Monday, July 14, 2008

Virtues of FrontlineSMS

Over the last week, there's been a cascade of communication. A few examples, of many:

- A man missed his appointment with a TB officer. A CHW was texted, who reported the man had gone to Zambia for a funeral. The hospital will be notified upon his return.

- An HIV support group met, and decided on new member guidelines. Via SMS, the group leader asked the hospital to print copies for the lot.

- A CHW asked about ferrous sulfate dosages, so he could administer the proper amount to an anemic child.

I'm at the halfway point of my trip, and after five weeks on the ground, a discussion of the tools is in order. Ken Banks, the creator of FrontlineSMS, recently wrote an article about the emerging social power of mobiles for BBC News:

Ken is building a community of implementers. Interested parties should visit two of the group's sites: and

It is precisely due to FrontlineSMS's smart simplicity that the project has developed organically - first and foremost, to meet the hospital's needs as it serves its catchment area. The quick uptake of the project was fueled, in no small part, by how user-friendly FrontlineSMS is, as a central communications hub.

It also has provided solutions to some potentially tricky questions. A quick example:

Text messages cost 10 cents. Units can be sent from one phone to another via Celtel's Me2U service, but managing the units of 100+ phones manually is near impossible. So, I had to find a way to both monitor each phone's unit level and top up (replenish depleted reserves) automatically.

Before leaving Stanford, I engraved each phone's faceplate with a two-digit ID number. Using FrontlineSMS's auto-forward function, I've set up a system to automatically top CHWs up. When they are running low on units, CHWs can text "(ID number) Units" to FrontlineSMS. Subsequently, a message is sent to Celtel, with instructions to top up that particular CHW. System abuse is unlikely and avoidable - the volunteers know that FrontlineSMS records every message received, sandwiched by unit requests.

We're starting to explore additional functionalities of FrontlineSMS. Each CHW is given a kit of basic medications - a portion of the questions we're fielding involve those drugs. We'll set up an auto-reply system so that any message containing a given drug name returns a summary - function, dosages, etc. - for that drug.

1 comment:

kiwanja said...

Hey there, Josh

It's really great to see the hospital 'growing into' FrontlineSMS, starting off with simple sending and receiving and, once people become comfortable, confident and proficient with the technology, start to use some of the more advanced functions.

It will be interesting to see what other problems you are all able to solve. The auto-charging is a great example of some grassroots problem solving.

Looking forward to hearing more as your work progresses!