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FrontlineSMS Goes to the Journalists

FrontlineSMS Goes to the Journalists

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Consider this: Mobile phones have created the broadest platform for people to engage with media ever. The United Nation's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimated that by the end of 2010 there would be 5.3 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide. So if journalists aren't using mobile technology to engage with their audiences, are they missing a huge opportunity to connect efficiently and effectively?

Sean Martin McDonald

"The most interesting things that happen via SMS [text messages] are those that weren't possible before," says Sean Martin McDonald (left), director of operations for FrontlineSMS. "One of the things that we're really focused on is helping the people who want to solve their communities' problems to do it through the most efficient ways possible."

Health organizations in particular have used FrontlineSMS in innovative ways, with programs that address public health issues such as malaria outbreaks in Cambodia and maternal health in the Philippines. Medic Mobile has created specific health texting applications from FrontlineSMS software (and other open-source technologies) to remind patients to go to appointments or take pills and help providers keep better medical records at lower costs.

This week, McDonald talks to Career GPS about his plans to take this powerful technology -- which has already been downloaded more than 15,000 times and used in 70 countries -- to the media. Keep up with Career GPS posts and jobs via RSS or by bookmarking the blog. For this week's health media job opportunities, visit Kristen Natividad's post from yesterday.

FrontlineSMS was one of 16 projects that won support from the Knight News Challenge this year. While the open-source software was originally designed to help NGOs better connect with communities in the developing world, a $250,000 grant will help FrontlineSMS further develop its innovative tools to help journalists -- wherever they are -- to make better use of mobile technology.

McDonald says that this grant will help them build on the experience of FrontlineSMS:Radio, software that helps community radio stations engage with their audiences in an accessible and affordable way. A radio host can, for example, ask a health expert questions from a diverse audience. Even without a computer or Internet access, a listener can text message a question anonymously and quickly, which is particularly powerful to expand engagement with diverse communities and to take advantage of how people use already text messages to communicate. The radio host can then sort through and organize incoming messages using the FrontlineSMS software.

"Any time that you make media participatory, you increase the audience of that media," McDonald says. "I think that you both improve the quality and quantity of information by making these channels more participatory."

Mobile phone advertisement in Uganda by Ken Banks,

Engaging with mobile, and text messaging in particular, is about meeting people where they are.  ITU estimates that 200,000 text messages are sent every second, triple the number in 2007. Josh Nesbit, CEO of Medic Mobile, cites statistics from AudienceScapes: half of 160 radio stations surveyed in West Africa have used mobile platforms to distribute content and take calls. Almost 40 percent of young adults in Colombia and Pakistan listen to radio on their phones.

"I think we'll see flexible, freely available mobile tools that radio DJs and journalists can use on their mobile, tablet or laptop," Nesbit writes in an email. "FrontlineSMS and upcoming extensions are examples."

FrontlineSMS is still in the early stages of its Knight project, so it will begin with a lot more questions than answers: What are journalists' assumptions about how they gather and disseminate news? Which media outlets want to adopt greater mobile engagement and how can these tools be made more available and accessible? How can mobile phones be used to help news organizations better (and more cheaply) cover communities with limited connectivity?

"What we really care about at Frontline is focusing on needs and designing tools that meet those needs," McDonald says. As the project develops, he will continue to reach out to journalists to parse their mobile needs, focusing on bringing great multimedia and data collection tools to FrontlineSMS.

Do you use text messaging or other mobile technology to interact with your sources or readers? Share your mobile strategies and wishlists in comments.

(Photo of mobile phone advertisement in Uganda by Ken Banks,, on Flickr Creative Commons)

More on mobile and media:

Your Health on Your Phone?
Spamming for Public Health
Mobile Health Applications: The View from SXSW Interactive
Scientific Citizens: Using Cell Phones to Collect Data
100 Years of Stamping Out STDs

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