What LEGO and Mobile Solutions Have in Common

Erik Hersman
Mar 1, 2009

There has long been discussions of using the current mobile app solutions to let end-users pick and choose between available services. Something like LEGO, where you pick and choose the right pieces that work for your particular need. A real toolbox of apps that actually work together, and can be connected easily by anyone, without the need of deep technological background. It's with that thought in mind that groups like InSTEDD, Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS (all of the OMC group actually) have continued to talk and figure out ways that we can truly layer our technology together in a user-friendly way that makes sense to non-technical people in the field. From the beginning, we baked in FrontlineSMS support to Ushahidi. We're moving into a phase where we start to integrate in tools from InSTEDD as well, with hopes that we can make a connecting mechanism between instances that can sync over just SMS, not only the web.

The FrontlineSMS example

Last week a couple of us started playing with FrontlineSMS Forms, a new service on the FrontlineSMS platform, which allows for dynamic forms to be created on a FrontlineSMS hub and then sent to a Java app running on a phone in the field. Point your WAP enabled mobile phone at Forms.FrontlineSMS.com to get the mobile client. Creating the dynamic forms on the computer: Using the J2ME forms app on your phone: This allows for a nice controlled data gathering environment. Nothing new there though, as we already have OpenRosa. Ken tells me that integration with the OpenRosa/xForms standards are in the cards for future iterations. What's exciting about seeing this development is not just that it works well, or that it's completely customizable, but that it's already being tied up in this modular fashion that I mentioned above. Just today FrontlineSMS:Medic was announced - which is being run by a bunch of university students like Josh Nesbit. (If this simple approach works, it could make a bunch of the smart adults selling multi-million dollar solutions look a little silly). This new FrontlineSMS:Medic program is integrating with OpenMRS - where they will build an SMS bridge so medical records can be edited, updated and requested via SMS in the field. That's exactly the type of cross-application functionality that we need to encourage and see put into use in this field!

Where is it all going?

What I'd like to be able to do is take the LEGO approach and grab FrontlineForms OR OpenRosa, layer on Ushahidi for visualization and maps, and then sync it all via Mesh4x using SMS. Most of all, I hope we get beyond our own app-centric view. If we can just get to a point where we provide simple, modular solutions for real-world users then we'll all be a lot further. Let the user decide what works, which tools fit best for their specific needs and how to integrate it. An ecosystem approach that encourages curiosity and customization, and one that doesn't tie a user to one specific system forever.