April 9, 2009

Mobile solutions getting more mature

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n2y4

kiwanjaIt’s incredible to think that exactly four years ago I was gearing up to write the early FrontlineSMS prototype. Although a lot was undecided, a central pillar of my early thinking was that a “platform approach” would be the most flexible and appropriate, and that it would be wrong and restrictive of me to try and build a specific, local solution to the communications problem I’d witnessed in South Africa the year before.

africajournalcoverI figured that if I could avoid the temptation to try and solve a problem that wasn’t mine, but build something which allowed its local owners to solve it, then interesting things might happen.

Today, the dizzying array of uses NGOs have found for FrontlineSMS is testament to that early approach, and the software is today driving projects in ways I could never have imagined. The Africa Journal most neatly summed up its impact when they wrote, back in 2007:

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

Non-profits in over 50 countries have either applied, thought about applying, experimented or played with FrontlineSMS in the context of their own work, imaginatively considering ways in which the software – and the rise of text messaging – can be be turned to good use. As a result we’ve seen solid growth in the FrontlineSMS user community, but this is just one piece of the puzzle. Building community with users is one thing, but getting traction with developers is another.

And today, something very exciting is beginning to happen.

If you take a look at the 2Y4 Mobile Challenge this year, you’ll notice something quite interesting. Three of the ten finalists are building their solutions around the FrontlineSMS platform, and a fourth used it as a major component in early prototyping exercises. You can add to these work that Ushahidi’s developers have been recently carrying out, or students at MIT, or human rights activists in the Philippines, or the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, or university-based agriculture projects, all of whom have started integrating FrontlineSMS into their own tools and solutions.

This kind of integration is what we always intended, and the software has been written in such a way to make it as painless as possible. Usability alone, however, is never a guarantee that people will buy into your vision.

Build it and they will come — if it’s useful

It may have its critics, but the “Build it and they will come” mantra is truly alive and kicking in the FrontlineSMS world, and the finalists in N2Y4 are testament to this. FrontlineSMS:Medic, IJCentral and FrontlineSMS Alerts each have FrontlineSMS at the core of their proposals.

Freedom Fone carried out much of their early proof-of-concept work with the software. Each of these projects are trying to solve a range of problems (note that voting is now closed).

FrontlineSMS:Medic – SMS for Medical Records and Mobile Lab Diagnostics [vote]
FrontlineSMS:Medic is a team committed to empowering community health workers in the developing world using appropriate mobile technology. After almost a year of working with FrontlineSMS in Malawi, they are launching FrontlineSMS:Medic to extend the capabilities of this software and bring it to health centers across several continents

IJCentral: Movement to Support Global Rule of Law [vote]
IJCentral, in tandem with documentary film “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court”, will be the core of a social network for global justice to combat the entrenched culture of impunity for crimes against humanity, implementing a multi-platform citizen engagement strategy using geolocated mobile phone SMS text messages, to build a worldwide constituency for the rule of law visualized on the IJC Map. Success will be an active global constituency supporting the justice mandate of the ICC, to prosecute perpetrators of the worst crimes, no matter how powerful.

FrontlineSMS + Cell Alert = FrontlineSMS Alerts [vote]
This team have created a whole new suite of information tracking and delivery modules including Grant Alerts, Regional Conflict Alerts, Genocide and Blockade Alerts, World Food Aid Alerts, and Economic Aid Alerts. These tools are particularly powerful when used with FrontlineSMS. Recent trials proved the concept in El Salvador and Pakistan. Essential and timely market data that is unavailable in rural El Salvador and rural Pakistan due to a lack of Internet access was made accessible in these trials through the use of FrontlineSMS. Through their trials, Cell Alert was used to locate and deliver essential market data to beta testers in rural areas through the software.

Freedom Fone [vote]
Freedom Fone is a free, open source software tool that can be used to build and update a dial-up information service in any language. Its easy to use interface lowers the barriers to using Interactive Voice Response for outreach. Freedom Fone empowers non-technical organizations to build automated information services that are available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pre-recorded audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a Content Management System. This is updated through a simple to use browser interface. Callers then phone in to listen to the audio options available to them.

The competition judges will decide which of these projects have merit, and which ones walk away with the prize money, if any. Of course, none are FrontlineSMS entries as such, and I have had nothing to do with any of the entries, or their decision to enter. What I do think is significant, however, is that it shows what’s possible if we focus on building simple, appropriate, open social mobile tools and platforms, and let users impose their own will and vision on it.

If we build it – and it’s useful – it turns out that they might just come.

This entry originally appeared at Kiwanja.net.Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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