FrontLine SMS on OLPC XO: Revolution You Can Run With


Last week, I got to hear Ken Banks present at a local speaker series run by IREX. He gave an updated version of this presentation from POPTech, on the power of mobile phones in citizen empowerment, NGO communication, and a host of other amazing stories of using the available, appropriate technology in remote and rural locations which are often off-grid and without Internet access.

FrontlineSMS logo

By attaching a computer (Linux, Mac, or Windows) to a cell phone with a data cable and installing his (free, open source) software, Frontline SMS, that computer is turned into a messaging hub; sending and receiving text messages via the cell phone to hundreds of contacts.

That's pretty amazing. Three reasonably available pieces of hardware and you have a tool to send alert messages out, receive election monitoring information through, or communicate with field medical workers to coordinate and track supplies and treatment information. Or track corruption. Or report human rights violations. Or share news and tips in places where the media is not independent, as one of the FrontlineSMS success stories shows:

"Based in Africa in a country where broadcast technology is controlled by a dictatorial government, this software has enabled me to communicate with the public at large. I am able to run my project without drawing unnecessary attention to myself--a good thing in this neck of the woods."
-- Anonymous

Of course, you still have to worry about the cellular network itself. Is the cell provider snooping messages and tracking approximate locations of where they're coming from, perhaps at the behest of the government? Perhaps for some of these situations, it would be convenient to have a very mobile, mobile engagement system. One that's pretty rugged, lightweight, innocent-looking, with a a low power draw and decent battery life, rechargeable from off-grid sources, and a few spare USB ports?

FrontlineSMS loading on the OLPC
FrontlineSMS loading on the OLPC

Know any computer that might fit that bill?

FrontlineSMS, with a bit of hassle, runs on the OLPC XO. I haven't gotten it working in Sugar, but it is happy enough in the Ubuntu build for the OLPC. FrontlineSMS is written in Java, so a bit of software updating was in order, and I'm still having a few glitches with the system.

I also haven't yet sourced a cell phone that I can connect to the XO and that I can use to send messages, but I don't see why that would cause any more hassle on the XO than on anything else, presuming you can get a USB data cable.

FrontlineSMS running on the OLPC
FrontlineSMS on the OLPC

A bonus benefit of running FrontlineSMS from a USB stick or SD card is that the XO will cheerfully boot up into standard Sugar if you eject (and conceal or destroy) the boot media.

For the techies and programmers, here's what's up: With Sugar, I think it should work fine in Sugar. I'm suspecting that it's not talking with the GUI correctly. In Ubuntu-on-XO (but not Ubuntu on my Dell) - trying to add an SMS Internet service crashes it, immediately, every time. It seems to be a failure of the EventQueue, or at least that's the active thread at crash. IANAJP (Java Programmer).

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track corruption. Or report human rights violations. Or share news and tips in places where the media is not independent

This illustrates something that people tend to miss. Olpc and the sort of cheap, networked developing world computing it can inspire are not just educational tools. They might transform whole societies, including their politics.

But that also means that perhaps the biggest threat to PPP computing is that oppressive political regimes will recognize it as a threat and suppress it.

Eduardo - as with most ICT4D things; it's a risk and an opportunity; which is why I've been floating the idea about dropping (really, de-emphasizing) education and embracing other development targets - health, SMEs and micro-enterprises, election monitoring and so on. The XO laptop is a valuable tool that could potentially be used by diverse actors while still working to increase the scale of the project and improve the lives of people around the world. My full post on this is at