FrontlineSMS

FrontlineSMS let users send, receive and manage SMS over a mobile network.

We have been using FrontlineSMS for the past three years or so in Jos, Nigeria, mostly for distribution of notices during civil unrest (aka riots and killings). There were a few things that limited us, though. Two primary limitations were that FrontlineSMS required a computer and operator to run the system (which means having power, secure location, etc.) and that the administration was centralized, living on one laptop, making it hard to share responsibility for maintaining the user database or for moderation.

 

We briefly experimented with GeoChat, then Twitter. GeoChat seemed a bit cumbersome and while Twitter worked in principle, sometimes the messages were delayed by up to two weeks. Finally I began working on a new system, which I'm calling Mission Net until I find a better name.

 

Mission Net is a solution for sending messages to people via mobile phone text messages (SMS) and/or email. It was developed especially as a way to get important information (warnings about community unrest etc.) to members of our organization in an unstable country where Internet access is limited but nearly everyone has a mobile phone. A key aim of the application is that it should be accessible by SMS and email. Users should not only receive messages but should be able to request information, broadcast messages, and change their personal details without having to use the Internet. A second driving aim is that the entire application resides online, so that there is no need for a local server or operator.

 

This system is still in development but is stable enough for us to be using it. It is an application that needs to be configured and installed on a web server (we're using a free Heroku account). After that, the primary management is via a web browser, but it can also be accessed via email and SMS.

 

Examples of use:

  • User sends "d alerts There seems to be some trouble brewing east of town."
    The system broadcasts to everyone in the alerts group, "There seems to be some trouble brewing east of town. H Kraft 9Aug1:23p"
  • User sends "report Now there is a lot of gunfire and smoke in the Gangare area. Stay clear." The system stores that as a news update but does not broadcast it.
  • A moderator with web access opens a "new message" page and enters another news update, this one based on a BBC news item about Gangare. She stores the message as a news update.
  • Another user sends "updates" (or "updates Gangare") and will receive the previous news updates. The updates have a set expiration time so don't accumulate forever.
  • A third user sends an email "updates Gangare" and receives back the email version of the same updates, which may be more detailed than the short ones that can be received by SMS.

Those examples give the basic idea. The system is pre-configured to use either Clickatell or Twilio gateways for outgoing SMS and CloudMailin for incoming email.

 

See the documentation (a Google Document) at http://bit.ly/OZTfcV if you're interested. The project framework is Rails with the source available at https://github.com/MikeBlyth/mission_net. Collaboration welcome!

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Thanks for the information. Good to see the progress in FrontlineSMS, and I will think about updating our own installation to the new version. As far as I can see, it is still based on a local computer and has a user database that is accessible only locally, at least for full access. Those are features we're trying to escape from. I think FrontlineSMS and the type of application I'm trying to create have complementary roles. FrontlineSMS is explicitly designed not to require Internet access and is perfect for setting up and running anywhere on a laptop. Mission Net takes the opposite approach, needing to be set up on an internet host in advance by someone with more technical skills, and requiring/allowing Internet access for the most convenient administration. FrontlineSMS can take advantage of using a local phone number for incoming SMS, while Mission Net relies on a gateway service.

 

--Mike

Hi Mike


FrontlineSMS v2 does indeed still run on a local computer, and we will always support this model - as you say, it's vital for a large section of our users. We're working though on adding the features you describe in Mission Net - can't say much more than that, but it's in our relatively short term roadmap.

Also, I would add that given that FrontlineSMS is open source, users are always welcome to modify the code in any way they want - it's hosted here. Finally, we would always encourage users to tell us if they need additional features before starting afresh - our roadmap is in large part determined by user demand, so the more information we have about what you all need, the better.
Hope that's helpful.

Best wishes

Laura

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