Monday, June 1, 2009

How we use FrontlineSMS

Jos, Nigeria has been in the news recently because of riots in November that killed hundreds of people. This was the second such episode since 2001, and the situation remains tense. Besides this, violent crime has increased rapidly in the past 4 years, with frequent robberies by armed gangs of up to 20 or more men.

tempPart of our response as a group of missions in Jos has been to strengthen our communications network, and FrontlineSMS has become a key part of that network. The mobile phone is the basic means of communication in Jos, where there are few if any functioning land lines, and where Internet access is still expensive and spotty. During the November crisis, we noticed that voice calls on the mobile network rarely connected, probably because of congestion, while SMS messages got through well.

With FrontlineSMS, we have so far developed a system with these features:

  • Anyone can text the system and receive a response with the current status message. In a crisis, this could contain warnings, instructions, announcements and so on.
  • Besides this "on demand" capability, we keep one list of users ("text alerts") who receive broadcast alerts.
  • Anyone can join the "text alerts" group by sending the request as a text message to the system. We ask people to send the message ".join " followed by their name. At this point, FrontlineSMS cannot automatically include the name when the phone number is added to a group, but we hope that could be added in the future.
  • We maintain other user lists such as compound security leaders, crisis management team, and so on. Anyone can broadcast a message to the crisis management team by prefixing a text message with a code that causes FrontlineSMS to forward the message to team members.
  • The system sends outgoing SMS message through the Internet when it is available. They're sent to the Clickatell, which routes them to the actual SMS network. Clickatell is is very fast and inexpensive. We can send about 80 messages per minute this way, far more than is currently possible if we were to send messages directly onto the mobile phone network.
  • FrontlineSMS is compatible with many mobile phones and modems. We are using a Huawei E170 modem.

    Real Life Examples

    Fortunately, we have not had actual rioting since we set up the system. However, there have been times when it has been very useful to send warnings and to raise the alert level. Here are some actual examples:

    @Alerts: Jos is tense, please avoid downtown today.

    @Security: X and Y have been robbed tonight & report the robbers took their Toyota Land cruiser and muttered something about Hillcrest on the way out.

    @Alerts 20Feb 655pm. Serious rioting reported in Bauchi. No problems in Jos. Obey curfew, avoid areas that could be troublesome.

    22 Feb 8am. *** Rioting on Friday Bauchi, churches & mosques burned. Now controlled. Keep on alert. Report signif news this num or ur security rep.

    SecGrp: Some rumors are going around about unrest planned for Friday, .... Email or txt me if you know more. --Mike


    The system has worked quite well. The most serious limitations have been

    • The interfaces (modem and Internet) have had a tendency to lock up, failing to receive messages, and have to be re-initialized manually.
    • Message delivery is sometimes delayed for hours, occasionally more than a day. This is a fault of the local network and has nothing to do with FrontlineSMS or Clickatell.


    FrontlineSMS has served us very well as a well to communicate quickly by SMS. We would recommend it for others in similar situations.


    1. The sms has now become an effective mechanism for communication. In order make a large number of people alert about a particular situation or event,bulk sms is required. India,fastalerts provide similar system.

    2. Hey Mike
      There is a radio ministry that is having difficulty setting up their system on Ubuntu. What OS did you deploy on.

      Also are you aware of any virtual appliances that are running FrontlineSMS?

      For our own ministry here at SIM PY we will be looking into implementation. If you have written anything else up about the system it would be good to see that. You can send it to me via the normal SIM email protocol.

      Thanks for this post