New team member for FrontlineSMS

Promoting FrontlineSMS has, up until now, been a slow and patient process. Over the past four years we’ve relied on the good will of many friends from many disciplines to help us get word out. It’s been a great joint effort, and it’s clearly worked as we hit our 3,500th download last week.

But, as from today, things are going to receive a welcome boost and become a little more proactive.

Thanks to the joint support of the Open Society Institute (OSI), and first-time donor Hivos, we’re bringing on-board a new team member to help accelerate adoption of FrontlineSMS, and to begin developing targeted materials and outreach for a range of key sectors where the software is proving particularly strong. These include – among many others – health, the media, agriculture, human rights and election monitoring. As always, it’s been the users who dictate where we concentrate our efforts.

Josh Nesbit: Photo courtesy IREXFor those of you familiar with FrontlineSMS, our new team member isn’t so new after all. It’s Josh Nesbit, the brains behind FrontlineSMS:Medic and Hope Phones. Josh was the original inspiration behind the creation of targeted FrontlineSMS communities of practice when he started applying the software in health, making him the ideal candidate for what we’re calling the FrontlineSMS Ambassador Programme.

We’re incredibly excited to have Josh on board. He’s achieved amazing things in a very short space of time, and his ability to motivate and inspire others is going to be key in encouraging and fostering the creation of further communities of practice. There are already two more underway, and Josh will report on these as his – and their – work progresses.

Josh is also looking forward to the challenges ahead:

I couldn’t be happier. It’s now in my job description to interact with FrontlineSMS users, who I’ve found to be some of the most inspiring people on the planet. I’m also very happy that this grant will let me continue work with FrontlineSMS:Medic, which has shown me how FrontlineSMS could be applied to and shaped for the field of healthcare. I know that users in other fields will rally around the software, and I’m here to help facilitate those communities

Josh will be working with us initially for two years, thanks to the incredible support of OSI and Hivos. This work also represents the starting point of our Clinton Global Initiative commitment made last year in New York. Josh will regularly write and blog about his progress, either here on the blog or over at his own site at

From everyone in the FrontlineSMS community… A very warm \o/ welcome, Josh!

About Hivos. A fair, free and sustainable world – that is what Hivos, the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, wants to contribute to. Together with local organisations in developing countries, Hivos strives for a world in which all citizens – both men and women – have equal access to resources and opportunities for development. On the web at

About OSI. The Open Society Institute works to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. To achieve its mission, OSI seeks to shape public policies that assure greater fairness in political, legal, and economic systems and safeguard fundamental rights. OSI places a high priority on protecting and improving the lives of people in marginalized communities. On the web at

Poverty, pain and the politics game

As a keen cyclist for most of my life, I’ve always been shocked at how little many car drivers care or care to understand the challenges of two wheels in heavy or fast moving traffic. This lack of respect is not only frustrating – it can also be dangerous. In my younger days I thought I had the answer. Force all learner drivers to spend a month on a push bike before issuing them their licence. There’s no better way than learning by experiencing, after all.

As I’ve got older I realise that my bike riding solution may not have been the most practical, but the “learning by experiencing” point is as strong and relevant as ever, particularly in the world of international development. You can’t beat experience. Pretty-much everyone I respect and turn to for guidance – both spiritual and practical – has got their hands dirty in the field at some stage. I feel at times that a stint in the field should be compulsory. How else can you truly understand the problem?

War DanceOne of the down-sides to a discipline which doesn’t insist on “compulsory” fieldwork is the rise of a culture of politics. Losing sight of the bigger picture and becoming embroiled in competitive, overly critical behaviour can be a huge distraction and hugely destructive. Development suddenly becomes a battle of “a versus b” or “x versus y” and not about the alleviation of poverty and suffering that it should be. I steer well clear at every available opportunity, and draw on much of what I’ve seen and experienced over the past sixteen years to do so.

I also have my “War Dance” DVD. One of the toughest films I’ve ever seen, “War Dance” – based in the camps of Northern Uganda – puts everything into perspective. For those of us who have seen this kind of suffering it’s a stark reminder – and a cry – to remain focused. Get a copy and watch it each time you need reminding why you’re doing what you doing. Politics has no place in a world like this.

It doesn’t have a place here, either. Whether you agree or disagree with the approach, this recent Medecins Sans Frontiers video drives home a message not a million miles away. It may be messy, it may be challenging, and it may be confrontational – but if this is the reality for everyone on the ground then we need to be having these conversations.

