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

Using FrontlineSMS to address the needs of people with disabilities and their families in Colombia

I want to take a moment to share about a collaborative, community-based research project between the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada), the University of Rosario (Bogota, Colombia) and the community of El Codito in northern Bogota. El Codito is a mountainside community located on the perimeter of Bogota, characterized by low socio-economic status, limited access to municipal services such as electricity and sewage, and high crime rates. People in El Codito, especially people with disabilities (PWD), also experience a lack of access to fundamental health services and health information. The mountainous environment, along with other contextual factors, has left PWD and their families marginalized and excluded within their community. Two areas of exclusion are: access to health information and social interaction.  


This collaborative research project is titled El Enlace (which is Spanish for The Link). Our research team hopes to improve access to health information and social interaction using basic mobile phones (and FrontlineSMS) as a tool. In contrast to the limited computer or Internet access, over 95% of Colombians own a mobile phone (ITU, 2011), which provides a potential method to address the issues faced by PWD. But those stats probably don't surprise anyone here in the FrontlineSMS community. 

The Implementation

Over the past year we have carefully prepared for the initial implementation of the project, including 3 technology trials, which introduced the Colombian partners to FrontlineSMS. In mid-August (2012) I had the pleasure of spending 3 weeks in Bogota collaborating, working alongside our research team and beginning the implementation phase of our research. We have begun a 3-month intervention with a small group of 8 parents of children who have disabilities. Over the course of 3 months, these caregivers will receive contextually relevant health information messages, have the opportunity to interact with other caregivers in the project and ask health related questions using SMS. This 3-month intervention is being administered by a team that includes occupational therapists, sociologists, undergraduate students and a community member. Following the 3-month intervention, we will evaluate the viability of the project, including a thorough qualitative analysis, and potentially prepare to scale up the project.  


FrontlineSMS Functions

Our message delivery hub is an HP laptop with a connected Sierra Compass 885 GSM modem located at the University of Rosario. We tried to make the intervention as basic as possible, so only 2 keywords were setup for use by participants, although there are more for the administration team.

The project has three basic functions:

1. Information Distribution

2. Social Interaction

3. Health Questions

Information distribution

The majority of the information messages are being sent directly from the project computer. But, in the instance that a member of the administration team needs to send information from the field a keyword (INFO) has been setup that automatically forwards the information message to participants. Many of the messages we are sending can be quite complicated (e.g. steps to access specific health services), but our group has agreed that no more than 3 messages will be sent at a time.


Social Interaction

Keyword = CUIDADORES  (Spanish for CAREGIVERS)

Whenever a participant starts their message with this keyword, their message will be forwarded to all other participants as well as to administrators.

Example of a participant named Juliana sending a message: “cuidadores hola todos, como esta?

This message would be received like this: “De Juliana: hola todos, como esta?


Health Question

Keyword = PREGUNTA  (Spanish for QUESTION)

Whenever a participant starts their message with this keyword, their question will be forwarded only to the administration team. The participant will also receive a confirmation message thanking them for their question.

Additional Administrator Keywords


Send to specific individuals

Keyword = ENVIAR individual’s name (e.g. ENVIAR JULIANA, Spanish for Send to Juliana) – This keyword forwards a message directly to any individual. This isn’t exactly built into FrontlineSMS, but there is a pretty easy workaround. Apart from having a contact group for all participants, we also established a separate contact group for each individual participant; the keyword forwards the message to that contact group. This keyword allows administrators to respond to participant questions immediately from their mobile phones while in the field. 

Send to Administration Team

Keyword = ADMINISTRADOR - This keyword forwards the message to all members of the administration team.

System Response Test

Keyword = HOLA EL ENLACE – This is a keyword to see if the system is functioning. This keyword is similar to the one described by the MARS Lab in a previous blog entry. The automatic reply to this keyword is: “Hola Tim” or whoever the sender is according to the contact list. Only the sender will receive the response. This keyword makes us feel like we are working with artificial intelligence :)

Project Withdrawal

Keyword = CANCELAR – This keyword withdraws the participant from the project and removes them from all contact groups.


Other Strategies

Incorrect keyword response – Anytime a participant does not spell a keyword correct, they receive an automatic reply reminding them of the correct use of keywords.


Mobile provider messages – The mobile provider in Bogota sends regular messages, either advertising or to confirm when SMS messages have been charged to the number. At first this triggered the incorrect keyword response above, which triggered an automatic response from the provider…ultimately leading to an infinite loop of automatic responses. Thankfully, the provider typically starts their messages with one of three words, which I made keywords for. These keywords do not have any action associate with them, so these messages just get ignored by the system.


Final Thoughts

From the perspective of our research team, the El Enlace project is going well thus far. But what really matters is what participants think, which will be more thoroughly evaluated in a few months.


The El Enlace project is the basis of my MSc in Rehabilitation Science thesis project, under the supervision of Dr. Kim Adams in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta. Our collaborative partners include the Interdisciplinary Team for Studies on Local Development and the Social Action Institute (SERES), both of which are affiliates of the University of Rosario.


We welcome any of your comments or suggestions. I look forward to keeping you up to date throughout the course of our project.




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Comment by Laura Walker Hudson on June 26, 2013 at 1:26pm

How about writing a guest blog post for our blog?


Comment by Tim Barlott on June 25, 2013 at 7:38pm


My Colombian partners and I are currently presenting the results of this project at a conference in Seattle this week!

In the next couple months I will post an updated report on this project. 

All the best

Comment by Laura Walker Hudson on June 25, 2013 at 4:34pm

Hi Tim

Somehow I'm just now coming across this again! Would you mind if we re-post this on our blog?



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