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

(review by mobileactive)

Implementation of RapidSMS in Kenya for Millennium Villages

Some of you may be aware of another major project in this space, RapidSMS, which provides a quite different approach to managing communications and database entry.

FrontlineSMS Forms' Java front end (on the handset) structures data in natural language for skilled users. This is tremendously valuable in promoting adoption for community health workers. Data is converted to SMS by the software. F/SMS Medic promises the ability to pass database entries through to OpenMRS. This built-in translator greatly lowers barriers to integration of a custom-built database with an enterprise medical record system. (It will save your DB administrator lots of time and effort.)

ChildCount's "How it works" page shows encoded SMS messages, with many abbreviations for medical record fields. By adopting user-coded messages, rather than database forms, ChildCount (I assume) makes the following tradeoffs.
  1. No handset compatibility issues (+)
  2. Steeper learning curve (-)
  3. No obvious way to roll out updates of database forms (-)
ChildCount's implementation of RapidSMS also adds in decision support for primary medical care. Automated decision support is a wonderful
feature, provided that organizations have the institutional capability
to maintain the system. When the system is well maintained, it provides current clinical practice guidelines to any skilled RapidSMS user in the field.

Please note I am not a skilled user of either platform, so if you can point out errors in this post please do so.

The spirit of this post is to keep FrontlineSMS users well informed about other approaches to mobile technology for health. We can probably
imagine better F/SMS hacks if we are aware of how other platforms are
developing. I hope some of you will post on other related platforms for
mobile health IT. I am not affiliated with RapidSMS, and I am not
advocating that users here adopt either platform.


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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Ben,

I'd say this is a pretty fair analysis, but I'd emphasize more that FrontlineSMS excels as a hybrid platform. FrontlineSMS is also very capable of collecting data with structured SMS (i.e. comma separated values in a plan text message, like Child Count uses), in which case there are no phone compatibility issues for FrontlineSMS. So when considering the pros and cons of FrontlineForms versus RapidSMS, you might also consider the pros and cons of FrontlineForms versus FrontlineSMS without forms.

On the other hand, FrontlineSMS can also be compared with forms-based data collection tools like OpenRosa, OpenDataKit, or EipHandy. FrontlineSMS differs here in that data can be sent via SMS instead of requiring GPRS, and the fact that FrontlineSMS can simultaneously be used for Forms collection and simple sms (for example, to ask someone "why didn't you send in your form today!?")

There are platforms that do parts of everything FrontlineSMS does. To my knowledge, there are no other comparable hybrid platforms

Other key aspects of RapidSMS are that:

It is written in Python. + if you like phython and agile dev frameworks like django, - if local devs in your area don't know these new fangled programming languages, - if you want to integrate with other health informatics tools (most of which are in java, like FrontlineSMS).

It is focused on being easy for developers to modify rather than being no-hassles for non-developers to set up. + if you are a developer, - if you are not.

It is strongly backed by UNICEF and their partners like MVP and Columbia U (I think they are the only users at this point). ++ if you want to massive scale and are willing to wait for the bureaucracy, - if you can't wait for bureaucracy or want a tool that is used by a broader array of users that often have more modest means, clout, and scale.
Great post: informative and full of other software to read up on. Thanks!
Thank you so much Ben and Isaac for this comparison. You just answered a question I was about to post as I am new to this - I just came across RapidSMS and was wondering how it differs from FrontlineSMS. Very encouraging to hear that FrontlineSMS is a hybrid and versatile platform. We are looking to use 1) SMS for opt-in reminders [to encourage expectant mothers to get antenatal care, malaria prevention...] 2) OpenMRS to manage patient records so mobile community hlth workers can tell who hasn't gone for their antenatal visits, got their shots...and follow up with them. I am no techie whatsoever so I am looking to replicate basic functionality that's been successful elsewhere. I really appreciate input from those with experience. Please excuse my ignorance but what is the difference between OpenMRS and PatientView - or is PatientView the interface? Thank you!
Hi Elisheba,

My name is Isaac, I'm part of the Medic team that created PatientView and I'm also working with OMRS in Kenya - both applications do very cool, very different things.

The single greatest difference is that PV is built on FrontlineSMS, which is a desktop application, and OMRS is a web application. That doesn't mean you need Internet to use OpenMRS, but it does mean that it functions on a local network - you have one server that holds all the data and then you can have as many computers as you want where people view and input data. The networking equipment, underlying web architecture, and the focus/design of OMRS make it much more complicated to use. I have never heard of a successful OMRS implementation that did not have a dedicated IT person to manage it.

PatientView is much more limited in that it (currently) only works on one computer at a time, and the features are much more limited. The trade off is that it is *much* easier to set up and use. It is suited for smaller clinics, or single departments/programs within a larger health system (such as a referral system or community outreach program).

Medic is also working on an OpenMRS module that will send and receive SMS messages, it might be of interest for your program.

We are working on a number of similar initiatives and I am in Nairobi for the rest of the week, want to meet up?

isaac [at] or 0701333477
Thanks Isaac for sharing your valuable expertise on this - very useful. I am really excited to hear from you and how I wish I was in Nairobi to meet up! I am in N. America right now. I'll introduce you to my colleague via e-mail to see if he's able to meet up with you folks as it's extremely valuable to connect with people working in the same area. I'll be in touch shortly. Thanks again, Elisheba

Thanks for these insights...!

I am new to these technologies, and wondering which one of the 2 to start with between RapidSMS and FrontlineSMS. Somehow, I got more feedback from RapidSMS case studies... but like better the spirit of FrontlineSMS founders. Not a tech view? No... But I need to come to the tech view and this helps!

Hi Agnes

This really is more a matter of what you're trying to do, and what kinds of resources you have available to do it. The advantage of FrontlineSMS is that you can most likely set it up yourself. RapidSMS is powerful but requires a high degree of technical competency, so you'd likely need to bring people in to help with that. If you want to pilot something relatively quickly and at low cost then FrontlineSMS is a good place to start - some users have used it to prototype ideas and then move on to other tools once their idea is proven, and they get additional resources to take it forward.

Hope that helps!


Yes it does, so I need to try put the hands in and see where I stop.

I formerly thought RapidSMS would be better for 2-way communications, but that may not be true anymore with the forms version? or is it?

Like, say, you get people to text "HIV" to a specific number, and then they are sent questions like a quizz, and depending on their answer, the system sends back another set of messages. Ideally, on top of the autoresponse capability, we also get nice analytic data on the users (type of users based on their answer, frequency of use, geography...)?

Hi again, Agnes

There's a post/comment thread covering how to set up a basic survey here:

As for analytics, you'll need to figure out what data you need and how you analyse it. You can export messages from FrontlineSMS into Excel, for example - you could then do whatever you need with it. That's one for you to figure out!


Right, I will see that

Thanks :)


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