Is FrontlineSMS:Radio Advancing Social Change in Africa?


imageA free piece of open-source software called FrontlineSMS:Radio has been facilitating dynamic conversations between radio listeners in Africa. Enabling the powerful combination of radio broadcasting with SMS, FrontlineSMS:Radio is empowering and engaging communities across the continent.

Amy O’Donnell, Radio Project Manager at FrontlineSMS:Radio recently spoke to EJC Magazine about this tool.

Q. How has FrontlineSMS technology influenced African media?

Exponential growth in use of mobile technology has meant that many African media outlets are interested in using this technology effectively. By downloading FrontlineSMS and plugging in a mobile phone or GSM modem connected to a computer, people can use SMS in a sophisticated and professional way.

We are moving from having contributions fed via SMS into an individual’s phone to a more open way of integrating SMS into content. We’re also supporting citizen journalists with tools for digital news gathering.

In Zambia, for example, Breeze FM radio uses FrontlineSMS to update its journalists. After gathering news tips received from the general public, the radio station organizes the evidence, sends SMS to journalists who may be out in the field, encouraging them to verify the facts and report.

Q. What is innovative about the FrontlineSMS software plugin?

With ‘Version 2’ recently released, FrontlineSMS has a user-friendly interface making it easier to manage larger volumes of messages, and to customize the software to better meet user needs. Pending messages can be sorted in a more timely fashion.

The second version also makes it easier to send auto-replies to incoming SMS, add data to contacts and create contact groups, run polls, monitor, and keep long-term records of conversations for data gathering and evaluation.

Radio presenters carrying out poll activity can visualize at a glance incoming data from listeners, quickly understand the results, and incorporate such data into a live program.

The new software features a broadcast button enabling message tagging at a click, and managing messages according to which radio shows the SMS content is more relevant. With radio station managers increasingly interested in accessing long-term information about their audiences, there’s a great potential to engage listeners in a more targeted way by collecting data about listeners’ gender, age or location.

Q. How does radio blend with new media in Africa today?

Community radio in Africa increased by more than 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2006; radio is increasingly shifting from a one-way broadcast to a medium that reaches audiences by integrating the participation of listeners into

radio programming.

The benefit of using SMS is that there’s no limit to the number of people who can contribute. We’re looking at ways in which radio stations can run initiatives like structured polls or debates to make sure people are engaged.

Q. What was the inspiration for developing FrontlineSMS:Radio?

The project was developed around the core FrontlineSMS platform, which was created in 2005 by founder of, Ken Banks. FrontlineSMS:Radio originated from a partnership between Banks and Sharath Srinivasan, director of Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights.

We recognized that more than 500 out of 20,000 downloads of FrontlineSMS had mentioned radio, which has very similar accessibility and coverage as the mobile phone. Through the combination of these two tools, we have offered an interactive way potentially connecting millions of people. By inviting SMS content via a radio station, we hope ensure content creation is guided by input of people, thus becoming more relevant.

Q. Could you present some of the initiatives using FrontlineSMS in Africa?

In late 2009, Equal Access International (EA), an international NGO working on capacity building through media, introduced FrontlineSMS in a youth radio show and pre-election program in Chad and Niger, respectively. EA recognized the need to voice out people’s concerns into a national dialogue through an interactive communication platform where the audience could have their say on social and political issues, sometimes for the first time in their lives. 

Listeners were invited to send text messages in response to questions posed on the radio program, submit direct concerns, and share commentary. In Chad, during youth radio show “Chabab Al Haye” (Youth Alive) people could ask questions and give comments, which helped others in the most remote regions to feel included in discussions about issues such as grievances, tolerance and livelihoods.

In Niger, during the pre-election period radio audiences could express their views about positions and candidates by responding to programs directly, through a toll-free SMS message line, which facilitated a more inclusive debate. Also, program producers were able to increase their responsiveness to listener preferences.

Another good case is Better FM, a radio station based in imageFort Portal (Uganda) where FrontlineSMS:Radio was installed 19 April, 2011. The software enabled each radio presenter to have their own space to manage SMS relevant to them within the same system.

Better FM hosts two shows allowing listeners to engage with their MPs in dialogues about public service delivery. One is called ‘Listeners’ Forum’ which is sponsored by Toro Development Network, a local organisation specialized in empowering grassroots organizations with ICTs and promoting transparency.

Q. How has FrontlineSMS helped public health in Africa?

The ‘Stop Stockouts’ campaign is a striking example of how FrontlineSMS can improve medicine availability in African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, where pharmacies frequently run out of medication.

FrontlineSMS was introduced in monitoring activities, where researchers visit health services to check the availability of essential medicines. They send texts describing areas where medication is out of stock. The incoming data are managed via FrontlineSMS, then fed into a mapping platform, Ushahidi. Results are reflected in an online map of the country, showing evidence about the national stock-out situation in real time.

The online mapping system is a powerful tool for journalists who can use the evidence collected from people and report the situation on the ground. By reporting on people’s ability to access health facilities, the media can affect communities, with the support of SMS technology.

Q. Any examples in agriculture?

Two radio shows launched by Kenyan magazine The Organic Farmer show how FrontlineSMS is being used in agriculture. The two programs offer an information service for small-scale farmers, inviting people to submit their questions and seek agricultural advice.

A common problem identified by farmers was an unknown disease killing entire flocks of chickens. As reports with evidence were coming in via SMS and MMS picture messaging, the radio producer invited a farming expert and an MP on show. Following diagnosis of the disease, the community discovered the cause was Newcastle Disease, and the MP decided to organize vaccination schedules.

*Thank you to FrontlineSMS for sharing the photos in this article

Tags: text messaging, technology, sms, mobile technology, frontlinesms:radio, frontlinesms, community radio, african media,