Be warned: It’s difficult to watch (well, listen to), as is “War Dance”. But it’s powerful, and it’s a reminder to all of us that we need to focus on what matters, where it matters. Poverty is not about politics, and should not be driven by it. It’s about people. Every single one of them.

Mobiles, innovation, Africa

“Innovation around the mobile phone is particularly interesting in Africa, often because it is born out of necessity”.

Over the past week, the BBC have been covering the arrival of the Seacom fibre optic cable off the coast of East Africa, focusing on Kenya initially and today moving on to Rwanda. Their excellent coverage – video, news, blogs, photos and opinion – is all brought together in a new “Connected Africa” section of their website.

BBC Online

A few weeks ago, the Editor of the BBC News Technology site asked if I could contribute an article highlighting the innovative use of mobile technology in East Africa. With all the excitement around the new bandwidth revolution, it might have been easy to forget the mobile revolution. As the BBC put it, “If you want to see how east Africa may respond to the arrival of high-speed internet links, look no further than the mobile phone market”.

The featured article, or ‘Viewpoint’ – “Mobiles offer lifelines in Africa” – can be read here.

Scale, FrontlineSMS and the local

What follows is the fourteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Kelly Sponberg – a Project Manager at RANET – discusses the challenges of ‘local’ and ‘scale’, and the potential his organisation sees for FrontlineSMS in their work

“For about a decade now I have been fortunate enough to work on a small and niche-focused program called RANET (Radio And Internet for the Communication of Hydro-Meteorological Information for Rural Development). The program has a simply stated goal to make meteorological forecasts, warnings, and observations more readily available to rural and remote communities.  It does so through a variety of training, system development, and site deployment activities.

The technologies utilized by RANET have ranged from satellite broadcasts, to satellite telephony, to FM community radio, include HF e-mail networks, a variety of web based applications, and of course mobile phone messaging and data services. We recently began experimenting with and using FrontlineSMS to scratch a particular itch.  If you will bear with me, I’ll try to describe the challenge and problem FrontlineSMS uniquely addresses well.

RANETRANET began with the notion that rural communities are often most affected by and vulnerable to environmental changes and variability, yet the information products communities may find beneficial are not easily distributed outside of major cities in developing regions.  The quote that somewhat launched RANET came from an Algerian nomad who said when interviewed, “Just tell me where it has rained, and I’ll know what to do.”

A story about a nomad

Such a simple statement is loaded with insights and information.  Think of the challenge.  The nomad is constantly on the move in remote desert areas to shepherd his herd to food and water.  Under the best of circumstances, it is a difficult technical challenge to deliver information to this individual in a timely and sustainable manner.  Beyond the physical delivery of information, there are barriers related to language and perhaps literacy.  But moreover his statement counters assumptions about what information is valuable.  Most meteorological services try to improve forecast quality and generally the science behind weather products.  This hard work and dedication often leads to the conclusion that forecasts and newer products are the most valuable to an end user.  Indeed this is probably true for most end consumers of meteorological products and services.  In this application, however, the nomad wanted a simple observation of where it has rained as that is where there will be fresh water and new vegetation.  He cannot afford to follow a probabilistic forecast, no matter how accurate it might be.

The story of the nomad touches on the challenge of scale, which I suspect arises in all ICT4D programs.  Scale is the tension between macro and micro.  It is regional versus local.

What do I mean here?  If you abstract out why we do ICT4D projects, it comes down to solving ‘problems’ of information access and inequality, data management for efficiency, and letting individuals and communities speak in their own voice.  In the abstract, the development community, be they foreign or indigenous, wants to be able to replicate local successes across regions, countries, and continents where other people have similar needs.  Resources are simply too scarce to not strive for scalable solutions.

Scale vs. relevance

There are two major problems of scale here.  One is content, information, or the ‘byte’.  If you have a network that can distribute across a region, country, or even continent, the information distributed or shared often becomes less locally relevant and powerful the more widely distributed it is.  (The exception to this is of course sports scores.)  Certainly, technical or science based information does not change all that much.  Information on disease prevention is not going to change in substance from one locale to another, but it will necessarily need to transform how it is portrayed to fit within local cultural, religious, language, education/literacy, economic, and even political contexts.  To me the ‘what’ of information in ICT4D is perhaps the most challenging.

