Using SMS to mobilize the community clean-up of Ciliwung River, Indonesia: One piece of garbage at a time.
FrontlineSMS has had a strong connection with environmental issues since our Founder had the initial spark of an idea while working on an anti-poaching project in South Africa. We’re delighted to be able to host Een Irawan Putra of KPC Bogor and the Indonesia Nature Film Society to our blog, to share how he used FrontlineSMS in Indonesia to invite he community to help clean up the garbage clogging the Ciliwung River.
Community Care Ciliwung Bogor (known locally as KPC Bogor) was founded in March 2009 in West Java, Indonesia to harness the growing community concern for the sustainability of the Ciliwung River in the city of Bogor. We formed to raise awareness about the damaging impact of garbage and waste in the river; as well as mobilize the community to take action.
The community around KPC Bogor was initially formed by our friend Hapsoro who used to share his fishing experiences in the Ciliwung River. “If we go fishing in the river now, there is so much junk,” Hapsoro once said, “All we get is plastic, instead of fish.” It was after an increasing number of similar tales from the community about pollution levels that we decided to conduct some field research. We set out to find the best spots for fishing along the Ciliwung River, particularly in the area stretching from Katulampa to Cilebut. Read More
Lowering barriers to adoption isn’t just one approach – it’s critical to real ‘scale’
This post is a write-up of a talk I gave at the recent Mobile Web East Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Thanks to the team for inviting us to speak!
Technology companies are in the business of changing habits. Creating a new tool, and getting people to use it consistently, means trying to change something about the way people get things done – moving from analogue to digital, from manual to automated, from one app to another, from WordPress to Tumblr.
FrontlineSMS is no different. We’re trying to make it easier to use simple text messages to do complex things. For FrontlineSMS to really work for an organization, we recognize that we have to see not one, but two changes take place.
First, organizations have to shift from whatever technology or communications channel was in use before, to that plus SMS, or maybe just SMS. This is complex enough, requiring users to think through what is different about SMS than their previous solution – there may be privacy and data integrity concerns, there may be budgeting differences, staffing may need to change. We spend a lot of time talking with users and clients about these issues. Examples of actions that may arise from this type of change would be a new data protection policy, staff being issued additional phones for use just for work, or monitoring of a control group to ensure that use of SMS is not skewing data collection.
But second, and at least as important, is adoption and rollout of a new platform – the organizational change process inherent in starting to use FrontlineSMS. Dealing effectively with this challenge goes to the heart of the FrontlineSMS theory of change.
We believe that lasting change happens at project and team level. Solutions are best designed by the people who have the problem they address – and that people up and down the chain of authority have different problems. Wherever in this hierarchy the technology is aimed, change which does not effectively take root in teams will not germinate successfully. For technology to be picked up by an organization at large, it must make sense to the people who will be using it – and this may not be the same tool at different points in the hub-and-spoke system or the food chain. We need to design systems that deliver what different people need at their own level. Adoption of technology will be easier if it uses appropriately accessible hardware, affordable or cost-effective and easy to maintain; if the interface is simple to use and easy to pick up; and if control and use of the platform rests at the level of the problem it seeks to solve.* If teams can see how a tool helps them do their jobs, they are more likely to embrace it. Staff at ActionAid Kenya expanded their use of FrontlineSMS from communications with communities to chasing monitoring reports, once they saw how effective it could be to reach remote staff. US Embassy libraries all over the world downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with communities – but they did so separately. For us, the team is the node of change.
Critics of ICT for development (although this post applies at least as well to ICT in any field, including business) are keen to see technologies moving beyond endless pilots to rolling out at real ‘scale’. An important understanding of scale, for us, is FrontlineSMS in use by many nodes at once – and in future, aggregated to a central node where data analysis, cost management, and process-shaping can be carried out. This is a fairly rare conception of scale, at least when it comes to SMS, where scale tends to be seen as vertical – many SMS sent to many people at once from one central node.
