Humanitarian

Understanding Mobile Access From an Ecosystem Perspective

Understanding Mobile Access From an Ecosystem Perspective

The expansion of mobile access has been a common refrain in international development for years now. It plays an important role in supporting human development, from economic and educational opportunities to political freedoms and human rights. Increased access to mobiles has been linked to positive social outcomes in dozens of countries.

Accessibility and Accountability: Social Impact Lab's Governance Project Plans

Accessibility and Accountability: Social Impact Lab's Governance Project Plans

From Colombia to Ghana to Canada, communicating with members of parliament, tracking city council spending, and advocating for environmental oversight of extractive industries are among a wide range of governance activities that have become possible for anyone with access to an internet connection, a computer, or a smartphone. That’s a lot of people, but not nearly enough. 

FrontlineSMS in the Philippines and the Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) response

In the aftermath of devastating Typhoon Haiyan, we're working with networks of aid agencies to support the international response any way we can - but we know that the first and most important responders are already in the Philippines.

FIRST Response Radio - Life Saving Information in Disaster

FIRST Response Radio - Life Saving Information in Disaster

A big thank you to Mike Adams, the INTL Coordinator, for sharing his experiences with FrontlineSMS and further schooling us on how radio can facilitate in saving lives!  In times of disaster radio not only saves lives, it can also bring hope and critical information to the affected community. When the 2004 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, Indonesia, all the radio and TV stations went off air. Similarly, during the 2005 South Asian earthquake, the only radio station near the epicentre lost its tower and went off air. In times like these, people are in desperate need of news and information on how to get to safety and how to survive. However, the unfortunate trend seen recently is that when radio is so important, many times it goes off the air and does not come back until well after the emergency is over.

Health Information for Remote & Rural Eastern Indonesia

Health Information for Remote & Rural Eastern Indonesia

The landscape of NTT is largely rugged and infertile with a short and intense wet season. In this environment subsistence farming, the predominant livelihood, is marginal with many communities experiencing periods of hunger through the dry season. The provision of services to the rural population is difficult because there the few roads are generally of poor quality and frequently impassible in the wet season due to flooding or landslides. For many accessing health services requires walking long distances and the use of public transport where available. It is not uncommon for people in need of emergency care to be carried by a group of villagers to a point where road transport is available.

Keeping it Simple with SMS

Keeping it Simple with SMS

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...

FrontlineSMS at 7: ActionAid in Kenya, Nepal and London

In the seventh and final post in our FrontlineSMSat7 series, our CEO Laura Walker Hudson highlights a FrontlineSMS use case that makes her happy - ActionAid's award-winning, bi-continental pilots of FrontlineSMS in Africa and Europe.

Low tech adaptations for a community communications system

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.

Information provides real benefits for drought-hit communities and ActionAid alike

Late last week, ActionAid won a Technology4Good Innovation Award for their work using FrontlineSMS to communicate with staff and communities in Isiolo, Kenya, during the response to the recent drought in the Horn of Africa. Together with our partners, Infoasaid, who supported the deployment, we are very proud to be associated with their ground-breaking and crucial work. Bravo ActionAid!

Below is an extract from a blog post describing the programme and the impact FrontlineSMS has had - you can read the full post here.

When disasters strike, people need information as much as they need shelter, water and safety. By providing, the right information, at the right time, from the right source, lives and livelihoods can be saved.

At the same time, if people have access to useful information during disasters they can make their own choices and decisions, and become more active participants in the process of their own recovery and claiming their rights. They can feed back, complain, voice their opinions and, in doing so, hold agencies like ActionAid - and other bodies like local and national government - to account.

Since May 2011, ActionAid has been partnering with a consortium called infoasaid to mainstream communications with disaster-affected communities in our emergency preparedness and response.

As part of the partnership, ActionAid is implementing a pilot project in Isiolo, Kenya, where ActionAid (in collaboration with the World Food Programme) provides vital food rations to over 80,000 people every month.  Distribution of the supplies is handled by community members themselves through self-organised “Relief Committees”, and overseen by Food Monitors employed by ActionAid.

Broadly, the project aims to help combat food insecurity amongst communities affected by last year’s drought.  It uses innovative technology – FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone – to transmit information simultaneously to multiple recipients from a laptop computer, and to provide a channel for communities to feed back to ActionAid staff.

The project provided basic mobile phone and solar chargers to 250 Relief Committee members, and 30 Jave-enabled mobile phones to ActionAid Food Monitors, regional office staff and others including warehouse owners and food truck drivers.