I work mostly on the ‘how’, which is simply the movement of information from point A to B in its most basic description.  Nonetheless, ‘how’ needs to be cognizant of the ‘what’, and as a result faces its own issues of scale.  Communication platforms that cover large geographic areas are often broadcast in nature, and therefore diminish the ability to target or carry information tailored to local needs. Of course broadcast systems are easier and more affordable to deploy than many networked systems, but with a broadcast you lose the ability to receive timely feedback or foster sharing / local production of information.   Many point-to-point or networked systems operating over large areas face regulatory challenges, are extremely expensive to operate, or require significant technical competence.  Community based systems, such as information centers and FM radio, require significant upfront investments and require considerable maintenance and training costs as well.   And these may not be connected such that local information and knowledge can benefit others.  When done right the results are clearly amazing, but the initial investment and time required to effectively establish such sites often prevents widespread deployment throughout a country; to say nothing across multiple countries.

All of this is to say its easy to find a communications solution that is sustainable and meets the needs of a small community or area.  Demonstrating success at this scale is easy.  Identifying something that suits local needs yet can be replicated elsewhere (often with an expectation of decreasing cost) is not so simple.

Image courtesy kiwanja Mobile Gallery

Enter the mobile

Mobile phone services offer a potentially interesting solution.  With rapid growth of networks in even the most remote of locations, there exists a standard and geographically expansive platform; even if operated by many different service providers.  Because of the point-to-point nature of the network, it manages to cater to local information needs and interests. In fact I would argue that in areas where the Internet has not penetrated, mobile phones change the expectation of how and what information is transmitted.  Even in comparison with a community FM station, a mobile device is inherently more local and simply intimate.  I believe this creates a new expectation for ever more tailored or individualized information.  And of course the basic economics of mobile, as well as the form factor, makes it ease to deploy.  Messages can be sent for mere cents, and as it is in the interest of commercial providers to make durable and easy to use devices, many deployment headaches are assuaged.

Clearly, mobile is not new.  There are hundreds of ICT4D projects out there utilizing mobile to collect and disseminate information.  But, there still remains a scale challenge I believe.  To process messages for collection of field data, reporting, or to distribute information beyond a small social circle or region of a country, you need some automation.  Creating these scripts and programs on a computer/server to interface with a mobile network is not always straight forward.  It requires expertise and funding to do so.  This unfortunately represents a barrier to scaling and replication.  If you examine many mobile messaging projects underway, many are either still pilots or very geographically limited.  At times it really is the content that limits scaling, but I also believe that as the technical basis for the local system is so highly tailored, it can’t be easily transferred without starting with a whole new reinvestment in setting up servers, programmer time, etc.

As a program working in multiple countries across Africa, Asia, Pacific, and recently Central America, RANET has been struggling with this issue for some time.  Do we help our country and community partners develop highly customized mobile messaging applications, but then be unable to transfer this effort to other countries?  Or, do we develop some generic data management and messaging interface that while feature reach is unwieldy or lacks the specific function needed in a local circumstance?  Frankly, we have experimented with both, and we have experience of success and failure with each approach.

FrontlineSMS and the local

In the last year I came across FrontlineSMS, which I believe represents an interesting genre of tool.  The desktop application prepackages most of the basic messaging features a small social group might want in order to exchange messages.  But the ease of use extends into more advanced applications.  The more RANET experimented with automation tasks and keywords in FrontlineSMS, the more amazed we frankly became.  Want to automatically collect field data and filter for keywords, users, etc.?  Not a problem. Want incoming messages to auto-respond?  Simple.  Have a database half way around the world you want to store incoming messages or use to feed an auto-response sent as SMS?  Easy.  Did I mention it is free?

Image courtesy Josh Nesbit, FrontlineSMS:Medic

Many reading this have probably experimented with or used FrontlineSMS, so I don’t pretend this is news.  But, I have also used other commercial applications that cost thousands of dollars and have half the features.  Some applications are feature rich and enterprise in scope, but these then require considerable technical expertise to use and maintain.  The FrontlineSMS team has done the hard job of creating an easy to use application that can be used to meet local community needs, but it also performs well for scaled applications that at the end of the day connect and replicate successful local implementations.

RANET has only begun to introduce FrontlineSMS into its country programs, but I already see the possibilities.  To help showcase some of the capabilities, as well as provide our community with baseline training, a few tutorials/discussions were added to our relatively new ‘Weaver‘ series.  The articles on FrontlineSMS are available in English, French, and soon Portuguese.  In the near future we plan to add some video tutorials and discussions, and after that hope to start sharing some of our experiences on how FrontlineSMS has been used for collection of data, ‘broadcasting’ weather information, and even allowing on-demand and automated information requests.  We are looking forward to utilizing this application, as well as learning how others might be using it in earth science and services applications”.

Kelly Sponberg
Project Manager, International Extension and Public Alert Systems (IEPAS) / RANET
Joint Office of Science Support (JOSS)
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)