Global Participatory Journalism with FrontlineSMS

Congratulations! This Entry has been selected as a finalist.

Global Participatory Journalism with FrontlineSMS

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Thanks to FrontlineSMS, we have a global network of users and supporters, and an established reputation in mobile integration.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The mobile phones in the hands of rural community members throughout the developing world give them an opportunity to interact with, contribute to, and consume the news like never before. In the developed world, our long familiarity with participatory media like call-in radio can make interaction via mobile technology seem banal, if occasionally compelling: CNN anchors reading live messages from Twitter users on air, for example, can seem like more novelty than useful glimpse into the backchannel; reports via Twitter from the streets of Tehran during this summer’s protests, though, offered a live and vital window into an oppressive regime that would otherwise have been impossible. Most importantly for FrontlineSMS, though, is the fact that, in vast swathes of the developing world, areas where literally billions of people live, no opportunities for participatory journalism had ever been possible before. Those are the communities we are building for, and in the process developing tools with universal applicability to helping the voices of the world's rural poor be heard.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Our work is putting the tools of participatory journalism directly in the hands of people throughout the rural developing world. In fact, the tools are already in their hands, in the form of their basic mobile phones. Our software, which runs at a hub on a laptop in a radio station, TV control room, or other newsroom, aggregates messages sent to the station and can also send messages back out in bulk. With this initiative, we plan to add features like comprehensive MMS compatibility, which will allow ordinary community members to document news in the field, from photos documenting fraud or abuse, to audio recordings of local politicians, to short videos of violence or corruption. Hosts and journalists will be able to comb through, curate, and verify piles of primary sources, and even send selections of this media out to listeners’ handsets, transforming the passive act of listening to or watching news into a rich, participatory, multimedia experience. We plan to prepare guides to help journalists and news presenters consider new topics to discuss with their audience and learn how those conversations could be enhanced by SMS. Ultimately, we aim to build the capacity of community organizations and outlets to empower their own communities. The simplicity of the platform, the fact that all of our software is free and open-source, and our strong global network of media organizations, from the BBC World Service to Farm Radio International, means that it is easy to scale up and replicate our work throughout the world.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

[Adapted from a message from Equal Access International]: Equal Access International specializes in educating and empowering people in some of the world’s most remote regions. Linking their work on local radio with FrontlineSMS has converted a traditionally one-way information flow into an open dialogue, allowing listeners to express their ideas and perspectives, sometimes for the first time in their lives. EA has been using FrontlineSMS to collect listener messages in Chad and Niger since late 2009. The radio stations receive thousands of messages each year, some in response to questions posed on the radio and others sharing personal views or commentary. In Chad, EA produces a youth radio show that discusses peaceful ways of addressing grievances, tolerance, and problem solving. Listeners can send in feedback through FrontlineSMS asking questions like “I lived for a little while in the North, and I noticed that tribalism still exists there. The young people from the North and South avoid relating to one another. How do we get past this behavior?” EA discusses these comments on air, helping youth from all over the country feel included in important conversations. In closed communities, or those struggling with violence or intolerance, the act of engaging in a dialogue via a mass communications platform such as a radio can help people feel engaged and included. As one young listener in Niger texted, “[EA’s youth show] Gwadaben should be congratulated because it is an essential environment for young people, where we can discuss and address the questions that concern us.”

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

As a socially driven organization developing free and open-source tools, competition over the participatory journalism space is less important to us than ensuring we serve and empower our users and their audiences in the best way we can, especially given the immense size of the global market for the kinds of tools we develop. As the same time, since our tools are free, simple, and well known, competitors would have a hard time displacing us. Most of the peer organizations in our field are less competitors than current or potential collaborators. The team at Ushahidi, for example, builds participatory mapping tools that use FrontlineSMS software to collect and organize SMS messages. Community media outlets using FrontlineSMS will benefit immensely from the ability to integrate mapping into a participatory journalism workflow. There are other SMS aggregation tools out there, as well as Web-based SMS services, but we offer different advantages. The Web services, obviously, require Internet access, a nonstarter in the communities we serve, and other SMS tools either require advanced technical skills to launch or lack the dynamic user community and support system we have cultivated.
About You
FrontlineSMS / The kiwanja Foundation
About You
First Name


Last Name


Twitter URL


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About Your Organization
Organization Name

FrontlineSMS / The kiwanja Foundation

Organization Country


Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Start-Up (a pilot that has just begun operating)

How long have you been in operation?

Operating for less than a year

Social Impact
FOUNDING STORY: We want to hear about your “Aha!” moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution’s potential to change the world.

FrontlineSMS began life back in 2004 when Ken Banks was working in South Africa, thinking about how the park authorities could use mobile technology to communicate with local communities living around Kruger National Park, many of whom were slowly beginning to acquire mobile phones. Frustrated by the domination of web-based communications tools—it was impossible to connect to the Internet in these communities—Ken built a communications solution that would offer its users the maximum amount of accessibility. To reflect the reality in the field, this meant no Internet and no technology more advanced than a low-cost laptop and basic mobile phones already in the hands of community members. In 2005, armed with a laptop, programming guide and an assortment of cables, phones and GSM modems, Ken went to work on developing a prototype of his communications platform, one which was eventually to become FrontlineSMS. Since then, the popularity of the platform and engagement of the user community has grown ceaselessly. As a few journalists began to use the basic tools to engage their communities, it became clear that there was more work to be done, and this initiative was born.

