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The Power of the Text Message

December 17, 2012 - 3 Comments

Laura Walker Hudson, CEO Foundation, FrontlineSMSBy Laura Walker Hudson, Guest Columnist

FrontlineSMS grew out of a conviction that mobile could be a more powerful tool if it was made completely accessible to smaller teams and projects as a professional tool. Also known as text messaging, SMS is the most widespread digital communications platform to date and is still growing. The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Service Adoption Forecast predicts that 90% of global mobile subscribers will be using SMS by 2016, up from 74% in 2011.

SMS is an incredibly powerful communications medium. Text messages can be sent even with a very low-strength cell signal or a congested network. SMS is asynchronous, inexpensive and predictably priced, and works on any handset. In much of the world, SMS is often the only digital data that works, or works reliably.

With such low barriers to entry – low-cost and requiring little infrastructure – SMS has seen near-universal adoption by the world’s 2.4 billion unique mobile subscribers, from American teenagers to rural Ugandan farmers. With a date-stamp, sender identification, and a small packet of free-text data, SMS is easy to manipulate, making it perfect for  information and relationship management systems, both online and offline.

Our software is free and open-source, and makes it easy to use SMS to engage with communities, manage staff and information, and collect data. FrontlineSMS supports use of SMS in order to achieve tasks such as managing patient records and subscription-based services, whether there is or is not Internet connectivity.

NGOs and businesses in over 80 countries use the FrontlineSMS platform to run clinics, support school-children in their education and manage operations and interact with customers and beneficiaries. We focus on lowering the barriers to using mobile technologies.

Increased Efficiency for Food Distribution Across Africa

In countries like Kenya, SMS can support efficient management of remote staff, data collection, increased staff security and improved community engagement. Data collected via SMS is instantly digitized, rather than being trapped on paper. One organization that used FrontlineSMS very successfully as part of its critical work is ActionAid.

ActionAid recently won an award for their use of mobile technologies to manage their drought response work in northern Kenya. The Horn of Africa has experienced severe, recurring drought in recent years, which coupled with hikes in food prices due to poor harvests there and elsewhere, sparked famine. ActionAid responded by providing food relief and livelihoods support to communities in remote areas.

SMS was a crucial means for them to share information directly with communities from a laptop computer. ActionAid provided mobile phones and solar chargers to community members and ActionAid workers. By being able to access useful information during disasters, communities were able to make informed decisions and become more active participants in the process of recovery.

SMS  Increasing Importantance as Communication Channel

Over the last seven years FrontlineSMS has been used in every field of social change work, and is increasingly being downloaded by for-profits. In fact, downloads of the platform have tripled in the last six months. Businesses, like not-for-profits, recognize the power of SMS even in countries where smartphone use is growing exponentially. The Pew Internet Research Center recently found that U.S. teens send more text messages each year, and prefer it to any other platform.

Like all communications channels, SMS is at its best when combined with others, like social media. But as the billions of people still to join the mobile revolution encounter SMS for the first time and become increasingly important to global business, economic growth and societal development, more and more organizations will turn to the text message as the world’s most widespread, and perhaps most powerful, digital communications platform.

Laura Walker Hudson leads the Foundation behind the award-winning free desktop SMS management platform, FrontlineSMS.

Prior to this she worked for British Red Cross, working on humanitarian policy and learning, focussed on innovation, urbanisation, cash transfer programming and civil-military relations, as well as strategic planning. Laura also served for three years as Secretary of the NGO-Military Contact Group. She remains a Steering Group member for Enhancing Learning and Research in Humanitarian Action (ELRHA) and a member of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) reference group.

Laura is also a committed activist for the rights of the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller community, and holds an LL.B (Hons) in Law, French and German from the University of the West of England, Bristol, and an LL.M in International Development Law and Human Rights from Warwick University.

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  1. Thank you for the feedback. Until I started researching the creative uses for telecom services such as SMS, I never knew it was as extensive as it is. The creativity and resourcefulness of people who are using SMS to provide new opportunities, and educate communities on health, agriculture, political choice is definitely inspiring. If you know of other great stories, please let me know.

  2. Great article! I really do applaud FrontlineSMS's committment to providing their product open-source. It allows small project groups with very diverse needs around the world to innovate solutions to specific regional problems, making significantly more progress than any one centralized structure could. Felicidades!

  3. Great article and so relevant to my passions. I agree text messages (and in addition) the growth of mobile applications via smartphones continues pump humanitarian aid and economic resources to areas around the world plighted by poverty. I am also diligently working to develop resources for an app that will fuel innovation in cooperative economics as a poverty reduction strategy 3.0 (linking Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, etc. to US in support of the AGOA act signed by US Congress in 2000) and would love to connect with you about it...the power of the smartphone!!!