FrontlineSMS: Finally, an SMS Hub in a Box

FrontlineSMS: Finally, an SMS Hub in a Box

BY Justin Oberman | Wednesday, November 30 2005

Are you with a non-profit, non-governmental organization, or political group that understands and takes advantage of the power of technological innovations? Well, since you are reading Personal Democracy Forum I think its safe to say that you are. I also think its safe to say that if you are one of the above then chances are you have been hearing a lot of buzz about the future possibilities that mobile technology can offer your organization, or politics in general for that matter. And you are not the only one.

A while back I did a story on use of SMS to facilitate petitions for the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and GCAP SMS, a part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty's call for debt cancellation, trade justice, better governance and increase aid for countries in Africa. While Fahamu was one of the first to crack the "phone-to-web interface," they are certainly not the only non-profit or NGO to understand the power and benefits of the mobile medium, especially in developing countries where mobile phones have a far greater reach than the internet.

Africa, for example, has one of the fastest mobile phone growth rates in world, in excess of 140% over the past 12 months. And for many on the continent, the mobile phone is becoming the only means of communication and possible information exchange. 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. Petitions are signed, protests are planed.

This makes a lot of sense especially when you consider that the reality for most African countries is that you can't always get a reliable internet connection, if at all. “If you are working in the middle of Zimbabwe or a Kenyan national park you cant just pop into an internet café," say Ken Banks, founder of ; a Cambridge-based ICT consultancy dedicated to making information technology more accessible to people, small organizations, charities and NGO's, "What’s needed is a simple mobile way to exchange messages."

Naturally, because of this, many NFP's and NGO's (both in Africa and around the world) have become interested in text messaging and the mobile medium because of its ability to provide the most poor and usually unconnected people in the world with cheap real-time information and communication. Most organizations that have worked with, built or implemented a non-web mobile solutions have, for the most part, been doing it for themselves. “Nobody was really thinking about the wider bigger picture,” says Banks. "These systems are owned and custom made by and for the organizations that use them. Most organizations don’t have the funds to do what these larger organizations have done,” Banks continues, “It is the mass market that's not really being serviced. There was nothing being developed that people could just pick off the shelf and take home." 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.

So Banks developed , an affordable, standalone turn-key 'out-of-the-box' solution that allows small organizations, NGO's, charities, etc. the ability to access 'group' SMS technology anywhere a mobile network signal can be reached. No connection to the Internet necessary. "The design and development of the system is based on central focus of low cost, high impact interventions," says Banks. The software easily allows any organization to have their own SMS hub. They don't have to pay huge amounts for equipment, server space, , Internet or geek power. All that's needed is a PC (with USB), the software, a mobile-to-PC connection cord, a mobile phone or GSM modem (with ) and network coverage.

Banks, who has over 20 years of commercial IT experience, developed in order to make IT more accessible to developing countries, especially emerging technologies like SMS. Having worked for for a commercial mobile company in Cambridge, Banks already knew that people in developing countries have been using SMS for years. “Most of the people that have been looking at SMS have all been piling toward the internet way," Banks points out, "In America and Europe that’s no problem at all, but where I particularly have an interest, namely Africa, this doesn't help," says Banks. "I wasn't going to wait for the Internet to come to Africa."

FrontlineSMS is for organizations that want to take on small-to-medium scale SMS operations or who want to test the SMS medium on a smaller scale before embarking on larger projects. "Either way," Banks points out, "I hope that organizations don’t take it and put all their eggs in one basket. The idea is that they could take it and try it out on a small scale first to determine if this was something that could work for them.”

How it works
A phone with any network (with credit of course) is connected to a Windows PC with the software installed (either via downloaded from Internet or CD). The first time you do this, a few configurations in the software may be necessary to make the software and the phone read each other, but for the most part once it's done this step doesn't have to be repeated. Once the connection is made, and the software activated, you can begin sending or processing messages via theinterface. As far as the phone is concerned, it's sending out regular text messages. just cycles through what it has to send and receive based on which group you select and what type of messages you send. The phone just pumps them out and you get charged whatever it is your network provider charges you for usage.

While Banks had Africa in mind when he developed the software, the real advantage of FrontlineSMS is that it can be run anywhere. Because it depends on cellular networks instead of the Internet, will work in any country on any GSM network (it has not yet been tested on CDMA networks like Verizon but Banks thinks it should be no problem). If you are running an internationally mobile operation then multiple Sim Cards can be used (granted you would need an unlocked phone). Alternatively, if the SIM in use has roaming capability, the system will work abroad without any changes (although you will get charged whatever your network's SMS roaming charges are). It is also important to note that some providers charge more for international text messaging and may also only allow you to send text messages out to carriers that your network has partnered with in other countries. This may also apply in the reverse.

