection and dissemination system from scratch. This simplicity is crucial for organizations which may lack technical skills, and users can be up and running in a matter of minutes with the minimum of mouse clicks. The intuitive nature of the software also means that little technical support is required once they’re up and running”

FrontlineSMS Icon - Photo by Erik Hersman (White African), Kenya, 2008

Today’s release of FrontlineForms gives many new and existing FrontlineSMS users access to entry-level data collection tools for the very first time. Those that find it valuable, and those whose data collection needs grow, can then move onto more scalable and powerful solutions such as those developed by DataDyne, an organisation we’ve been in contact with over the years and whose work is making a considerable impact in parts of the developing world. What FrontlineForms aims to do, over-and-above anything else, is give grassroots NGOs the opportunity to try out mobile data collection with the minimum of fuss, the minimum need for high-level technical expertise or equipment, and the minimum of funding.

These are exciting times for the FrontlineSMS community. The software has been allowed to develop organically, based very much on the needs of  users in the field, and it continues to power increasing numbers of social change projects around the world. If 2009 doesn’t turn out to be the “Year of Mobile” everyone is talking about, we’ll sure be doing our best to make it the “Year of the FrontlineSMS user”.  \o/

(Further details on today’s FrontlineForms launch can be found on the official Press Release. A special thanks goes to Tess Conner for her work on media and PR, to MIT and Télécoms Sans Frontières for their feedback, to the team at Masabi for their commitment and contribution to the project, to members of the FrontlineSMS Communiity for their ideas and enthusiasm, and to members of the wider social mobile community for their continued support and encouragement. You know who you are)

50 thoughts on “FrontlineSMS: Now with Forms

  1. GeorgeS says:

    Big congratulations!!!! The new version looks like it’ll blaze a trail, and sets a great example to others interested in how people should approach creating, developing and rolling out social mobile applications…. 🙂

  2. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for the kind, supportive and positive comments! They’re all really appreciated.

    A lot of people have put a lot of effort into this so that even more people might benefit from it. It’s a first step for FrontlineForms, and I’m sure there are a few challenges ahead, but it’s certainly worth the effort.

    Looking forward to seeing how the whole thing unfolds. =)

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  13. Meryn Stol says:

    This looks really cool. Very innovative. I never thought of the possibility to send forms though SMS.

    What’s not entirely clear to me: When a form is filled in and send through SMS to FrontlineSMS, how is this data exposed? Does it end up in a database? And if so, how do you access that?

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  16. kiwanja says:

    Hi Meryn

    Sending forms via SMS certainly isn’t the option we’d choose if we worked in the optimum environment – i.e. one filled with high speed data networks and high-end devices, but the reality for many NGOs in developing countries is that SMS is the only viable data channel available to them, and low- to medium-end devices are the only thing they can realistically run stuff on.

    In answer to your question, once forms data comes into FrontlineSMS it is stored in a MySql database. The data can be viewed on the screen in the Forms module within FrontlineSMS, and exported to a comma separated file. Of course, third party applications could always be written to read the data directly.

    There’s further information on how FrontlineForms works in the online version of the user Help files, at:


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  19. Meryn Stol says:

    “Sending forms via SMS certainly isn’t the option we’d choose if we worked in the optimum environment”
    I understand, but I’m impressed by what you have come up with given these constraints!

    Is it possible to import or export form templates? That is, say that Ushahidi wants to bundle an “incident report form” together with the Ushahidi software, so organizations could choose to collect reports this way. Would that be possible?

  20. kiwanja says:

    The team behind FrontineSMS:Medic are already thinking about a Forms Store, similar to the iTunes store (I guess) where pre-created Forms could be downloaded, shared etc. A very neat idea.

    As part of some of the very early discussions to incorporate Ushahidi in some way into the FrontlineSMS platform, it would be a relatively easy task to bundle an “Incidence Report Form” at the same time, so yes. 🙂 – I think it’s a sensible way to go…

  21. Meryn Stol says:

    You might just have made the perfect platform for an awful lot of new applications, and thus new ways of doing business, organizing and service delivery. This is a game changer.

    Respect! 🙂

    And yes, I know it’s all very low-tech, but somehow I can’t see the most of Africa moving to a mobile data network anytime soon. In the meantime, this technology will rule.

    The other thing that might work is intelligent parsing of regularly typed messages, but then you’d have to give very good instructions to end users on how to write their messages… But that would work even on non-Java phones.

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  26. Bill Zimmerman says:

    This is absolutely huge, Ken. FrontlineForms fills a critical gap in our project, as I’m sure it will for many other organizations. Huge kudos to you and your team for rolling this out.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a software requirements doc to update. 🙂

  27. Ilan Copelyn says:

    In the countries I’ve visited recently (Kenya, Zambia, South Africa), 2.5G data connectivity (ie GPRS or EDGE) are quite widely available, and phones that support this connectivity are cheap. Are there any plans to make it possible to transmit the completed form data from the phone back to the server?

