FrontlineSMS: Engaging the Audience to Transform the News

    by Sean McDonald
    August 2, 2011

    If some projections are correct, the world is only a year or so from a major milestone: some time in 2012, there will be one active mobile phone connection for every person on the planet. The question is no longer whether mobile phones will transform, well, everything, but how.

    At FrontlineSMS we’ve worked with our users to transform everything from health care, to banking, to journalism. After nearly 6 years and more than 16,000 downloads, our open source software, FrontlineSMS, has been used to connect millions of people to vital information using perhaps the most widespread communications medium we have ever seen: the humble text message.

    FrontlineSMS from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.


    FrontlineSMS is open-source software that turns a low-end computer connected to a mobile phone or GSM modem into an SMS (text messaging) hub, allowing users to easily manage complex, two-way communication with large groups of people. SMS messages can be sent from any handset, are often comparatively cheap, discreet, and immediate, and, most importantly, can move small packets of data swiftly in places where nothing else works. Since FrontlineSMS works anywhere there’s a basic mobile signal, and doesn’t require the Internet, it is most used to reach those who live beyond the reach of other communications tools.

    Fostering On-Air Dialogue

    Journalists and broadcasters have been some of the most innovative users of new communications tools, SMS first among them. Radio stations, in particular, have used SMS to redefine the role that the audience plays in live broadcast and reporting.


    Recognizing the need for better tools to manage these interactions, FrontlineSMS created the FrontlineSMS:Radio project, in partnership with media development organizations, Internews, networks like Developing Radio Partners, and local radio stations, such as Pamoja FM in Kibera, Kenya, and Breeze FM in Chipata, Zambia. This new tool enables radio DJs to engage with their audiences through real-time polling, live reporting via SMS, and by fostering on-air dialogue among listeners.

    Having witnessed the impact of SMS on radio broadcasts, FrontlineSMS will use its Knight Foundation Award to take this work a step further — building tools that will enable journalists to engage audiences and report stories, using SMS and the Multi-Media Message Service (MMS).

    Content from the crowd

    i-ea8e9b8d65e47b95b0637bc83fa1998a-frontlinesms logo.jpg

    As interest “citizen reporting” — the ability of people on the street to contribute their own viewpoint and experiences to broadcast and print media — grows, mainstream media outlets are increasingly making use of audience-generated content. FrontlineSMS will build tools that enable journalists to receive, analyze, and repackage content via MMS.

    Specifically, we will work with partners such as the Knight Foundation to design mobile tools that track audience polls, measure engagement with program content, seek community input on stories in progress, and get live feedback during broadcasts. We will work with a range of journalists and civic media to pilot these features in the real world, as well as explore new models and mechanisms for audience engagement.

    Reporting from outside the newsroom – in real time

    FrontlineSMS will also develop customized tools that enable journalists to use their mobile phones to report the news. In a number of contexts, journalists are already using SMS and web interfaces to communicate with news organizations about stories as they develop. But both SMS and web interfaces are limited by their formats and the available infrastructure.

    Using the Knight award, FrontlineSMS will work with journalists in a wide range of contexts to design and develop a mobile tool that brings together the benefits of several communications platforms in one robust interface. The FrontlineSMS Knight project aims to lower the barriers to reporting from outside the newsroom, increasing both the quantity and quality of information available in real-time.

    Tagged: audience broadcast journalism frontlinesms mms project intros radio SMS text message

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