In rural areas in most countries, the mobile phone is the nearest thing to a computer that anyone has. That makes the SMS, which is cheaper than traditional voice calls, the dominant form of communication. So, back in 2005 when Ken Banks was trying to help South Africa’s Kruger National Park communicate and engage with its neighboring communities, it was natural that the solution be provided by mobile phones. Banks recognized this, and elegantly married open-source software to mobile phones to give birth to Frontline SMS — which transforms mobile phone networks into a mass messaging systems.
The power of the system lies in its simplicity:
“Frontline SMS is a piece of software, which is downloadable off of the internet, which turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a two-way group messaging hub. Once and NGO has the software on their computer, they can add in contacts of people they are trying to communicate with, whether they are farmers or health-care workers or human rights reporters, and then send out group messages to those people, and also get messages back all via SMS. There is no need for the internet to use it.”
Unfortunately, the first implementation did not work out well due to governmental interference on-the-ground, but users recognized (i) the power of the mass messaging functionality and (ii) were interested in adding features for data collection. Building on user feedback and its open-source design, Banks and Co. later rolled out an additional service named FrontlineForms which allows users:
to design a form based on their own needs and send it out via SMS to those in the field. Recipients view it on their mobile phones, complete the forms, and send it back to the headquarters for analysis and collection. The form can be customized to collect health, agricultural, and human rights data, among others.
Both FrontlineSMS and FrontlineForms now have language support for Swahili, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, Hindi, Ethiopian, and Arabic, among others.