Friday, May 22, 2009

A first look at Microsoft Vine

Vine is a new social networking tool from Microsoft that allows you to connect with the people, places, and things that mean the most to you. By setting up connections, you can be notified anytime something happens relating to those connections and those notifications can come via email, text message, or the Microsoft Vine Windows application.

I haven't had a chance to really explore Vine yet but it looks like a very promising program that will enhance my social networking experience. Try it out, see what you think.

Monday, May 18, 2009

So just what is FrontlineSMS and how can it be used?

Find more videos like this on FrontlineSMS

Most of you who follow this blog know that, in my off time, I'm working with a local community group to deploy an SMS text messaging system that will connect domestic abuse victims with those that can help them get out.

A large part - an central part really - of that system is a software called FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS is an open source offering by UK software developer Ken Banks and a small volunteer team dedicated to helping people help others through the use of mobile services.

This video, created by collaborators in both Kenya and Finland, gives a basic introduction to what FrontlineSMS is and how you can setup and use it in only a few minutes. If you're considering a community project that could utilize SMS messaging, FrontlineSMS is the perfect tool for you and couldn't be easier to use.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How the CPR system came together thanks to open source

Those of you who have been following my recent Twitter postings know I'm involved in a project to deploy an SMS based system (called CPR) for a local women's crisis center in Oklahoma. Since these agencies are often very small and staffed mostly by volunteers, money is always an issue and, while everyone can see the value of such a system, it's very hard to spend thousands of dollars to build and deploy it.

Over the last two days, most of my focus has been on two areas:

1. Finding funding for the program so the agencies involved don't have any out of pocket expenses and can focus their money where it needs to be focused: victims services.

2. Getting final costs of the system down to the lowest level they can be so that we don't have to burden already cash strapped grant agencies with a huge funding request. Of course, this means doing all of the work myself and not pulling in any paid people to help at all. Everyone has to be committed to the project and must be a volunteer.

Making such a system work is proving to be very easy. They only thing needed is a compatible cellular phone, a laptop, and software. As an open source enthusiast, I knew that I could find most of the software for free on the Internet and, as a software developer, I knew I could extend the software to meet our specific needs.

With that knowledge and those specs, I started my hunt to build the perfect system for this group, determined that it would not cost an arm and a leg to either build or run. Surprisingly, everything came together amazingly quick.


- AcerOne Netbook PC
- Motorola PEBL U6 Cellular Phone
- Data Cable for the PEBL

Total Cost: $479.00 USD


- Apache Web Server
- PHP Scripting Language
- 3 Custon PHP Scripts
- FrontlineSMS SMS Management Software

Total Cost: $0.00 USD (yep, FREE)

Other Incidentals:

- Unlimited texting plan for the PEBL

Costs Per Year: $240.00 USD

Final yearly cost to run the system: about $800.00 USD

That's it! Not too complicated at all and definitely not expensive. This entire system can be run by the agency I'm working with for under $1,000 per year thanks to open source software and affordable technology. We're shooting for a $3,000 grant which will, obviously, allow them to run the system for a total of 3 years without ever incurring any additional costs. After the 3 year run, we'll either go for another grant or look for community support.

I have a meeting with the group on 19, May and will formally introduce them to the system concepts and give a "semi live" demonstration. If all goes well, the finished system will be deployed in less than a month.

More than anything, I think this project is showing me how easy it is to help other people when you're willing to put in a little work and use the right technology. Definitely, open source has come into play here big time. This project would have costs well over $2,000 per year only two or three years ago. Now, thanks to open source software and cheap hardware (good job Acer), nothing is stopping anyone with a good idea and a little dedication from doing just about anything needed in the community.

In my next post, I'll discuss the formal technical configuration of the system including how the PHP scripts will fit in and interact with FrontlineSMS. It's a pretty fun ride to be on right now and I can't wait to see this thing live.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How text messaging saves lives using FrontlineSMS

Most of us use SMS to communicate with friends and family, but it's really a powerful technology that can impact people lives in very real and useful ways. This video, provided by the FrontlineSMS team, discusses how SMS is being used to deliver quality healthcare to patients in Malawi. It's amazing what can be accomplished with determination, good work, and quality technology.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How FrontlineSMS is being used to help victims of domestic violence in my small Oklahoma town

I only recently became involved with the FrontlineSMS project as an addition to a national project my company, OpenEMR HQ, is doing with a small African country. But, since discovering the software, I've been busily thinking of good ways it could be put to use by organizations in my own community and I've come up with a few I believe are viable. Today, I want to share one of those ideas and how we're going to use FrontlineSMS as a tool to help combat violence against women in the United States, specifically, in the small community of Miami, Oklahoma.