A recent review of the project found that it had brought benefits for both drought-affected communities and ActionAid, by;

Boosting household income

Edward, Relief Committee Secretary: “A man asked ‘how is the livestock price in Isiolo?’  I told him it is lower, he immediately called people in Nanyuki so that they could go to buy [in Isiolo] and sell in other towns. He bought so he could sell at higher price.”

Improving relations between communities and ActionAid

Fatumah, ActionAid Food Monitor:We used to argue. The community wanted to know why I had not told them about the distribution dates.  Now they have time to prepare.  Within 30 minutes we are done.  Before we had to ask neighbouring villages to help with off-loading - that could take 2-3 hours.”

Increasing the speed and efficiency of food distribution

Community member in Oldonyiro: "There is a big change now. Long before, food used to stay overnight because there was no communication. Now we get information immediately even when the trucks are still in Isiolo. We are aware that food is arriving tomorrow, and we go ready for distribution."

Food Monitors also report that the use of Frontline SMS has reduced the need for frequent travel to rural communities for face-to-face meetings – in one case from 24 per month to just 12 – saving time and money.

Enabling community members to better plan their time

Halima, community member: “In the past we saw the [food] trucks arriving and we might have gone to attend to other works. Now, we get [information] one or two days before, we can put off our jobs and come to collect food.”

Providing information on when food distributions will arrive means children no longer have to leave school to tell parents the trucks are on the way, as was the case previously.

Enabling communities to link with the outside world

Salesa, community member: “When one [child] was bitten by the snake we used the phone to call the vehicle to help take them to hospital.”

Improving the speed and efficiency of data collection

Thomas, Food Monitor:The Frontline SMS forms are very easy to fill. They do not consume even 10 minutes.  The information goes to the hub and…it is secure. Before, I gave the information on paper which can disappear.”

Context is King: Knowledge Sharing on Communications Tools at BBC Media Action

By Amy O’Donnell, FrontlineSMS:Radio Manager

Recently my colleague Flo and I visited BBC Media Action for a Knowledge Sharing session which focused on the use of innovative mobile technology to enable effective communication for social change. BBC Media Action (previously known as the World Service Trust) "uses media and communication to provide access to information and create platforms to enable some of the poorest people in the world to take part in community life. With a focus on programming that directly engages people in debate and discussion thereby encouraging  communication across political, ethnic, religious and other divides in society." We felt lucky to be one of the last visitors to their longstanding home in the iconic Bush House, London as the BBC is relocating from there after 70 years.

Often when people first hear about FrontlineSMS, it’s not just the software which inspires them, but the valuable lessons we learn from how the tool is being used. BBC Media Action works to directly engage people in debate and discussion through programming and this workshop explored the potential of SMS to open up participation.

To broaden participation, combine accessible communications channels

We explored how a radio station in Uganda is using FrontlineSMS to gather incoming audience feedback via SMS to put their questions to MPs while on-air; how FrontlineSMS is engaging citizen journalists in Indonesia and how the software is being used to run a news service for women in Sri Lanka. Introducing another popular open-source platform, we explained how the Ushahidi mapping tool was used in conjunction with FrontlineSMS for election monitoring by the Reclaim Naija project in Nigeria last year to illustrate reports in relation to their location. Many of these programs use SMS in concert with other platforms, whether radio, TV or the Internet - an important element of building a truly accessible, system that works for its unique context.

BBC Media Action’s own Jonathan Robertshaw shared his experience of using FrontlineSMS as a practitioner. He explained BBC Media Action’s role in a project run by ActionAid and infoasaid which which set up a food distribution alert and food price information system in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2011 drought. The project successfully took a multi-platform approach to improving communication between relief committees, food monitors and the public. The set-up gave people options, including voice (using an interactive voice-based software called FreedomFone); detailed SMS-based data collection (using  FrontlineForms, FrontlineSMS’ data collection tool); and text message (using FrontlineSMS’s core platform).

No matter how high-tech a program is, sometimes a low-tech solution can be the ‘killer app’ - the most impactful option. In the Isiolo program, the final message in the chain relaying information about the service to the public was distributed via a paper poster taped where communities could read it. The poster included a phone number, so that beneficiaries had the option to seek further information or stay up to date. Jonathan explained how the poster was not part of the original communications plan; the project and its communications mechanisms evolved and adapted to the context. Overall, the learning from this project demonstrates the importance of offering different communications options to meet different communications needs.

