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)

Battleship Google fires its new gun

The smoke has finally begun to settle. At times it reached almost fever pitch. Rumours that this was going to be the big shake-up the industry needed were followed, as reality set in, by sobering recognition of the challenges that lie ahead (and a scratching of heads as people tried to fill in much of the missing detail). Yes, this week Google decided time was right to officially show its intent, setting its sights squarely at the mobile industry and announcing not the much-hyped GPhone but Android, a new open mobile platform. As mobile continues to hot up, one of the biggest guns of them all has joined the battlefield and fired an early warning shot.

It’s been interesting to read through some of the comments over the week, both on international news sites and in the blogosphere. All is not well. Not only are we starved of some crucial detail but this has created a secondary problem of contradiction. On the detail side, for example, the SDK (Software Development Kit) isn’t being released until next week, and then it’s only an initial tentative sneak of what’s to come (“Comments welcome”, as the website says). The SDK is going to be rather important since it will dictate the nature of the open development which Android will live or die by. On the confusion side, we have headlines such as “Will GPhone kill off the iPhone?”. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t going to be a GPhone as such – Android is a software platform, an operating system, and environment. Unless we find out to the contrary (and let’s be honest, we don’t really know a huge amount yet) Google aren’t going to be branding any phones and certainly not designing any. As things currently stand Google will have as much control over the hardware their platform runs on as Microsoft do over the design of PC’s and laptops – in other words, not much. I doubt the iPhone has much to worry about quite yet. (Recall: Wasn’t Zune meant to be the iPod killer?).

Announcements about Linux-based open mobile initiatives, which Android is, are not new. There have been a number this year already, and Android joins a growing list which includes the likes of LiMo, OpenMoko and Qtopia. Analysts do seem to agree that Linux has a huge role to play in the future of mobile, but whether Google’s approach is going to be the breakthrough they believe is needed only time will tell. Yes, they may have an impressive list of around 30 partners, but many of these either aren’t doing particularly well right now, or are bit-part players in the mobile space. Nokia, the company with the dominant market share, and a vested interest in its own Symbian platform (technically an Android competitor) is conspicuous by its absence.

In the area where I spend most of my time – the use of mobiles for social and environmental benefit in the developing world – I have seen similar excitement at the announcement, with hopes that Android will open up a new world of opportunity for the community. Again, few people are being particularly specific about what this opportunity is, what it might look like and what problems it might end up solving. There is just a general hope that something good might come out of this. I wonder.

What is it, for example, that we can’t do now? What is it that we want to do which can’t be done with a combination of some of today’s tools, such as – say – SMS and Java? (Interestingly, Java is slated to play a key role in the Android platform). They’re pretty powerful and, although restrictive to a degree, many of the great things that have been going on in the “mobile for good” space lately have centred around one or the other. They’re both widely available, too – every phone out there can handle SMS, and a reasonable number of those can also run Java applications. Text messages are being used for all manner of communication – health messages, education, job postings and election monitoring among many others – and Java-based applications are enabling data collection and educational game development. Sure, we need to “think out of the box” and, more often than not many of the best ideas emerge that way. But we can think out of the box at any time, and should certainly never do it from a technology perspective. We shouldn’t approach this from the “What can Android do for us?” angle.

As far as I’m concerned, you start with an understanding of a ‘problem’, an understanding of the users and the environment, and consideration of the technology comes at the end. And, if it turns out that there’s not a viable, sustainable, appropriate technology-based solution to that problem then so be it. There won’t always be.

Android is only likely going to run on high-end devices such as smart phones. If we’re thinking about putting socially and economically empowering applications in the hands of the masses – and in this context I mean the couple of billion people at the bottom of the pyramid – then they’re going to need to have one of these phones. That might be a problem for quite some time to come, maybe even years. If, however, you have a nice control group – say fifty nurses who travel to remote clinics on a weekly basis – it’s not going to be too much trouble equipping them with a bunch of these handsets and running a neat health-based application on them. This is already being done in a number of countries and in a number of areas outside health, too.

We’re still about a year away from seeing anything running on an Android-powered device, and it may be at least another year or more before people sitting at the bottom of the economic pyramid start to own them in any significantly useful numbers. In the meantime there is plenty we can be getting on with.

Let’s face it, we’re only really beginning to scratch the surface with the tools we’ve already got.