Every year, millions of American women face domestic violence at the hands of those that are supposed to love and protect them. These women often feel powerless and suffer continued abuse without ever reaching out because they either don't know the resources are out there or because they're scared nothing will be done to their abusers if they do come forward thereby encouraging even more abuse. Community crisis centers serve as a front line of defense in these situations often shuttling abused women out of dangerous situations and into safe houses, interfacing with police to make sure victims get the services and protection they need, and providing the much needed emotional support those who've escaped violent situations are so desperately in need of.

Unfortunately, none of those things can be offered until the victim reaches out and getting abused women to take the first step can be a large part of the battle. Many women don't think or have a safe way to catalog the abuse, don't know how to report it, and don't want calls to crisis numbers showing up on the mobile phone bill. The end result is the complete isolation of these women from any help at all.

As I've been playing around with FrontlineSMS, I've been thinking about ways it could be used to address these situations and I'm slowly starting to piece together a system called CPR that I hope to soon have deployed locally as a test bed for a larger, maybe statewide system.

The basic idea is to give women a quick, easy, and safe way to report and catalog abuse, and reach out for either police or crisis worker help, all without ever making a traceable phone call. Piecing together a system that consist of a laptop running FrontlineSMS, a mobile phone, and a few PHP scripts sitting on an Internet connection, I'm creating a system where women can send messages to various help authorities or just record instances of abuse for later use in court.

For example:

C <A message that she wants to send to a crisis counselor>
P <A message she wants to send to a police officer>
R <A message she wants to be recorded for later use in court detailing an abusive incident>

Using the CPR system, women in dangerous situations can quietly and safely reach out for help when a phone call simply isn't possible. Using FrontlineSMS will allow both police and crisis agencies to have two way communication with the victim thereby ensuring the communication loop is never broken.

Since I'm still developing the system, I've not yet deployed an installation of it yet but I've been getting great feedback from various agencies I've spoken to. Eventually, I'd like to implement a way for victims to send pictures, video, and audio, and have it automatically attached to their case file within the CPR system for later use in court. That will come later and probably with some community help.

None of this would be possible without FrontlineSMS. While I am a professional software developer, I probably would never have developed a system like FrontlineSMS and the fact that it's available as open source makes it incredibly accessible.

I'll be sure to keep everyone up to date on how this project is coming as it progresses. I'll also be sure to blog about how we're using FrontlineSMS in our Vision Africa project being launched very soon. Until then, feel free to send your feedback or make comments to this post. You can reach me directly by email at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Twitterberry 0.9 Review

If you're both a Blackberry and a Twitter user, chances are you've come across a handy little program called TwitterBerry. TwitterBerry is a fast, small, easy way to post updates to and read updates from your friends on Twitter right on your Blackberry smartphone. While there are other Twitter clients for the Blackberry out there, TwitterBerry seems to be the best I've found and handles tweeting in a sensible way. It even allows you to upload and share pictures via the TwitPic service which is great for sharing those 'on-the-go' moment with friends and family.

Recently, Orangatame Software, released the new 0.9 beta version of TwitterBerry and, I have to say I'm pretty impressed. Not only does it sport new features, but it also has a vastly improved user interface (one that actually works well on the Blackberry 8900), support for new services like uploading pics to yFrog, and seems to run a bit faster on the same hardware. There's also a slew of bug fixes in this release that, overall, make it a good candidate for the next release of TwitterBerry.

Of course, with all the new fixes and features, there's bound to be a few bugs and TwitterBerry's bugs can be very frustrating. Often, uploading media to either yFrog or TwitPic fails even when connected to the WiFi network, the timelines sometimes won't refresh, and the application will bring your whole device to a screeching halt that requires a reboot sometimes because of doing nothing more than resending a failed tweet. Backgrounding the application often doesn't work either which is particularly annoying for me as I enjoy having quick access to my most used applications.

