With new smartphone apps making headlines daily, it’s too easy to overlook the innovative potential of more basic technology like SMS on low-end phones. At FrontlineSMS, we’re leaders in helping organizations around the world realize that potential, and we build tools to help turn SMS into an effective and ubiquitous channel for communication and data collection. One of the most exciting contexts for our work is among community journalists who are using SMS to create participatory news environments and deepen the reach of their work.

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We had the chance to provide our perspective on mobile innovation in journalism at News Foo, a recent “unconference” sponsored by O’Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation, a major supporter of our work. There, we talked with journalists, innovators and technologists from news outlets around the world, and shared our unique expertise on the transformative potential of basic mobile technology.

It was easy to find common insights and share ideas with even the most high-tech innovators at News Foo this year. Our tools may be different, but we are all working to create new modes of reporting, informing, and engagement between journalists and their audiences. It was proof that innovation is universal, and that the work of Radio Nam Llowe might be able to teach The New York Times or National Public Radio a few things about effective audience engagement.

Creating a vibrant and participatory media environment is a nut we’re all trying to crack, using the appropriate technology for our communities. Smartphone apps are great for people who own them, but for the vast majority of the world, mobile technology is still defined by cheap, voice-and-text-only devices.

the power of sms

Many people were interested to hear our ideas about the power of text messaging, both in formal sessions and serendipitous conversations. We talked with the founders of SeeClickFix and EveryBlock about how their approaches to citizen-driven, hyperlocal information-sharing could work in an all-SMS interface.

We brainstormed with investigative reporters, data journalists, and machine-learning experts on collecting, sharing and marshaling the massive datasets new technology is generating — in last-mile communities, collating and storing SMS interactions has the potential to be a valuable source of accountability data, at a fraction of the cost of a full-scale program evaluation.

We shared our experiences and lessons learned bringing meaningful interaction to community radio via text, with NPR and local radio innovators thinking about the same issues a bit further up the technology ladder.

Basic text-only phones might not be capable of the same technical functions of the iPhone or Android devices, but with a tool like FrontlineSMS, we can deliver the value of the best apps to even the simplest devices.

We’re incredibly grateful to John Bracken, Sara Winge, Richard Gingras, and Jennifer 8. Lee for inviting us to Phoenix to be a part of the group you assembled, and we’re eager to continue the conversations we started there.

P.S. One of the best parts of News Foo was getting to see some awesome new technology our fellow campers have been building. NPR’s Infinite Player is a smart, adaptive player of new and archived NPR footage. Audiofiles is a curated hub of the best audio stories from around the web. Fellow Knight News Challenge winner The Tiziano Project’s 360˚ Kurdistan is a beautiful, community-driven look at a community too easily associated with war and poverty.