Reviewing SMS survey tools: FrontlineSMS vs RapidSMS vs Textizen vs FreedomFone
I was tasked to shortlist and test different types of ICT tools that can be used in governance. Since mobile penetration is really high worldwide – I started investigating SMS polling and survey tools. mobile (85.5%) vs internet (32.35%) – worldwide graphs – ITU
After some research – here is the shortlist I ended up with – I made sure to diversify the tools. I didn’t want to end up with list of stuff that do the same thing but under different logos. Other factors were that those tools had to be robust enough for big implementations… easy to use, open source, can be extended etc. I know that probably there are some amazing software that i skipped – this is a shortlist after all – not an extensive one – so feel free to share in the comments your favorite tool… I could have missed it and if it is awesome, I will re-add it. In each review I will share:
- Background info on the tool, how it started, why, by whom, links to their sites or social media or further readings.
- Where it was used and by whom.
- Ease of use, installing experience, personal feedback.
- Scenario based recommendations – comparaison vs other tools.
- 2004: Conceptualized by Ken Banks while working in Kruger National Park and coded over 6 weeks on a kitchen table in Finland.
- 2005: October – published
- 2006: Started getting fellowship and donor support
- 2007: Kiwanja foundation was created as a california non-profit then spun off as community interest company
- 2008: Made open source + collaboration with Josh Nesbik (Medic Mobile) in Malawi
- 2009: Hired first programmer – downloads(4 605)
- 2010: Branched into FrontlineSMS:Credit, FrontlineSMS:Radio, FrontlineSMS:Learn, FrontlineSMS:Legal, FrontlineSMS:Medic
- 2012: FrontlineSMS v2 was launched.
Interactive full map link : http://www.frontlinesms.com/frontlinesms-in-action/user-map/ Personal feedback:
- Nice stuff:
- I downloaded both versions 1 and 2 for osX – they are super easy to install – need almost no technical knowledge.
- Very sleek easy to use user interfaces with lots of thought put behind the UX.
- Support of SMS Gateway as hardware and/or as service – you can either connect a hardware with a line to send SMS or you can create an account with international SMS providers like Clickatell or intelliSMS. This can turn out very handy in case of lack of access to hardware ressources.
- Great community on ning and interactive presence via social media(twitter+facebook).
- Multi language support in version 1 and current translation efforts. There seems to be a good awareness on importance of localization.
- Basic built in report and csv export for further analysis. So it is easy to get a glimpse of what is happening and it is easy to get the data out. Also there are “categories” – “polls” – “groups”… that make the reporting easier by creating grouping fields or filtering criterias to use.
- All data lives on a local computer, not on servers controlled by someone else
- Enables 2 way communication (sending & receiving sms) … does not require internet…works with almost any GSM operator
- Not so nice stuff:
- There are versions available for windows and OSX – no linux version yet. Once is supposed to be out soon.
- No support for forms in FrontlineSMS v2 yet – which is kind of crucial if you want to have a controlled data input.
- Ning as a platform is not the best option imho to manage a community Q&A site. There are really old topics that show up in search results – so the discussions may be outdated or refer to something in 2009 or in old version…. there is no fast way to find out which solution work etc… I’ve been corrupted to the bones by “stackexchange” Q&A sites and the likes. So I hope something similar eventually comes up.
- Based on some reports from people who used Frontline: some of the hardware included on the safelist of tools to use did not work. Managing big numbers of users turned to be a hassle (you can not select more then 100) – I havent’ got the chance to test on such large numbers…and i don’t know if those issues were related to v1 or v2… but I highly recommend getting in touch with someone who used on a large scale before implementing a complex country level project.
When is it best to use Frontline?
- The ease to use/configure/connect to SMS gateway – makes frontline sms ideal for teams where there is no tech experts. You can have the system up, configured and ready in less then 30 mins.
- I’d be very comfy to use frontline in medium projects – anything nationwide or huge scales, i’ll get in touch with frontline for some benchmarking tests and documents.
- SMS, voice messages & voice menus (IVR).
- Share audio information with your audience(Information on demand in a language you understand)
- Organise a poll
- Collect SMSs from your audience
- Get your audience to leave audio messages
Typical usages: Radio – Crisis – Election – Journalism – Health – Business – Agriculture Background Info
- Founded in 2001 by the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe as a response to freedom of expression and low internet access compared to high mobile usage
- Supported by KnightNews Foundation (2008 award), Hivos, InterNews Europe.