Technology is 10% of the solution

As the discussion with different Media Action project leaders delved into program specifics, we explored how technology often only represents a small proportion of overall project design. Looking at potential Media Action projects - including participatory audio dramas and humanitarian radio - reinforced how important it is not to lose sight of behavioral and cultural factors as well as critical delivery planning: outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring. One of the group asked how to anticipate the resources required to run a communication platform. Particularly when the volume of response depends on the level of interactive behavior, the group agreed there is no “one-size-fits-all” or “magic formula.” Program staff have to consider the context and stay flexible, tweaking the system to respond to the needs of their beneficiaries and staff as they develop. Resourcing this kind of responsiveness is critical and difficult, and there are costs in money and goodwill involved in introducing people to a new system, changing messages and systems too often.  The group agreed that, rather than committing to services which it may be difficult to estimate demand for, organizations should manage expectations and try to test ahead of time. Trying out communications in small trials or pilots can help scope people’s reactions.

The strongest message we took away from the session was practitioners’ motivation to learn about the different tools available in the communications toolkit. Often the design of a communication system is not about one tool, but the right tool or right combination of tools which suit the context. FrontlineSMS needs limited support and people are implementing projects all over the world using the software and tools readily available to them without requiring our team’s direct involvement. We're proud of how much that makes it a really sustainable piece of software for organizations working in the last mile, and a critical tool for long-term capacity-building.

Technology Meets Humanitarian Response

Over the last two years, we have worked to raise awareness of the potential of SMS, and FrontlineSMS, as a sustainable, capacity-building tool in humanitarian response. We have documented how our software is being used to manage and coordinate aid responses by a wide variety of organizations - including OCHA, Action Aid and Infoasaid, European Disaster Volunteers, Popular Engagement Policy Lab – and in a range of contexts - including Kenya, Pakistan and Haiti. We have also produced a tailored checklist on what to consider when planning use of mobile technology for humanitarian response. All of this content is representative of a more general trend; that of a growing number of humanitarian organizations keen to engage with how ICTs can help support their work. FrontlineSMS Director of Operations, Laura Walker Hudson (center-left) on a panel at the Media and Tech Fair. Photo credit: Craig Tucker, CDAC Network

In March 2012, we participated in two events in London which demonstrated this increasing interest. The first, a two-day Media and Tech Fair hosted by the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC), showcased technologists and implementers from all over the world, sharing with an audience of CEOs and decision-makers how their solutions and pilots have begun to change the way they engage and communicate with the people they work to help. The second day of this event featured practical workshops and scenario-based discussions, intended to help people to think through how they could put these tools and approaches into practice on the ground.

The second was an afternoon event - co-hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and the Cash and Learning Partnership (CaLP) - launched an excellent report written by the team at Concern UK: New Technologies in Cash Transfer Programming and Humanitarian Assistance. Our Director of Operations, Laura Walker Hudson, participated in a panel discussion reflecting on the themes raised in the report, and we were pleased to have had the opportunity to have contributed to Concern’s research.

The report takes an in-depth look at the current use of new technology in humanitarian cash and voucher programming, and the broader implications this has for humanitarian practice. In addition to some positive cross-cutting themes – such as the improved accountability and cost-effectiveness which can result from successful use of technology in humanitarian work – the report also contains advice on mitigating some of the challenges that still obstruct wider implementation. The result is a thoughtful and broad-based survey of the opportunities and challenges facing humanitarian agencies in selecting and rolling out technological tools - reflections which are valuable across all sectors, not just humanitarian aid, for their honesty in assessing institutional barriers to change and innovation. We will examine some of these issues in a future post, and consider their relevance for anyone trying to mobilize information management and communications.

For now, a few broad themes recurred in both events:

  • Disaster affected populations are already utilizing ICTs on the ground, and the globalized nature of news and volunteerism means that groups like the Standby Taskforce are pitching in to help manage and process data. If agencies fail to acknowledge progress made by others, they will be left behind.
  • Erik Hersman, one of the founders of Ushahidi, reiterated a core value we share in his keynote summary of the first day of the CDAC event: technology is only a small part of what needs to be considered in planning discussions; the context, the program design, training and sustainability, and most importantly, listening to the people the project seeks to help, are a larger part of the effort and critical to success.
  • The critical importance of cross-sectoral and inter-agency collaboration recurred again and again, at both events. To avoid duplication of effort, conflicting data standards, wasted resources and crowded information marketplaces in emergencies, key stakeholders must work together, and seek to understand others’ perspectives in a rapidly evolving area. Working in a consortium, or creating open-source tools available to everyone, could potentially speed up development of useful platforms and improved learning about what works and what doesn’t. Collaborating effectively with the private sector and with technologists could far more effectively harness additional resources and intellectual capital, and a coordinated ask of major players, such as the GSMA, is crucial - but can feel impossible to secure.