Over all, I think the new TwitterBerry beta is strong but still has a little way to go before it's as stable as the current 0.8 version. Still, if you're willing to put up with the occasional problems mentioned above, I'd recommend you head to Orangatame and give the new software a try. TwitterBerry still is the cream of the crop for all your Blackberry twitter needs and this upcoming release is going to kick ass.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How to see your competitors resumes

Do you know someone looking for a job or maybe you're looking for one yourself? If so, you know how hard it can be to compete without knowing your competition well and, to do that, you need to see your competitors resumes.

This article by Natalee Roan of VJournal, gives some good solid advice on how to effectively get a 'sneak peak' at your competition, what they've accomplished, and where they're going. Great read for anyone looking for a job.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

How to use a mobile phone to change lives

FrontlineSMS is an innovative and powerful tool being used by NGO's and other organizations around the world to empower the powerless through the use of a simple mobile phone. This video is from FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks who discusses what the software does and why it's important.

FrontlineSMS on Twitter:

Why EHR in Africa is so important

Over the last few months, I've been thinking a lot about Africa. Not just in general terms of 'oh wouldn't it be nice to go there' but in more serious terms of 'what can I do to help' as I watched story after story of poor health care, war, and malnourishment. It seems with every breaking news day, the continent that birthed our civilization takes one step closer to mass extinction. As the CEO of a medically focused company, I have continually looked for ways that we could help this beautiful continent, or at least some small sliver of it, move forward and grow and I believe that addressing the health care crisis that grips Africa right now is the best way to do that.

By nearly all accounts, African nations have some of the most devastated and weakest health care systems in the world. Brutal war, civil unrest, AIDS, and a people in near constant movement, have all conspired to bring some countries health care systems to their knees. Doctors, in the areas where there are doctors, often don't have access to the proper drugs, training, or patient information and it's often the case that these healers can do nothing more than provide comfort as thousands of their countrymen die.

Of all the challenges facing medical professionals working in Africa, I believe one of the biggest and most pressing is the access to patient information. When a patients presents themselves for treatment, the doctor must often rely on bits and pieces of the patients memory and weave together some idea of a medical history. If that patient is unconscious, the provider must often take a 'best guess' approach, not knowing anything about allergies, drug reactions, and all those other things that make not killing the patient a little easier. It can be a big job and a heavy weight but these brave doctors face that challenge every single day and, overall, do a remarkable job treating their patients.

But I believe more can be done. Better access to patient information can be achieved even in the most war torn regions of the continent and I believe the answer to the problem is the same one the medical communities in the USA, Europe, and other countries are exploring: electronic health records (EHR).

Using a nationalized EHR system, doctors could immediately look up the entire medical history of any patient presenting themselves and immediately make better decision based on that information. A widespread system would also allow medical professionals to easily share data with their colleagues across town or around the world, and could help them spot developing health trends before they become national epidemics.

Imagine the lives that potentially could have been saved if doctors in some of the highly AIDS ravaged areas could have quickly shared information and tracked the AIDS crisis as it developed. The response from public health would have been quicker and the crisis might not have become so widespread so quickly. The same is true with the recent Malaria outbreaks in places like Zimbabwe where thousands of people were needlessly taken by the disease.

Live could be saved.
Serious illness could be lessened.
Medical education could be improved.

And it doesn't have to cost billions of dollars.

I don't believe most existing EHR systems are right for Africa because they rely too much on things Westerners take for granted like electrical power or network connectivity. To be truly successful, the right solution needs to be unique to the African region. It must live in its environment and work within the limitation and challenges of that environment. It has to be different and it has to add value to the care provided and help doctors make better decisions.

Now is the perfect time for such systems to be deployed. The technology is cheap, labor is available, and there is a growing populace who are increasingly wanting to help in any way they can. The time is definitely right, so why isn't their a bigger interest in EHR in Africa?

Simple: money.

When an EHR vendor in the USA or Europe sells a package, they often make thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. That simply isn't realistic in African countries where, many times, international grants need to be obtained just to purchase the technology. If an EHR company isn't also invested in the social aspect of the business, Africa just doesn't make sense.

You won't make money in Africa, you won't have huge profit margins and high support rates. The best you can hope for is to help save a few thousand lives and make a change in the culture you serve.

That takes something more than money. That takes dedication. That takes a sense of social responsibility that extends outside of profit margins.

That takes humanity.