  28. kiwanja says:

    @Michael – “Competitors” is a four letter word in the social mobile world! I don’t see any of it as competitive to be honest and, in the case of RapidSMS it has a totally different audience, aimed at larger or more resource-rich NGOs. The fairly-newly-formed “Open Mobile Consortium” aims to bring all mobile app developers together to ensure their applications talk, so collaboration is always on the horizon

    @Ilan – You’re quite right, GPRS availability is on the rise, and we will be including GPRS options in future FrontlineForms builds. For now our chief focus was on a simple plug-and-play SMS end-to-end solution, which I think we’ve achieved

  29. Michael Keizer says:

    @kiwanja: If ‘competitors’ is a four-letter word, then people in the social mobile world cannot count! 😉 More seriously, though: we compete, whether we acknowledge it or not. The only thing people of good will can do is make sure that this competition remains a positive thing (i.e. by spurring us to improve continuously) instead of a negative (e.g. by wasting valuable resources by pursuing parallel tracks).

    Specifically about RapidSMS versus (sorry, compared with) FrontlineSMS: you are right in that they target different audiences — and that is exactly the problem. Rapid Android could enrich FrontlineSMS by avoiding the need of a separate computer and software (the more hardware you use, the more can go ‘bling’), whereas FrontlineSMS could bring ease of setup and maintenance in the mix. Now wouldn’t it be great if we had both, and had both large, richer organisations and small, grassroots organisations use it? Not only would that mean that we had the best of both world, but we would also open up a world of possibilities with regards to cooperation between organisations.

  30. Stephane Boyera says:

    Hi Ken,
    that’s a great addition to frontlineSMS. The user interface of sms-based services is, imho, one of the strongest weakness of SMS. So your addon is making a significant step in this direction.
    That said, i’ve a similar comments on what was said previously around GPRS.
    Because now you are requiring a java-enabled phone then you are putting the bar higher than with plain sms service. This is ok on my side, but then afaik, there is no phones that are java-enabled and not gprs enabled. so this is an important fact.
    Then, another very interesting fact you might know is that GPRS access is usually around 5 time cheaper than sms. The prices of each character sent is cheaper. So this is a fact to consider in the future.
    Now let’s move to the next step; if you have a java-enabled phone and GPRS, why are you developing a specific client and a specific server, instead of just relying on a web plateform ? things like opera mini offers an abstraction layer, and a development environment which is far richer, and far easier to use and maintain for the client. but the biggest gain is on the server side, where providers of the services don’t need anymore a computer gsm modem and so on, but could just rely on a web hosting services. So what you developed could be just a web/php plateform. This would dramatically decrease the cost of the service provider (the ngo), and might even decrease the cost of the user (the one collecting data on the phones).

    To conclude, there is imho a wide range of potential solution, and based on the local condition of the project, one might be more appropriate than other. I believe frontlineSMS is helping lots of ngo nowadays, but it might be interesting to start thinking migrating it to a new technology !

  31. kiwanja says:

    @Michael – Again, I agree with everything you say. One of the pillars of my work, and something I blog about often, is the need for “long tail” applications – which is where FrontlineSMS is pitched – to run on readily available hardware. I agree that an SMS server is useful and could have great potential, and we’ve been looking at doing something like that with FrontlineSMS for some time. RapidSMS/FrontlineSMS folk are in regular contact, so there are strong opportunities that collaboration will emerge. At the end of the day, we’re all focused on trying to help solve some of the more pressing problems out there, and end-users don’t necessarily care what the technology is, as long as it works and they can use it

    @Stephane – I also agree with what you say! We deliberately made Forms and end-to-end SMS solution because there aren’t many truly usable SMS forms products out there for NGOs. There are a number which utilise GPRS, of course. So although GPRS is certainly technically the better option (and a cheaper one!), for many FrontlineSMS users this remains a luxury. Saying that, the early alpha version of Forms did have GPRS support, but because of configuration challenges and our initial focus on SMS, we removed it to keep the application as simple as possible. The only configuration needed is to enter the SMS number for the FrontlineSMS hub. As you know, I’m very much focused on building tools which can be used today – other people can do the hard work and figure out what the future looks like. 🙂 Watch this space for GPRS to re-enter at some stage in the future, though!

  32. Max Kpodjedo says:

    Congratulations to you and your team Ken for this achievement. this makes FLsms even better.
    great pic from Erik (of the boy… empowered i would say by FLsms)

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  35. nikhilesh says:

    exciting stuff. looking forward to looking at it more. any one in india using this? wanting to use this techg for a very large micro finance and empowerment programme.

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