All in all, the humanitarian sector has a long way to go, particularly at head office level, but our team was left with a sense that there are a growing number of humanitarians who are taking an agile, open and open-minded approach to trialling new tools and sharing their findings with others. Yet it is at field and regional level that the real innovation is happening, away from the overlapping priorities and initiative overload that characterizes the global management hubs in New York, London and Geneva. As ICTs in humanitarian aid become more commonplace and begin to integrate more fully into the standard agency toolkit, agencies, technologists and the private sector must continue to build relationships and exchange information in order to build sustainable, coordinated, and appropriate use of technology in humanitarian response.

Following both of these events, valuable resources have been made available online:

CDAC event:

ODI and CaLP event:

Sending a Message of Accountability: SMS Helps Improve Services After Pakistan Floods

In this guest post, Alex Gilchrist explains how the Popular Engagement Policy Lab (PEPL) used SMS to communicate with affected communities during the humanitarian response to the floods in Pakistan in 2011. Using FrontlineSMS to set up a Complaints and Response Mechanism, people were able to share their experiences of accessing food and shelter. Co-authored by Syed Azhar Shah from Raabta Consultants, this post demonstrates how it is through the effective use of communications technology that people can be connected to the services they need the most. Guest Post by Alex Gilchrist, Popular Engagement Policy Lab and Syed Azhar Shah, Raabta Consultants

The 2011 monsoon flooding in Sindh, Pakistan’s southernmost province, affected an estimated 5.5 million people. The floods compounded the damage caused by flooding in 2010 and the lack of clean drinking water, food, healthcare and shelter resulted in communicable and non-communicable diseases across the province. It also caused loss of livelihoods through damage to agricultural land and death of livestock that will continue to affect the lives of the people of Sindh for years to come.

In the aftermath of the recent flooding, a large Pakistani NGO called Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), which manages a network of organizations across Sindh province started a new project in Mirpur Khas district, distributing food items and shelter to those worse affected. Following an assessment process for one of its smaller projects, SPO selected a total of 475 beneficiaries across 24 villages.

A concern of SPO’s head office in Islamabad was that complaints and feedback from beneficiaries in previous projects had not been documented or dealt with effectively and they wanted to monitor the distribution process. This is when the Popular Engagement Policy Lab (PEPL) and Raabta Consultants were asked to help.

We were asked to set up a mechanism through which people could register issues they encountered during the flood relief distribution project in order to improve accountability and transparency before, during and after the distribution had taken place. PEPL develop research methodologies, specializing in innovative uses of low- and high-tech information systems, and for this project we collaborated with Raabta Consultants, who help communities in Pakistan to access the valuable social services provided by governments, NGOs, charities and the private sector. Using FrontlineSMS, we developed a system to handle SMS-based feedback from affected communities as part of their new Complaints and Response Mechanism (CRM).

Although less than half of Pakistan’s population owns a mobile handset, recent research indicates that more than 70 percent of people have regular access to a mobile phone. Amongst phone owners in the poorest 60 percent of Pakistan’s population, 51 percent of men and 33 percent of women used SMS, according to a survey by LIRNEasi in 2009. We wanted to test whether we could harness the prevalence of mobiles and the use of SMS for improved accountability.

Beneficiaries of the project were selected in virtue of being the most disadvantaged in each village: often those with disabilities; child-headed households; or female-headed households, and literacy rates among them were low. We realized it would be a challenge to design a system that would be accessible and useful across the board. To put these concerns to the test, we conducted a questionnaire involving participants of both genders on mobile phone usage. To the surprise of the project team the overwhelming response was that access to mobile phones was widespread, and if someone did not own a mobile phone then they could borrow one from a family member, friend or even village council member and even ask someone to write a message on their behalf.  Through this evidence about the culture of using mobile, we gained overwhelming support for a system to base the CRM on a combination of text messages and voice calls.

The next step was to configure a system using FrontlineSMS so that people could text us requesting a call back. Sindhi is largely written in Arabic text, but not all handsets can recognize the Unicode in which it appears. So, following the conversations with villagers, the team devised a numbering system for complaints ranging from 1-0. The code was as follows: 1 = Food items, 2 = Shelter, 3 = Conflict 4 = Corruption, 5 = Issues with SPO staff, 6 = Issues with Partner Organisation staff, 7 = Issues with Village Council, 8 = Issues affecting women and children, 9 = Issues affecting those with disabilities, and 0 as a means of saying “thank you”. This numbering system allowed for automatic replies through FrontlineSMS tailored to the complaint, as well as a response time.