It’s also a new way of dealing with SMS data, in particular – SMS is already in use informally by people in every profession, all over the world. Respecting this and giving teams a tool to manage it where they work just means formalizing what’s already happening, and opening the door to aggregating that data and understanding it, later on.
To bring this back to adoption and rollout – our stated mission has long been lowering barriers to driving social change using mobile technologies. We know that building an easy-to-use, free or low-cost platform that uses last-mile technology is a lot of the battle – but we haven’t completely cracked this yet. We still need to help users navigate a fragmented mobile market and figure out complex and confusing coverage and pricing models. But making technology palatable and easy to use without expensive reinforcement is a large part of the problem, solved.
Making SMS truly powerful for teams is applied technology at its purest – taking SMS, which has been around for over twenty years now, and making it easier to use. We think more people should take this approach, as we’ll discuss in a forthcoming blog post. This is the missing link between taking the most widespread digital platform the world has ever seen, and turning it into a powerfully versatile, frontline business tool.
* SMS is great for this – it’s everywhere (as the speaker from Thoughtworks, said, for maximum reach, use SMS). it’s resilient, predictably costed, platform agnostic, and already in people’s pockets.
Keeping it Simple with SMS
We are delighted to feature a guest blog post from Rosa Akbari and her work in Algeria, funded by a grant from UNOCHA. Rosa used what was already in place – a mobile phone in each household – capitalized on existing information flows as they worked without technology, and only added FrontlineSMS to ease the communication at the camp. Fantastic stuff!
UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara Christopher Ross landed in Morocco last Wednesday. While the international community anxiously waits to see where his next round of negotiations go, here’s a peek into the lives of those affected most by the outcome – Sahrawi refugees. For once, a little hope for the future coming from the Sahara…
45˚C days and 0˚C nights—welcome to winter in Sahara. Thanks to a small innovation grant from UNOCHA, I recently spent the holidays in the Western Sahara Refugee Camps. In short, I was there exploring the applicability of mobile communication tools within humanitarian coordination and refugee/IDP camp contexts. The real aim: create a sustainable feedback loop between beneficiaries and food aid providers using the lowest common denominators of technology possible.
I first visited the camps in June 2010. After a brief stint in Haiti, the Sahrawi camps became a counterpoint to understanding humanitarian process flows at a manageable pace. For quick context, the Algerian camps house refugees born from conflict over the Western Sahara. There are five residential camps + one administrative (Rabouni). Sahrawi and expatriate authorities operate from Rabouni, while the actual organization of daily aid distribution occurs at local levels. [aerial views: http://goo.gl/maps/3aRxG]
In 2010, the Sahrawi Red Crescent (SRC)—the lead humanitarian coordination agency in the camps—managed 27 food distribution points for nearly 125,000 beneficiaries. They have since expanded to 116 distribution points: one per bario [neighbourhood]. Understandably, this has made distribution logistics and staff coordination increasingly complex. Thus my efforts quickly evolved from technological experimentation to practical implementation, relying solely on FrontlineSMS.
Technically speaking, the pilot was quite basic. It required establishing direct lines of communication between aid providers and beneficiaries that were both practical and easy to explain. While I explored a few open source platforms, FrontlineSMS was by far the easiest to install and most intuitive to use (especially as someone working solo). Once I introduced the software to Sahrawi partners, this became all the more apparent.
Crawl – Walk – Run
On the ground, the implementation process distilled into three-steps. The first required an honest assessment of technical applicability. (Or rather, is there a real need for innovation?) The second, to build local trust in the software itself. And last, to stand up the system and see how it performs.
Step 1: Ensure Relevance
Before anything, I familiarized with the status quo. How does communication around distributions work? What are relevant information flows and points of exchange? Where are the gaps? After a week with field teams, their “coordination ecosystem” emerged. Discussions with field managers made it readily apparent that internal communication habits were unreliable at best and non-existent at worst. Beneficiaries also made it clear that they wanted (and deserved) to know more from humanitarian leaders - good, bad, and otherwise.
