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Low tech adaptations for a community communications system

FrontlineSMS was recently featured on the ‘Lets Them Talk‘ blog. In the post, Helena Puig Larrauri (@helenapuigl) highlights how the SUDIA community are using technology to bridge the information gap for communities living along the Blue Nile in Sudan. They are using FrontlineSMS to disseminate information about livelihoods and sustainability directly to communities. Thanks Helena for allowing us to repost!

During a FrontlineSMS training session with SUDIA staff

For the past month, I’ve been in Sudan working to set up the information flows and tech that will support SUDIA’s Community Communications System. From the tech and information management perspective, SUDIA’s System is interesting because it adapts to a low tech environment by integrating SMS and radio, and processing information largely offline. The System collects and disseminates information useful to communities that live along the migratory routes in Blue Nile State. It focuses on information that communities themselves can use to make their livelihoods more sustainable and more peaceful. In other words, the System is not aimed at organizations (Government or non-Government) that can use information to provide services or design interventions. Rather, it is aimed at communities helping themselves, and provides information that is useful to community leaders in organizing local community responses to livelihood challenges.

Integrating SMS, Radio and Outreach

The System will use a combination of crowdseeding and crowdsourcing, receiving reports from four sources: SMS from the public, SMS from selected trusted reporters, call-ins to a bi-weekly community radio program and feedback from monthly outreach meetings run by the SUDIA team. All reports coming in will be tagged by source, location, date, topic, and verification status. There are 20 topics in the System, grouped under four broad categories: livelihoods, herding / farming, disagreements, and peace. Verification of reports will follow a standard protocol whereby a report is verified if the following conditions are met: (i) report from a trusted source is supported by two or more reports from any source; or (ii) a report from a public source (SMS, radio call-in or outreach meeting) is supported by four or more reports from two or more different sources.

Everyone who sends an SMS to the System will receive in return three weekly SMS summarizing important information on livelihoods, herding / farming and peace. Every two weeks, the Blue Nile Community Radio will broadcast a one-hour program about issues related to migration. The program will be based on a bi-weekly summary prepared by the SUDIA team using information from the System. The radio broadcast will invite listeners to call in and comment on the summary. SUDIA’s Media Monitoring team will listen to these calls and record relevant information that will then be input to the System. SUDIA’s trusted reporters in each community will organize radio listening groups, which will not only encourage call-ins, but also provide a forum for discussion of community responses to challenges identified in the radio program.

Every month, the SUDIA Outreach Team will visit two of the communities participating in the System. During this visit, they will present a summary monthly report to a focus group, and then facilitate a discussion on possible community responses to emerging livelihood and conflict challenges. The meeting will also provide an opportunity for the community to give feedback on reports (verifying or denying information) and on how the System can be made more useful for them.

Offline and low bandwidth data processing

The System uses FrontlineSMS to receive messages from community members and send summary messages to community members. Messages are sent to a dedicated modem using a standard Sudanese SIM card, which is connected to a laptop running FrontlineSMS. We initially explored using an Ushahidi deployment (connected to FrontlineSMS) to process the messages, run some basic analysis and publish them to an online map. However, the team was concerned about depending on an online platform, given the irregular and low bandwidth internet they work with.

Instead, we went for a solution that combines processing messages offline and uploading them in one go to an online map. Messages received in FrontlineSMS are exported as a CSV file. In Excel, messages are manually processed, adding verification status and topic. Only one report per story is recorded, all information from additional reports on the same story is used to confirm or deny the original report. Information collected from the community radio program and from monthly outreach meetings is manually added to the same Excel spreadsheet.

Adding location for each story is a semi-automated process. People sending messages to the System are taught to format their SMS so that it reads “[location]# [message]”. This allows us to split the messages quickly in Excel. The location column is linked with a look-up function to a spreadsheet containing GPS coordinates for over 800 villages in Blue Nile State (more than any of the online mapping platforms offer). In our test runs, we have found this system picks up most of the locations automatically.

The SUDIA team will process reports in this way every two weeks, adding them to a master spreadsheet, which is then used to produce graphs and sorted tables for summaries. The spreadsheet is also imported to a public, online map. The map is run on the open source platform that powers Google Crisis Maps, which was recently released. This mapping platform is a useful tool for anyone wanting to display mapped data online while operating in a low bandwidth environment. The platform allows you to create map layers from different sources (KML, GeoRSS, Fusion Tables, Tiles, etc). In SUDIA’s System, the master spreadsheet is uploaded to a Google Fusion Table, and then added as a layer to the map. With the table properly formatted, this process requires one upload and one easy step on the mapping platform. This means that we can minimize the amount of time the SUDIA team spend waiting for a website to refresh or save changes. Working offline and then uploading sporadically fits our purposes better than a system that is fully online.

The Google Crisis Map platform also has some neat features. Viewers looking at the map can click on individual reports to view a pop-up window with details. They can also click to view the entire data set in the Fusion Table, and use filters to explore the data further. Adding background layers (rivers, roads, land cover, boundaries, etc) is very straightforward. So is creating customized layers that show only a subset of reports (water shortages reported in the past two weeks, peace agreements signed in the past month, etc).

With that, the information flow and tech are ready! Over the coming months, the SUDIA team will roll out a pilot of this Community Communications System, and (inshallah) contribute to community-based sustainable solutions to livelihoods challenges and peace along the nomadic routes in Blue Nile State.

This blog post originally appeared on the Let Them Talk blog.

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