The numbering system was printed on cards with corresponding pictures, and the SMS and feedback system was also explained through diagrams. On the cards we included telephone numbers for verbal complaints and instructions for written complaints. Having printed out leaflets, posters and cards the teams went to every village and explained the process to beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries alike. During this process, field workers documented all beneficiary phone numbers or relatives’ and friends’ phone numbers, which were then saved in FrontlineSMS. This meant that every message received in FrontlineSMS would also have a name attached to it, and the system was set up so that every auto reply contained the name of the sender.  We believe that the in-person relationship is a critical step that makes the difference in the popular uptake of a communications system.

Through the groups feature on FrontlineSMS, we created lists for village and Union Council members so that before each aid distribution process SPO could send messages alerting the beneficiaries about its arrival, and following the distribution process we could actively solicit feedback via SMS. When a message was received, the response manager would call back, ask for more information and then follow the internal complaints procedure.

Over the three-month aid distribution project we received 725 messages, 456 of which followed the numbering system. The awareness of this system amongst partner organizations and project staff meant that they knew they were being held to account for their actions, so it ensured the quality of their work.  It was especially important that the system protected the identity and data of participants in a way that could not be tampered with. Fundamentally, we learnt that giving people a direct means with which to register a complaint or feedback empowered the beneficiaries of the relief effort to have a say in the way they were treated and furthermore to be connected with organizations who could offer further support.

To read PEPL's Guide to SMS Engagement in Pakistan, "A Practical Guide for Civil Society, the Humanitarian Sector, and Government," please click here.

Faster Channels of Communication: A Radio and SMS Initiative in NE Kenya

Infoasaid has recently shared some news about an initiative with Save the Children in Wajir, Kenya, which is using FrontlineSMS to communicate with field workers and community representatives. Meanwhile, the radio is being used to share information about health, education and food security.

The objective of Infoasaid - a consortium of Internews and the BBC World Service Trust - is to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities. The emphasis is on the need to deliver information, as aid itself, through the most appropriate channels. You can read more about Infoasaid's work on their website http://infoasaid.org/

The article is republished below with permission, or read the original post here.

Infoasaid has helped Save the Children to improve its two-way communication with half a million drought-affected people in Northeast Kenya.

The project uses mobile telecommunications and community radio to establish new and faster channels of communication between the aid agency and remote rural communities.It was launched in Wajir County, close to the Somali border, in the fourth quarter of 2011 and will run during the first six months of 2012.

Save the Children runs vital health, nutrition and food security projects in Wajir County, a semi-arid region which has been devastated by three years of drought and serious food shortages. Its operational centres in Wajir and Habaswein will use SMS messages to exchange information with health workers, relief committee members and community representatives in outlying areas.

Save the Children will also sponsor special programmes on Wajir Community Radio, the local radio station. The radio station broadcasts in Somali, the main language spoken by local people. It commands a large and loyal audience within 150 km radius of Wajir town.

Most people in Northeast Kenya are semi-nomadic pastoralists. They depend on their herds of camels, cows, sheep and goats to feed their families and generate a small cash income. Infoasaid therefore set up weekly radio programmes that will inform local people about the latest animal prices and market trends in the area’s two main livestock markets; Wajir and Habaswein.

It also helped Save the Children to design a weekly magazine programme on Wajir Community Radio. This will focus on key issues related to the aid agency’s emergency aid programmes in the area. The radio programmes, which include a phone-in segment, will focus on issues such as health, education and food security and alternative livelihoods.

The mobile phone element of the project will establish FrontlineSMS hubs at the Save the Children offices in Wajir and Habaswein. FrontlineSMS is free open source software that turns an ordinary computer into a text messaging exchange.It will enable Save the Children to broadcast SMS messages simultaneously from the computer to a variety of different contact groups in the field.

Each message is drafted on the computer, which then uses the FrontlineSMS software to send it by SMS to a large group of recipients.In this way, the same short message can be sent rapidly to a group of 50 or more people through a simple operation that takes less than two minutes to perform.

Previously, Save the Children staff would have had to telephone or visit each of the targeted individuals personally to deliver the same message. That process could have taken several days to complete

The FrontlineSMS hubs in Wajir and Habaswein will not only send out vital information. They will also capture and record incoming messages from people in the field. Each incoming message will be evaluated immediately and passed on to the appropriate person for a timely response.