The effect that will have, therefore, greatly depends on the networks available in the country in which FrontlineSMS is being used. In the UK, where Banks lives, it’s a completely competitive market. "You could probably get a plan that allows you send a text message at 2 or 3 cents a text," Banks tells me. You can also get contracts that have 3 to 4 thousand free text messages a month. "Every country is different," Banks points out, "there are countries in the world where it wont be so easy to get cheap text messages and that will be an issue." But Banks hopes that mobile companies in these and other countries will look at the software favorably and begin issuing SIM cards with cheaper text-messages on them and/or flat-rate unlimited plans. But that is a tricky one to predict. A lot of carriers here in the United States, for example, have begun offering unlimited text-messaging in their business plans but none, that I know of, issue SMS-only Sim Cards or plans. "We are currently in contact with a number of network operators negotiating an 'SMS allowance', or SMS at a preferential rate, for FrontlineSMS users." Banks tells me. "The outcome of these discussions will be made available in the spring."

To receive and send messages the phone must be connected to the PC at all times. This is why Banks strongly suggests that the software only be used with a dedicated phone and Sim Card. The reason for this is that reads and deletes all messages on the target SIM, and if you used your personal handset then you would mix up any personal messages with FrontlineSMS-based ones. The idea of the system is that a dedicated phone is attached, and stays attached, meaning that it's available most of the time to process incoming (and outgoing) messages. Again, if you used a personal handset it will be unplugged from the system more times than it would be connected, and that would defeat the purpose of creating a de facto network. Messages may also be deleted by accident. Also, if the phone is in use while it is not connected to FrontlineSMS, it will pick up text-messages just as any other phones would. But if both the phone and PC are turned off for any amount of time, will pick up right where it left off once the system is up and running again.

While Banks believes that most phones should work, and is testing more phones all the time, phones that have been tested and approved for use are all GSM-based: Nokia 6100,6210, 6220, 6310/6310i and the Nokia 8910. If you prefer to use a dedicated GSMmodem then FrontlineSMS is fully compatible with the Wavecom Fastrack (serial version with a USB adapter). Most phones used in more developed nations (even 3rd generation) are tri-band and able to switch to GSM if necessary, so even older/newer phones could potentially work. Banks can say quite confidently that FrontlineSMS will NOT work on all handsets due to varying differences in how they interact at firmware level. He is not yet tested Windows Mobile or Palm based phones like the Treo 650.

“These issues are the nature of the beast," Banks points out, "and one of the disadvantages of not having it web-based. But the advantages of it not being web-based," Banks adds, "are far greater."

With some of the internet bulk messaging systems, there is an issue with how they handle replies. It's hard to manage and store them and often time requires extra 3rd party software. With FrontlineSMS' two-way portable communications capability, field-based NGOs can keep in touch with their fieldworkers from anywhere in the field, connect with people in need or reach new people in new and exciting ways. The system can be used for internal staff-based communications, or even to provide information to local communities via a sign-up process, or both. The software contains modules for setting up contacts and contact groups, as well as for sending out surveys and competitions. Automated messages can be generated to provide anything from on-demand information responses to general "thank you messages" for texting back answers to a survey. For example, a person can text in the word "Potato" and can have it immeditaly send back the price of potatoes for that day.

A custom database sits behind the mobile phone interface and automatically stores incoming and outgoing messages. The database keeps track of phone numbers and owners and allows messages to be sent to customised groups, tracking delivery and non-delivery. Survey results and other received messages can even be exported to excel for more intense analysis. So, for example, volunteers on a wild-life reserve or in urban communities can text in locations on where they saw a sick tiger or a pot-hole. The information will be stored on-the-go in real-time and, if necessary, send a response back to volunteer if further instructions are needed.

is for people that want to engage in the act of communicating in a mass way, but do not have the internet. For Banks, the potential is limitless. "It's highly functional and it can do many things… there really is no limit to what it can do which is the beauty of it.. so it will probably be used for things that I never dreamed of.”

The Future of FrontlineSMS
While the software is still only in its Beta trial mode infancy, Banks is already looking ahead and has begun developing a Version 2.0 which will include the additional functionality of a 'Telephone Console' (allowing the making and receiving of voice calls) as well as incorporating the ability to send picture and video messages.

The software, currently in beta, was first released in September but has recently been revamped. Since that time a number of national and international organizations have expressed interest and are now currently taking part in field trials as part of FrontlineSMS' free trial list program.

Some of these groups include the Technologies for Conservation and Development (t4cd) project which has been funded by the ,which will be looking to use it in Botswana as part of a Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) project, as well as several UK charities, groups and clubs.

Another application is under discussion is the use of FrontlineSMS to connect several healthcare 'hubs' across central Africa, allowing the sharing of information and providing improved communications between healthcare centres and professionals.

"The 'full' package which I aim to ultimately provide to NGOs," Banks tells me, "is the software on CD, a tested handset and a USB cable. Then they just stick in their SIM and off they go! Hopefully, there will be thousands of little frontlinesms systems running around all over the place doing all sorts of interesting things”

While the system has not yet been tested by any organization here in the United States, Banks has no doubts that it will work here without a problem. There's been particular interest in the past couple of weeks with FrontlineSMS's ability to assist with election monitoring. A leading US-based University is looking to check out the potential. Right now FrontlineSMS is in its trial run and it is free. Interested parties should directly to get started.

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