Specify both the depth and scale of your solution’s social impact to date

Nearly 20,000 organizations and individuals have downloaded FrontlineSMS, and our community of active users has reached millions of people with projects from agricultural support to public health to election monitoring campaigns. As we begin to develop and grow our participatory media initiative, we are working hard on developing and collecting metrics directly related to that work. This will mean more than counting radio stations or other journalists that are using FrontlineSMS (though there are already 26 stations around the world who are doing so); we need to go into detail in pilot projects designed to measure the impact of SMS-based interaction on information retention and listener engagement, develop surveys to measure uptake and satisfaction with new communications tools, and analyze the workflows of community journalists to understand how our tools and mobile in general are transforming their newsgathering process.

We are ready to hit the ground running. With committed interest from organizations like al Jazeera, Internews, the BBC World Service Trust, the World Bank, and more, we are ready to lead in this movement and deliver rapid and sustainable global impact.

What is your projected impact within the next 1-5 years? Is your idea replicable? If so, how?

Thanks to our existing network of users and supporters, we are confident that our tools will be used widely within the next year. Within the next 5 years, we anticipate being leaders in the field of mobile integration in journalism and media. Because our tools are free and open-source, and our community is open and dynamic, it will be simple for our tools to be used and our expertise to be tapped for projects and programs around the world. Given the rapid growth of mobile technology, and the growing embrace of innovation around the channel, we believe that, in five years, mobile integration in newsgathering and participatory journalism will be nearly universal, and it is our hope that early, aggressive initiatives like this one will keep us at the forefront of this critical movement.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and mark growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

100 stations or programs around the world actively using FrontlineSMS for citizen media

Six-Month Tasks
Task 1

Complete software development and consultation with pilot partners

Task 2

Roll-out software and launch engagement and outreach strategy

Task 3

Support early-adopting stations to work out software bugs and ensure smooth integration

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Continued growth and clear leadership in the mobile-for-participatory-media movement worldwide

12-Month Tasks
Task 1

Conduct rigorous impact evaluations of the benefit of mobile tech in media and journalism

Task 2

Gain widespread satisfaction with our team, tools, and community through hands-on support

Task 3

Develop a sound, sustainable, active business model of consultation and training for a diverse client portfolio

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001 - 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Explain how your company, program, service or product is structured

Hybrid model

What barriers have hindered the success of your project to date? How do you plan to overcome these and other challenges as you grow your solution?

We foresee three potential risks to the success of FrontlineSMS:Media: lack of adoption, a failure to keep the software simultaneously easy to use and feature-rich, and resource constraints. The whole point of dedicating time and resources to addressing the needs of rural journalists and media outlets is to improve the way they work. Like any free, open-source software, FrontlineSMS:Media will only be as successful as the people that use it. If no one uses our tools, or if no one considers our community and expertise an asset to their work, the project objectives will not be met. We believe our development process mitigates this risk, by involving current and potential users at every stage of the process, ensuring that what we build responds directly to their stated needs.

How do you see the information-technology and media sectors shifting over the next decade? How will your solution adapt to and/or drive that changing environment?

In a world of rapidly shifting technology and an uncertain media landscape, versatility is a key piece of our strategy. While it is certain that mobile data connectivity will come to many parts of the developing world, and cheap Android handsets will make mobile Internet accessible, the persistence of SMS in the U.S. shows that there will always be communities where texting is the cheapest, easiest, or only tool. The same goes for broadcast media like radio, which remains vital even as the Internet has otherwise transformed the news landscape.

Failure is not always an option. If your solution fails to gain traction in the next two years, what other applications of the idea could you explore?

Luckily, our work in citizen media is one of several sector-specific initiatives we are undertaking. Therefore, even if FrontlineSMS:Media fails to gain traction, the software we build, the expertise we develop, and the ideas we generate can easily be internally directed towards one of our other initiatives. With a community users reaching millions of people around the world with our tools, we are confident that any investment in our work and our team will yield dividends.

Expand on your selections, explaining how you will sustain funding

As described elsewhere in this application, our sector-specific initiatives in media fit neatly in our long-term palns to attain financial sustainability as a unique hybrid social enterprise. We have found that larger organizations want access to the expertise we’ve gained during five years in M4D. Program design consultancy is therefore our primary type of contract, with training coming in a close second. Ongoing consulting work with larger partners will therefore provide the bulk of funding necessary to support this work. We don’t anticipate future grants being necessary, but targeted grants for new initiatives can and do take budgetary pressure off existing work and allow us to pursue other projects that have the potential to become self-sustaining in the short-to-medium term.

Tell us about your partnerships

We have received support from these organizations to help us develop the core FrontlineSMS platform, and to build the team that supports the software and its user community. Other major donors are the Omidyar Network and the Knight Foundation, which recognized our new media initiatives in this year's News Challenge.

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section?

Our team consists of a project manager for our media initiative, a software development team, and a core team that takes on a variety of management roles. As we move towards becoming a hybrid social enterprise, the responsibilities of software development and community engagement will fall with the US-based nonprofit, while the training and consulting activities that will keep us sustainable will fall to the UK-based Community Interest Company

Changemakers is a collaborative and supportive space. Please specify any community resources you would need to grow and sustain your initiative. Select all that apply

Investment, Collaboration or networking, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.).

Specify any resources you might offer to support other initiatives. Select all that apply

Innovation or ideas, Mentorship.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren’t specified within the list
Define your company, program, service or product in 1-2 short sentences

Integrating SMS with newsgathering and participatory journalism, our team is working to transform global citizen media.