Infoasaid supplied 240 basic mobile handsets and solar chargers to facilitate the establishment of these two SMS messaging networks. The equipment is being distributed to collaborators and community representatives in every location where Save the Children provides local services.

To read the original article please click here.

Combating food insecurity in Northern Kenya

a href="http://infoasaid.org/" target="_blank">infoasaid is a consortium of Internews and the BBC World Service Trust. The objective is to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities - the focus is on providing humanitarian information. The emphasis is on the need to deliver information, as aid itself, through the most appropriate channels.  In this guest blog post first published on their website, infoasaid highlight some of the innovating approaches they are piloting to using FrontlineSMS in communicating with communities affected by crisis. ** This use of FrontlineSMS has also been reported on by ActionAid, the BBC World Service Trust and ReliefWeb. In addition, we included it in our National Geographic blog series, Mobile Message. **

Targeted, reliable information can help save lives in crisis-affected communities. As famine is declared in neighbouring Somalia, we’re helping ActionAid to improve vital communication with drought-affected populations in northern Kenya.

Open source mobile solutions such as FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone are enabling two-way communication with vulnerable communities.

A chronic problem

Isiolo County in north eastern Kenya suffers from chronic drought and food shortages. A population of about 143,000 mostly semi-nomadic pastoralists rely on their herds of camels, cattle, goats and sheep for daily food and much of their cash income.

Many of the communities in this semi-arid area have been continuously dependent on food aid from the World Food Program (WFP) since 2004. ActionAid has been heavily involved in both long term development and drought-response projects in the Isiolo area for more than 15 years.

It knows that better communication can help save lives.

Livestock information bulletin

The BBC WST and partners Internews are collaborating through the “infoasaid” project to help ActionAid provide timely information to pastoralists, to help combat food insecurity.

Weekly information about livestock and food commodity prices in Isiolo market – the main reference market for the region – is sent through SMS messages (using FrontlineSMS software) to field workers in rural communities, who post the information on local noticeboards.

Given high illiteracy rates in the area, the project is also providing a recorded message service using Freedom Fone that allows people to listen to local Swahili updates.

The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend.The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend. The market information also allows them to achieve better prices for the animals they sell to traders – boosting cash household income.

Local news and information given alongside market prices also contain useful tips on issues affecting the well-being of animals. Items will include updates on rainfall, outbreaks of animal disease and de-stocking programmes.

Together, the two channels allow pastoralists living in isolated communities to access reliable and up to date market information. They also allow ActionAid to keep in closer touch with the village relief committees that handle food distribution to individual families.

250 basic mobile phones and solar chargers purchased as part of the project are also being used by village relief committee members who live in or near locations with network coverage.

The cheap and durable solar chargers are vital in areas without electricity. They can also provide a source of revenue (as they charge other mobile phones for a modest fee) that allow relief committees to purchase vital air time for their phones.

Faster data

An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.

FrontlineSMS allows ActionAid to transmit electronic forms to field staff in Isiolo County via mobile phone. These are filled in electronically and dispatched immediately to the regional office through SMS messages.

These FrontlineForms are now being used to transmit time-sensitive reports on issues such as food distribution, food for work activity, malnutrition rates and local food prices. The information arrives rapidly in a standard format which is easy to analyse.

In the long term, this will help ActionAid to ensure its humanitarian aid activities in Isiolo are more effective and more responsive to the needs of the local population.

Communication as aid

In any emergency, be it natural disaster or man-made, long- or short-term, people's lives are turned upside down. Knowing what's happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help is crucial to their survival and recovery.

The goal of the 'infoasaid' project is to help humanitarian organisations integrate two way communications with affected communities into their emergency programmes. This in turn improves the effectiveness of aid delivery.

As the drought and famine crisis in the Horn of Africa deepens, such communication is more important than ever.

A new 'Communication is Aid' animation, produced by infoasaid, demonstrates the positive impact of two way communication with crisis affected populations.

Read more about the work of infoasaid on their website.

Texting for life in Pakistan: the International Organisation of Migration

The International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental organisation working to support people to return to their homes after being displaced by disaster of conflict, have been using FrontlineSMS in Pakistan for some months. Below, the twenty-eighth FrontlineSMS guest post is an operational update from Maria Ahmed and Isabel Leigh, in the Mass Communication Team.

