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Frontline SMS: Texting value in the NGO sector


FrontlineSMS provides an "entry-level text messaging solution for the non-profit sector." FrontlineSMS was started by Ken Banks, managing director of, a ICT geared to servicing the specific needs of the conservation and development community with a particular focus on Africa. FrontlineSMS's website explains the need well:

...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...
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.

Check out the website for more technical and practical information, and contact Ken Banks who seems to be accessible and open to questions. Also see the first pages of a PDF report, "Mobile phones: An appropriate tool for conservation and development?" by Ken Banks and Richard Burge (2004) which will give you more ideas on how texting might add social value in these sectors. It was published by Fauna & Flora International, which I learned is the world's longest established international conservation body.

FrontlineSMS is a welcome manifestation of a phenomenon that has become an ever-more important part of our lives. We're still early days in understanding the applications of mobile telephone texting or SMS. As members of the "thumb tribe," we do it for fun and to kill dead-time. We use texting when we want to communicate some bit of info, but with a measure of social distance and temporal space.

At first, I thought texting a total waste of time. Not only was it kinda frivolous, but the format is poorly designed for the task -- slow, awkward, and difficult to use. Now I confess to being quite hooked. Reflecting on why, I suppose like email, texting can be paradoxically less intrusive yet more intimate than real-time interaction. Because its format enforces a Hemmingway-esque conciseness, we have to focus on the essence of what matters, and this can occasionally pack an emotional punch. In a rare unprotected moment, I confess to recently tearing up in public at the busy Gare du Nord train station after a poignant ping from my sweetheart. I was caught bare-faced in this emotional state by the man standing next to me. The curious thing is that he didn't look surprised or concerned. He just nodded and smiled in shared understanding when he saw my mobile in hand, a fellow thumb tribe member to be sure.

Of course, these subtle and multifaceted social dynamics is partly why texting has been a big commercial success in places like Europe and Asia. Pricing structure also has a lot to do with it. Cheaper communication options attracted swarms of youth users, which in turn made it a market worth reckoning with. (The uptake in the US is slower in part because pricing schemes weren't initially cheaper than voice and people couldn't text cross-network. Generally speaking, Americans are followers in mobile telephony trends because too much competition got in the way of collaboration and standard setting early on. )

The side story to texting is that much of this caught the service providers by surprise. In fact, texting started off as a lost leader because the marketers (like me) couldn't envision the appeal of this format until it was in use. This is often the case with new technologies. We can't anticipate all of the end-use applications in advance because what actually happens in practice is the emergent outcome of user dynamics, context and timing, and business model assumptions. Predicting success is doubly hard for decision-makers and developers, because many disruptive innovations look like such duds in the beginning: i.e. starting with suboptimal design (for instance, a numeric pad for words!) and uninteresting lead users (weird teenagers in Tokyo).

Following this commercial success and logic, texting is now trickling into the civil society space. If you haven't already, NGOs and governments take note! In this context, texting can do something that really adds value: it can save lives and provide just-in-time information during crises. We saw this with the Asian Tsunami, Katrina, the London Bombings, and September 11th. In these instances, SMS messages warned people of rising waters and new dangers, helped relief group self-organize and mobilize, alerted victims to safe shelter and food, and provided emotional comfort by connecting and locating loved ones. While there are technical issues to be worked out for using texting during disasters, the potential is obvious. Indeed, it's hard to imagine humanitarian and disaster relief organizations in the future not using SMS as part of their basic toolbox now.

But texting applications clearly go beyond disasters to the effective day-to-day management or mandate of many NGO or government agencies working the development and conservation sectors.

Texting works where wires can't reach, and often functions even when regular cell phone service fails. Because mobile telephony is leapfrogging the constraints of fixed telco infrastructure, the mobile phone is now the key technology platform to focus on for service delivery and development. The stats speak volumes: growth of mobile phone usage in Africa alone was 140% in the last 12 months.

Again, like with the commercial applications, we will not be able to see all of these uses for civil society in advance. But this shouldn't stop NGOs from experimenting with these applications to see what adds value, while learning from the private sector's experience and lessons. Too often this isn't done. Instead of borrowing ideas and off-the-shelf tools from existing companies, NGOs and government groups often try to reinvent the wheel with costly projects designing technologies and systems of their own, which wastes time and resources. This 'not invented here' mindset and duplication of effort has to be replaced by a more practical approach if we're going to address our problems wisely, effectively and in time. Whether it's climate change or epidemics, time is a factor in making successful interventions, which means we need to be fiercely pragmatic in finding solutions. But more than not, the real problem is just a lack of awareness of what is already out there. As economists would say, the trick is to reduce the search and evaluation costs for people when it comes to finding off-the-shelf solutions, which is something the Web is starting to overcome.

Thanks to Stuart P. for initiating this. Keep up the fantastic work!

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Hmm, how does texting work for those who may be illiterate?

Posted by: sanman on 7 Dec 05

Well they may well not own a phone either, but perhaps the owner of the phone shop (or her lackey) can type the text for them, like a telegraph operator.

I guess this would become harder as mobiles become more widely spread, but they'd be cheaper then too.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 7 Dec 05

Sanman has a good point. Literacy rates in developing countries is a real issue, although this has not stopped many getting hold of a mobile phone. A key question I always ask of a technology is one of 'appropriateness', and a report I recently co-authored deals with that specific issue. But despite all the issues surrounding the use of mobile phones (health, lifespan, recycling, exposure to inappropriate material, cost etc) the fact is that they are now one of the few communication channels open to rural communities (and indeed urban) in many developing countries. Throughout my work with NGOs it has become clear that SMS use has great potential in campaigning, public awareness, disaster alerts and so on. Sadly most ICT-inspired organisations have concentrated on designing and developing 'top-end' systems for this, and the door is often shut to the grassroots organisations which are often more effective in their work than the larger international organisations. To me, FrontlineSMS is a step in the right direction - removing barriers to entry to emerging technology and putting it in the hands of the masses. It is at the 'bottom' of this pyramid where the greatest potential lies

Posted by: Ken Banks on 8 Dec 05

well, let's turn the question around. as texting becomes more useful, don't you think people will take the time to learn at least a few words, thus improving the literacy rate?

Posted by: lawrence on 8 Dec 05

As long as they stick to standard vocabulary and grammar in their chosen language and don't fall into the 'text-speak' trap!

Posted by: Ken Banks on 8 Dec 05



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