In this instance, the Sahrawi were primed for innovation. All families own at least one cell phone, maintain consistent access to electricity (via solar panels), and have a history of adopting new ideas within the camps… even those introduced by external parties. After watching their mobile habits, it was also safe to assume that employing SMS for humanitarian coordination would not require huge behavioural shifts.
Step 2: Build Trust
Once we confirmed operational relevance, the SRC and I focused efforts on one daira [district] – four (4) neighbourhoods housing 1305 families. As such, I worked closely with a core group of eight (8) humanitarian coordinators stationed at various points along the distribution chain. They became my initial “mobilizers,” helping hone training and implementation procedures in preparation for future scale up. My goal was to make this group as comfortable as possible with FRONTLINESMS and its rollout. In turn, they would train fellow staff in the remaining 26 districts. Their buy-in was crucial to creating a sustainable system.
It did not take long to get them on board. Within a day of introduction to FRONTLINESMS, they were playing with the software on their own, sending me text messages in Arabic and dreaming up other use cases. More importantly, they implored colleagues to text back and play along. I found this supremely important as local-to-local suggestions always carry more weight.
Step 3: Try It Out
Surprisingly enough, implementing the software was the easiest part. We were able to integrate FRONTLINESMS into the information chain relatively naturally because we were so familiar with existing communication flows sans tech. All I did was write a “script” that outlined who was involved in the pilot, suggested message content, and estimated times for when to send SMS. Again, FRONTLINESMS was not an end all solution; the point was that people had to improve communication habits regardless of technological aids or not. The FRONTLINESMS pilot was just a catalyst to start getting the right information to the right people.
From the Trees & the Treetops
Because I had no formal organizational affiliation, I worked directly with Sahrawi authorities… on their terms. I was also lucky to live with a family in the district I worked in. This provided a chance to witness distribution routines from both ends of the spectrum – working alongside staff by day and discussing observations with beneficiaries by night. Some of the most important information I gleaned came from offhand conversations with women in my host family. Did they know why the day’s scheduled distribution did not come? Did they even know there was a distribution planned for the day?
These dual vantage points kept me one step ahead of information flows at all times. For example, I found out about truck malfunctions in Rabouni [administrative camp] as they happened. I would then wait to see when that news would reach beneficiaries, if ever. This constant top/down observation kept beneficiaries’ voices at the forefront from day one.
Keep It Simple
Evolutionary innovation is rapid and unpredictable. It requires a great deal of adaptability and trust building for all parties involved. The smaller the implementation group, the easier this is to manage.
The Western Sahara camps are unique in that they are wholly self-administered. Sahrawi serve as aid administrators and recipients all the same. Organizationally, this means there’s only one agency responsible for distribution in the last mile: the Sahrawi Red Crescent. For me, this meant working with one partner and one partner alone. I found this immensely helpful, especially as I was a one-person team.
In addition, start-up costs were extremely minimal. The most expensive part of this entire project was my flight from Montreal. The USB modem was US$65 and SIM cards/mobile credit racked up to a grand total of US$20 for a month of unlimited texts plus calls. While the latter cost is entirely dependent on the country you work in, you’d be surprised how cheap SMS plans can be. Simply put, FRONTLINESMS is ideal for bootstrapping projects in the field.
I think it’s most important to make sure there’s actually a problem to address before you propose a solution. Furthermore, is the introduction of new technology even necessary? Too often people get wrapped up in the novelty of tech without critically assessing the context in which it will be applied. From my experiences, technology is never an end all, be all. It only improves human processes if the time and place are right.
Finding the right people to work with is also crucial. Suleiman, the distribution field manager, was my go to man. I could go on for days on how much this fellow does with such few resources, but if it wasn’t for his supremely amenable nature, none of this would have worked. For all intents and purposes, I was just some kid with tech tools. He gave me a chance and kept an open mind. It was a nice reminder as to the importance of finding passionate partners in the field and work with them, not just for them.
Finally, whoever said work and play don’t mix is surely missing out. The point being – if you and your partners are not having fun, something’s gonna give.
