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FrontlineSMS - Text Messaging Hub for NGO Community

‘Developed by Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net, this system is of great value to the NGO sector’

FrontlineSMS is the first text messaging (SMS) application to be specifically developed with the needs of the non-profit sector in mind. It recently hit headline news when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian elections, and was later nominated for an award at Mobile Messaging 2007. But what is it, how does it work, and what can it do for my organisation?

Why text messaging?

Uptake of mobile phones in developing countries continues unabated. The African continent alone has witnessed growth rates in excess of 50% over the past twelve months. In many cases, mobile telephony has become people’s only means of telecommunication. At the same time, text messaging has allowed people to exchange information and communicate at both national and international level. The potential to provide some of the poorest people in the world with local, relevant, useful information has not gone un-noticed, and the number NGOs using – or looking to use – text messaging in their work continues to grow.

At the same time, text messaging has allowed people to exchange information and communicate at both national and international level. The potential to provide some of the poorest people in the world with local, relevant, useful information has not gone un-noticed, and the number NGOs using – or looking to use – text messaging in their work continues to grow.

Patients receive reminders to take their medicine, saving time and money travelling to local clinics. Farmers receive details of market prices and demand for their products before heading off to market. National parks communicate details of dangerous animals, providing an early warning system to mitigate against human/wildlife conflict. Young people living in the slums of Nairobi receive texts alerting them to job opportunities in the city. Citizens report back their election observations. The potential uses of text messaging are endless.

So, what’s the problem?

Considerable amounts of money have been spent investigating, designing, developing and implementing text messaging systems. Since the use of SMS technology in the conservation and development fields is still relatively new, thorough evaluation is only now beginning to take place. These results, however, are rarely shared and are very slow to get out into the public domain, if ever.

Many organisations are independently implementing solutions, sometimes reinventing wheels and repeating the mistakes made by those before them. Many others are unable to even contemplate entering the SMS arena due to a lack of sufficient funds, a lack of in-house expertise, difficulty in finding out where to go and how to start, or the lack of an appropriate off-the-shelf solution. In a world where so many NGOs share the same goals, whether it be the alleviation of poverty or the conservation of wildlife, this situation represents duplicated effort and wasted resources. FrontlineSMS was developed in 2005 in response to this.

What is FrontlineSMS?

It is a piece of software, downloadable from the FrontlineSMS (www.frontlinesms.com) website, which allows the sending and receiving of text messages between NGOs and their stakeholders via a laptop or personal computer and an attached mobile phone. Stakeholders can be anyone from health workers, human rights campaigners, staff or community groups, and the messages could be health education-based, reports on human rights violations, election monitoring reports, job announcements, meeting arrangements, market prices or wildlife alerts, among many others. Most group messaging tools, however, are web-based and not appropriate solutions for organisations working in remote areas, or places with unreliable telecommunications infrastructure, or areas with no internet connectivity at all. FrontlineSMS gets around this by using the mobile phone to send and receive the messages. Crucially, this also allows recipients of messages to reply.

What can it do?

FrontlineSMS allows NGOs to communicate with their stakeholders, and for their stakeholders to communicate with them, via text message. Stakeholders can be placed in groups – either geographically or by theme – and for single messages to be broadcast to entire groups from anywhere with a mobile phone signal. It also provides survey functionality – community members can be asked to register an opinion on a local issue, vote, or report specific events, and these results can be exported into programs such as Excel. An auto-reply feature also allows set messages to be sent out automatically to mobile phones, triggered by keywords, and this could provide a basic market prices system, for example. A monitoring console allows heavier users – perhaps a radio station soliciting opinions or comments from listeners – to display incoming messages on a large display for reading out live over the air.

How easy is it to use?

The software has been tested and trialled by a wide range of NGOs since its release in 2005, and it has proved very popular as a simple, entry-level, works-out-of-the-box introduction to text messaging. The process for using FrontlineSMS are:

  • Download the software from the FrontlineSMS ‘Download’ page
  • Install the software on a laptop or personal computer
  • Acquire a dedicated handset – a Nokia, for example – to use with the system
  • Acquire a USB cable to connect the handset to the computer
  • Insert a local SIM card into the phone, and connect it to the computer via the cable
  • Configure FrontlineSMS, based on the simple instructions on the Download page
  • Create user groups, and begin adding numbers
  •  Start texting

 How has FrontlineSMS been used?

FrontlineSMS has been in use since 2005 but only hit headline news when a Nigerian NGO – the Network of Mobile Election Monitors (NMEM) – used it to help monitor the 2007 Nigerian Presidential elections. According to NMEM:

 “The primary goal of the project was to use technology to give the ordinary citizen an opportunity to tell the world what really happened in their area on Election Day. The spread and reach of mobile telephony in Nigeria is mind boggling. In the last 4 years more than 30 million Nigerians have become mobile phone users.

Traditionally Election observers and monitors deemed credible are often foreign diplomats, bureaucrats and professionals who are sent to visit as many polling stations as they can and inform the world of their impression of the polls. Their effectiveness is limited to the number of places they can visit in a just one day: in a country as vast as Nigeria (with a land mass – 925,000 km2 with a population of 140 million); without maps or road signs to use in Navigation, these Foreign observers often limit their activities to Abuja (the Nations Capital), Lagos and a few major State Capitals. Places like the Niger Delta with its reputation for violence and kidnapping of Foreigners are no go areas. By using citizens to assist with the monitoring operation, we can bypass many of these issues.

The Technology behind this project was made possible using a SMS hub called FrontlineSMS, developed by kiwanja.net, to keep track of all of the texts. The system allows mass-messaging to mobile phones and crucially the ability for recipients to reply to a central computer. Thanks to the system we could acknowledge receipt of the text (SMS) and even make specific enquiry to individual volunteers and associates in any area to confirm the authenticity of reports received. The software also was able to alert us when a report came in from our associates or hitherto unknown volunteer allowing us to rank the accuracy of the information received. In total we received over 10,000 messages giving us a unique insight into the voting process.”

 The article has been submitted by Ken Banks , the developer of the system and the founder of Kiwanja.net

 

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