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SMS Gives Small NGOs Big Reach

SMS Gives Small NGOs Big Reach

The ubiquity of the mobile phone now seems to be a global given and as its availability spreads, so too does its potential for global good.

Meet FrontlineSMS, the developers of simple software that allows mass SMS messaging on mobile devices. FrontlineSMS has been used in places as distant as Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Philippines, on projects as varied as fair elections, weather warnings, and health services– all by local nonprofits.

The man behind the idea was anthropologist Ken Banks. FrontlineSMS “was the first text messaging system to be conceived, designed and written firmly with the needs of the non-profit sector in mind,” he explained in the Stanford SAUTI.

FrontlineSMS hit early success during the 2007 Nigerian elections when HELP Foundation used the software to include citizens in the watch for election fairness. Citizens were alerted of polling places and could anonymously send reports of election fraud.

“HELP installed FrontlineSMS onto a single machine, obtained a phone and a new SIM… During the testing process I was in occasional contact with their team, but I generally left them to it. FrontlineSMS is designed to be a simple, works-out-of-the-box solution and requires little or no support,” said Banks.

The software is simple to install on a cellphone and computer. An Internet connection is not necessary. The software can then be used to send mass SMS messages, collect data, export data to an Excel spreadsheet, and respond to group or individual messages.

The Open Source software can be adapted and used for many varying projects, from providing alerts to communities living on the edges of national parks about human/wildlife conflict to tracking crime, collecting health data, or mapping weather and conflict.

Today FrontlineSMS is in the hands of over one thousand non-profit organizations. The software has been updated to run on Windows, Mac and Linux computers and volunteers have helped translate the software into over half-a-dozen languages. The Hewlett Foundation is now a major contributor and the Economist has covered some of the biggest projects.

Banks is excited about the positive response to the FrontlineSMS software. He writes on his blog, “When I think about the growing number of users and uses, and the kinds of projects that FrontlineSMS has enabled – not to mention the enthusiasm many NGOs have shown for what the tool has done for them – a quote in the Africa Journal rings incredibly true:

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

FrontlineSMS helps mostly small organizations that can’t afford otherwise to fund large technology or mobile projects. Most groups that take and adapt the software are able to have a far mobile reach while continuing to be staffed by a tiny group of employees and volunteers.

“We have a relatively simple job here at FrontlineSMS headquarters compared to many of the NGOs and activist groups out in the field trying to make a difference putting wrongs right,” says Banks.

There are many innovative projects worldwide using the FrontlineSMS software. The open nature of the platform promises that it can only be expanded to meet more needs. You can see an interactive map of projects using FrontlineSMS across the globe.

Here is a partial list of projects in countries around the world using the FrontlineSMS software to send mass SMS messages and connect with citizens:

Encouraging youth participation and support in electoral processes.

Coordinating a blood donation program.

Advising handcraft workers on places to commercialize products, trade fairs, training opportunities.

Reporting of landmine victims.

Facilitating disaster communications across multiple agencies.

Allowing women to report sexual harassment on the street.

Communication with microfinance clients about their loans.

Real-time reporting of cyclone damage or other emergency situations.

Radio listeners sending in their opinions and votes.


Readers receiving health and hygiene tips.


Sending weather information to farmers with no access to TV or the Internet.

Nurses in rural areas communicating with doctors in the cities.

Informing small indigenous farmers of fluctuating vegetable prices.

Sending alerts about exams to students who do not have computers.

Connecting with NGOs in other nations.

Sri Lanka
Providing support for the local gay community.

Notifying citizen emergency response teams and assisting GPS plotting in disaster situations.

“FrontlineSMS clearly has considerable potential if this smallest of snapshots is anything to go by. I’ve always believed that if we’re able to build an NGO user community around a single, common, appropriate mobile solution then amazing things could happen,” Banks said two years ago.

As the reach of FrontlineSMS projects continues to grow, so too does their continued potential. One man’s idea became an adaptable software platform specially geared for NGOs and organizations to reach the masses. FrontlineSMS proves that viral information can spread even without the Internet, proving a need for further mobile development in many areas of the world with little Internet accessibility.

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1:58PM PST on Dec 13, 2010

I'm all for increasing communication in developing countries but we should not forget that this, like much new technology, has tremendous potential for abuse. Imagine what could have happened if in the sixties bullying Chinese Red Guard groups or in the nineties the Lord's Resistance Army a terrorist guerrilla force in Sierra Leone and Uganda had access to this kind of technology?

5:13AM PST on Dec 9, 2010

Noted and signed!!

11:57AM PST on Dec 8, 2010

Thanks for the article.

12:20PM PST on Dec 7, 2010

Thanks for the article.

11:17AM PST on Dec 7, 2010


10:52AM PST on Dec 7, 2010

Thanks for posting, great read.

4:26AM PST on Dec 6, 2010

good news

10:46PM PST on Dec 5, 2010

Oh yeaaaah, our professor told us about how they use dumbphones to send news. I bet that was like a wake-up slap to kids who have amazing smart phones and all they do with them is chat 24/7!! -.-
I guess you never really appreciate good things in life unless you are deprived of them. :/

8:19PM PST on Dec 5, 2010


7:31PM PST on Dec 5, 2010

thanks for the info.

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