Escalating situations in Mali and the Sahara in general have meant that expat visits to the camps are on hold. While I am still working remotely with the SRC and local NGOs, it is a tad more difficult to watch progress from abroad. These unexpected constraints inherently reminded me that you don’t have to accomplish everything in a day. Take a breath. Think it through. Do it right.
That said, initial efforts did reach the right eyes and ears. Because we had a working pilot up within a week, the accessibility of FRONTLINESMS was readily apparent. Coupled with extremely low implementation costs, FRONTLINESMS quickly stuck on people’s radar. I was (and am still being) approached by Polisario authorities and external organizations with requests to broaden the work and build it into organizational communication plans. Despite the abrupt departure, this is highly encouraging.
Given the advent of open source technologies and rapid proliferation of mobile use, UNOCHA (among other humanitarian agencies) has also recognized it’s time to adapt. Funding pilots like mine is one of many ways institutions are adapting to the digital age, the White House included. I can only assume there’s plenty more to come.
For better or worse, refugee camps and forgotten conflicts will always exist. It is only a matter of time before innovative solutions from the “ICT4D” world are applied to these contexts… whether it’s on my watch or the countless others’ who want to expose actionable voices from those most vulnerable. With tools (and communities) like FRONTLINESMS to back us, it’s safe to say we’re just getting started.
Promo Cards: Before heading, I printed “promotional postcards” as a bit of a social experiment. (Thanks again Theo.) The thought was to pass these out during food distributions and see if women texted the number provided.
Quick and dirty translation for non-Spanish speakers:
[FRONT] Receive food // send your comments (# on reverse) // Receive a confirmation
[BACK] Send your comments to # // examples: “we received flour in Smara Farsi on 7 January,” “the fish is good,” anything you want.* (all comments are kept anonymous)
MfarmerSMS service links farmers to better markets in Nakaseke- Uganda
We’re delighted to share this guest post from FrontlineSMS user Peter Balaba, project manager for Nakaseke Community Telecenter in Uganda.
The MFarmer SMS service, a project of the Nakaseke Community Telecentre in Uganda, helps farmers in rural areas to connect with better markets. It encourages two-way feedback with farmers, buyers and agro-processors, and other service providers. The project is designed to help farmers access agricultural market price information and weather information through their mobile phones.
We are using FrontlineSMS to manage, send and receive SMS. The key advantage of FrontlineSMS is that it can be customised to suit any organisation’s needs. You can adapt it for all sorts of services, and communicate with your community about anything: agricultural market price information, weather, natural calamities, or an alert system.
The project intends to reach 600 farmers by the end of 2013. Last year, 34 Farmers were trained in the application of the service – one of them was Haji Siraje Muwanga (pictured left). Muwanga lives in Kiziba, in Nakaseke District and relies predominantly on farming to support his family. He grows bananas, maize, beans and coffee. He also rears cattle and keeps poultry to supplement his income and household food requirements. Some of the challenges he has encountered in the past include poor storage facilities and poor prices for his produce, especially during the most productive parts of the harvest.
He says, “Our major challenge is that most farmers sell to middlemen who buy our produce at low prices. In most cases we don’t know if they are buying cheaply, which is why we fall prey to them!”
The Mfarmer SMS service has helped Muwanga to link up directly with buyers. He once received a message from the Telecentre showing that someone was looking for beans. As he says, ‘last season I planted 300 kilograms of beans, which I had bought for Uganda shillings 800 per kilo costing me Shillings 240,000 (about $96 US), and I harvested 2800kg.’ After responding to the message, the buyer bought 2500kg of beans at 1300/= per kilo; thus earning 3,250,000/ (USD1300). He will keep 300 kg of the total crop for planting next season.
Muwanga calls the opportunity ‘a god-send’ – because of MFarmer, he has managed to send his three children back to school. Two are taking vocational training courses in Computer Repair and Maintenance and Motor Engineering, and the youngest completed his O’Levels (secondary level education) in 2012.