October 15th is Global Handwashing Day, and in Pakistan, the IOM have been sending messages about hygiene and sanitation as part of their response to the devastating floods that hit Pakistan in recent months, affecting approximately 20 million people according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).

IOM are leading the  communication response on behalf of the UN 'Cluster System' of humanitarian responders, and have developed over 50 Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in Pashto, Sindhi and Punjabi on topics including  prevention of diarrohea and malaria, water purification methods, mother and child health during the fasting month of Ramadan, child protection issues, treating snake bites, setting up durable shelters and fire safety in camps.

IOM first started using FrontlineSMS in the North in 2009, to mirror humanitarian messages sent out using radio broadcasts with informational texts. People in Northern Pakistan, nearly 3 million of whom were displaced by conflict in 2009, use cell phones extensively amongst family members, often texting in Urdu ( the national language) using the English script. Using FrontlineSMS has saved IOM over $15,000 compared to the  costs they would have paid to develop an organised, mass texting system using a commercial supplier. Supported by Zong, the Pakistani subsidiary of China Mobile, IOM is sending free, bulk, informational messages to affectees and humanitarian workers across Pakistan to enhance informational outreach.

In the South, people are used to using mobiles for voice calls, but send far fewer text messages. So IOM are partnering with Zong, who have donated a million free phone calls through 100 cell phones to IOM to enable a free phone service for flood victims to get vital information, seek help and access relief services offered by the Government and aid agencies. IOM hope to continue to expand the service to reach more handsets in Sindh, Punjab and KP, and from January onwards, in Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

What could an SMS do in humanitarian aid? Monitor a programme, send in a complaint... and administer a cash transfer?

Lawrence Haddad's recent column in the Guardian (23rd June) got me thinking about ways to use mobile to enable communities to hold agencies, whether governmental or not, to account for the aid they provide. This is a critical element of good development and aid work. As Haddad says;

Helping communities report on whether the aid reached them is a good contribution to fixing the broken feedback loop in international development and to reducing waste and corruption. But asking these communities if the aid was working – and how they define "success" – would be even better.

Maasai tribesmen texting

I can easily imagine using FrontlineSMS to administer a complaints and response mechanism using SMS; the agency could publicise a number, and complaints could come in from community members by text, even from a village phone provided as a livelihoods element of the programme. The agency could auto-reply to the message with thanks; and where appropriate, respond or request more information by text as well. The list of numbers they collect would enable them to send out text updates on their progress, and perhaps announce meetings and focus group discussions.

Enter PatientView - and complex data management using SMS

But an exciting development from our colleagues over at FrontlineSMS:Medic might allow agencies to take SMS even further in their programmes. PatientView, which is now out in beta, represents a huge step forward for complex data management using SMS. The plugin, which runs on a souped-up version of the core FrontlineSMS platform, can turn a computer and a set of Java-enabled phones into a patient records management system - one which doesn't need an internet connection.

So what could this mean for humanitarian and development programmes? Well, below I'll set out some ideas for using a PatientView-like implementation of FrontlineSMS for a cash transfer programme - a key tool in the humanitarian toolbox. A good set of guidelines for this type of intervention is available from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - below I'll imagine how you might use SMS as the medium through which the large amounts of data involved in a cash programme might be passed back and forth.

Registration, markets and monitoring

Imagine you're setting up a cash transfer programme. Instead of paperwork, which as any veteran of such a project will tell you is an unavoidable part of the process, you would create a new record for each new recipient of cash. Their record would capture all the usual information about them - basic data such as name, number of dependants, gender, and date of birth; up to more detailed information about any special needs, their official identity information, even a photo. (Coming soon: MMS!) Attached to their record could be a separate category (based on the staff records in PatientView) for the programme information, or alternatively, for the staff member administering the cash transfers in that village - perhaps both. Whatever works for your programme structure.

Immediately post-emergency, when blanket distributions are taking place, you might start with relatively little information about the people you're supporting - perhaps just data about the cash given to them. As the programme progresses, you might build up additional information them as more detailed assessment and targeting teams swing into action. When you need to manipulate the data, you can sort beneficiaries by any of their characteristics.

Even more exciting, as the project timeline rolls on and you need to maintain up-to-date market monitoring, you could imagine enabling community members to update a live database, much as the FAO did in Banda Aceh. They could also query the database themselves, to find out where to sell or buy goods at the best prices.