- Development team: Alberto Escudero Pascual & Louise Berthilson – IT46 Technical Director: Brenda Burrell Technical Support Officer: Tichafara Sigauke Administration Manager: Tina Rolfe
- Full history in http://prezi.com/qebpiow3qj6-/freedom-fone/
Verifying the claim on zimbabwe internet vs mobile penetration: 15.7% internet penetration vs 72.13% mobile Freedomfone users: http://freedomfone.org/users Growth [click to enlarge] When is it best to use FreedomFone?
- FreedomFone is available in the form of a virtual machine/virtual box – which makes it a download-run by regular users without compromising on the features/code and requiring complex configurations. Of course not to mention all the benefits of having virtual environment running.
- It is also a one stop shop for everything – SMS, voice messages & voice menus (IVR). Using voice is critical in some places with low literacy and having automated menus as well might save up labor and make large projects possible.
Textizen is a project of Code for America – and it really lives up to its description as a “A powerful and delightfully simple system for citizen feedback in the digital age.” It was launched in June 1 2012 and uses SMS survey polls to gather citizen feedback: Citizens text their answers to a specific number to be part of the poll
It is a cloud based platform currently in free beta.
- Cloud based: you don’t need to install anything anywhere – everything is on the internets, However you need to place a request for an account – creating it may take several days and may or not get approved. (loss of control)
- Free: You don’t pay for the cloud based platform – you get it for free. It gets even better: inside the US – it is free to send the poll questions and followup to the people who take the survey – so the SMS are free as well – which removes a hurdle in getting management or accounting dept approval (trust me that counts)
The interface and website is crazy simple to use and navigate – and follows the latest guidelines in web development.
An example of this simplicity is for example the About page – instead of fancy text – you see the image + link to the twitter profiles of the members. This minimalism is spread all over the design and functionalities.
The polls can have many questions – including free text, multiple options and skip logic (based on a first answer – the user gets a second personalized question).
No user map available but one good example is textizen implementation in Philadelphia http://phila2035.org/
Having something running in the cloud and for free takes away all the worries,stress and need for expertise or ressources. So this is one big huge plus for projects to be run by non-geek instantly.
The bargain of course is the level of control – you need to request an account – there are some limitations on the questions you can ask (no 2 consecutive skip logic questions) – the numbers of multiple answers you can have (but it makes sense)… So in short – you need to make sure citizen fits your survey needs not vice versa (it will, 80% of the time)
Textizen are working also on also turning textizen into a self hosted service – which might give ability to push and publish real time visualizations and be able to use it across the world with different gateways – when this happens, textizen will be the best tool to use – no brainer!.
RapidSMS is a Free and Open Source framework for developing short message-based applications. Based on Django web framework – written in Python.
“Framework” is an essential word for understanding RapidSMS – it is really a robust tool to use in implementations and to build stuff on top of it and customize it.
It is the thing to use in huge country scale projects, but it requires a good amount of expertise to configure, customize and run.
RapidSMS Initial development was funded by Unicef and they won the 2008 USAID Development 2.0 Challenge.
It is done by Dimagi – a privately held software consultancy founded in 2002 with its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA – working on social business/responsibility.
The same guys at Dimago wrote the following (this will give you a scale of robust-ness):
- CommCare: mobile health, SMS, care coordination, and data collection
- OpenData Kit: open source suite of tools that enables data collection on mobile phones and
- data submissions to a central server.
- JavaRosa: From an inexpensive handset, a server appliance, to the latest Android device, JavaRosa is the platform to collect and aggregate field data quickly, accurately, and securely.
- RapidAndroid: An SMS Gateway on your phone – Aggregate, interpret, and coordinate SMS data collection all from one device.
So those guys know exactly what they are coding. The team has 16 team member – 9 implementers.
There is no fancy map – but here is the list:
Senegal- The Jokko Initiative: Literacy and Community Empowerment (05/2010)
Kenya – Empowering Community Health Workers (06/2009)
Somalia – Emergency Response Monitoring (10/2009)
Nigeria – Monitoring Supplies in a Campaign Setting (04/2009)
Malawi – Nutritional Surveillance (01/2009)
Ethiopia – Supply Chain Management (10/2008)
Rapid is a really solid solution to use and to build on – specially combined with other dimagi solutions.
But have the links on the website are broken – documentation is missing or not that well done – you need to tinker your way around it or get in touch with the devs. I am not sure how much Dimagi is still putting into RapidSMS as a pure open source solution vs its paid “services”.