As a farmer, Muwanga says he’s happy because most farmers need agricultural price information, especially about maize, beans and coffee. He is optimistic that this service will benefit his fellow farmers and urges them to seize such opportunities.
The project was supported by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa within the framework of resolutions made during the African Knowledge Network workshop held on 22-23 November, 2011 at UNECA, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is coordinated by Mr. Balaba Peter of Nakaseke Telecentre who has been contracted by ECA for a short dedicated period of time.
The resolutions recognized that the growth and penetration of ICTs, particularly mobile phones in Africa, is attracting both solution providers and development actors in the development of community-based applications in supporting areas ranging from financial services and government service delivery to support the socio-economic sectors in agriculture, health, education and commerce, etc.
Hence, there was a need for Telecentres to adopt new and crosscutting applications to serve their communities better and to ensure sustainability. The Mfarmer SMS project at Nakaseke has been stimulated by the fact that mobile phone penetration within the area, as in many other African villages, is high and most households have access to mobile phones.
A Day Well Spent at FrontlineSMS
Christine Mwangi, Community Project Assistant Intern.
I recently joined FrontlineSMS on an internship, as Community Project Assistant. I’m a recent graduate in Computer Science, so I’m very passionate about technology and the great impact it has on social change. I am working closely with Sila Kisoso, the community support manager to support user engagement. This internship with FrontlineSMS is a great opportunity for me to learn more about user experience, a key consideration when building an application.
Given the incredible growth in mobile usage in the last decade, it comes as no surprise that many organisations are embracing the use of mobile technology to expand their reach and engage with communities. This has come with its fair share of challenges, given some of the limitations of technology such as poor mobile connectivity in some areas, SMS has become the more reliable and inexpensive option. FrontlineSMS supports the utility of text messaging as a communications platform, and we hold workshops from time to time to educate our users on how to maximize the use of FrontlineSMS as an SMS platform. As an intern, I was excited to be part of one such workshop, the Community Engagement with SMS Workshop, held this past January. The workshop got off to a great start, with Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of our Foundation, starting us off with group introductions and also requested participants to share their expectations of the workshop. It was clear within the next few minutes how eager everyone was to make the day a great learning experience.
The sessions were interactive, actively engaging those in attendance, something I found truly enjoyable. Laura tackled questions from the participants, using previous case studies detailing how various organisations are using the software to engage the communities they work with. We had a great turnout of participants from a range of international organizations such as World Vision International, Danish Demining Group among others.
There was also a one-on-one session explaining how to set-up FrontlineSMS; we learnt how to troubleshoot mobile connection (a popular FAQ among our users) with FrontlineSMS using a modem. We launched v2.2 that morning and our participants had the opportunity to test it first-hand. Laura explained some of the new features that had been introduced to the new release, 2.2.0 which included Subscriptions, which enables users to enable people to sign up for messages that interest them. For example, someone could join a group for farmers by sending in a keyword; all the updates sent to the farmers group would then go to them. You can even auto-reply to confirm your subscription. Web connection is another great activity which allows one to send SMS up to a web server or service such as Ushahidi or even Twitter. Other new improvements in the software include Basic Authentication, where a user can be able to set up a password for their platform across the network so at improve on security.
Towards the end of the programme, we went into groups of four where each group was expected to come up with a communication strategy illustrating how the software may be deployed, taking security, sustainability, accountability, and monitoring and evaluation into consideration. The winning team project was proposing to use FrontlineSMS to report sensitive cases of sexual abuse in the community. They effectively outlined how the software can help reduce the occurrence of these incidences by providing a platform where one can report without fear of prejudice or stigma. The group clearly explained how they would deal with data security issues were clearly outlined in this project, which was an important factor to consider. Each of the members of the winning team was honoured with a FrontlineSMS badge as a token of appreciation for their efforts in simulating that project.
The sessions were well paced and time allocated for each item on the agenda was adequate; though there was so much discussion and people were so interested that we think the next training is going to have to be two days so as to cover the functionality of the software more exhaustively as well as give more time for Q&A.
All in all, it was a day well spent.