Don't panic, it's easier than it sounds to set up

Malawi 2008 FrontlineSMS:Medic training

If this all sounds a bit technical, don't worry - users have been setting up and running with FrontlineSMS in the field for many years, and we have a team of developers and experienced users standing by to provide support. In the field, FrontlineSMS:Medic, piloting in Malawi, found that community health workers needed six days' training over six weeks to be trained to text data in to the hospital - from a starting position in which many weren't familiar with using mobile phones at all.  Data can be exported from FrontlineSMS as a .csv file, which can be imported into Excel and many other programmes and databases. And in terms of kit, all you need are a computer, a GSM modem, and Java-enabled handsets for your field staff.

FrontlineSMS:Medic have demonstrated immense cost and time savings in their programming, and there's the added benefit that data entry only has to be done once - no transcribing from paper to digital. The system is forgiving of typos, offering natural language suggestions for staff at base to map incoming SMS to records where no direct correlation is found. And ultimately, you can imagine a future in which FrontlineSMS:Credit, which plans to make all the major banking functions available through SMS, could enable you to carry out the actual cash transfers by text as well.

We'd love to hear whether you think these ideas are worth pursuing - join the conversation below, on Twitter, or on our Facebook page.

Using SMS in disaster response - and preparedness

A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure, and honour, of joining a wonderful panel, including Carel Pedre, Haiti DJ and activist, and Rory Williams of Carbonsmart.com, at the 5th Digital Citizen Indaba in Grahamstown, South Africa. The brief was to talk about digital communication in the context of natural disasters and climate change. I've spent the last three years working on humanitarian policy, so it was a real treat to bring past and current preoccupations together and let them go for a little walk, arm in arm. As ever though, time ran short, so I thought I'd repost the gist of the presentation here.

Thinking through what  to say, I went back to the basics of understanding what happens in a disaster, and what local, national and international organisations, communities and individuals can do to mitigate their effects and help people recover when they happen. I came across this excellent visualisation of the phases of disaster management and response by the University of Wisconsin's Disaster Management Center, via Özge Yalçiner's thesis.

What's striking about this graphic is how little of it is taken up by what we might think of as classic disaster management - maybe a third of it - if you imagine it as a clock face, from about 8 'o' clock to midnight. Even then, the bit that generates most of the donations and media coverage lasts even less - by the time we get up to ten or eleven 'o' clock, when the slow, laborious process of recovery begins, the world's attention has usually moved on, barring major anniversaries and scandals. I think we're seeing this with Haiti right now. But fully half of the wheel is taken up with understanding and preparing for disasters before they happen. Another big slice represents the critical prediction and early warning analysis in which governments and local knowledge play an essential part.

Much of this work, all the way around the wheel, requires community participation - and quite right too. Requirements analysis and needs assessment need local knowledge and community input; reconstruction must be community-led and owned to be successful. Then follow the wheel round to between midnight and 1 'o' clock - there's a segment devoted to gathering disaster histories and experiences, both to learn and to help plan and prepare for future emergencies. Again, this is a key point of community action. Between 2 and 3 'o' clock, vulnerability analyses bring in community maps, workshops, focus group discussions, and other techniques to make sure that interventions and community support mechanisms reach the right people and places at the right moments. And last-mile disaster preparedness and early warning systems and mechanisms just won't work unless they are truly owned by the communities who have to enact them.

This will come as a surprise to none of you, given the focus of this blog, but: I think there's a significant opportunity here to use SMS to help communities to engage with these processes and get their views heard. Complaints and response systems, data-gathering, early warning and evacuation alerts all have and should be delivered using SMS, given its ubiquity in areas that are otherwise hard to reach. Two-way communication using an SMS hub running FrontlineSMS would enable you to send alerts, information about distributions, advice and even messages of support and solidarity; and more importantly, receive information about what's happening on the ground, invaluable local knowledge, and feedback on the success of programmes, and allow people to express what they are feeling. The Haiti experience has shown that this is possible in an emergency setting, and the important work of evaluating the success of those programmes is ongoing - the next step being to build on this learning to improve our understanding of best practice for SMS in emergencies. And as I write, agencies now experienced in using SMS in the fraught days after a disaster are thinking about how to maintain those links, and forge new ones, as they move into the 'recovery phase'. But many organisations are beginning to use SMS in the longer-term, more gradual process of helping people to mitigate and prepare for the risks they're exposed to - we know many are using FrontlineSMS.

We didn't get time to talk much about this on the day, but maybe we can carry on the conversation now. What do you think?

I really enjoyed the event and the thought-provoking discussions about digital activism. I'm very grateful to the DCI team for asking us to be part of the day, and to the lovely participants, who very obligingly joined in with a bit of what I like to call FrontlineSMS Pilates.