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.

SMS tackles farmer literacy in Niger

In this, the sixteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Joshua Haynes - a Masters student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University - describes their application of the software to help improve the lives of farmers in Niger, West Africa Projet Alphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire (ABC), conceived of and spearheaded by FrontlineSMS’s newest Advisory Board member Jenny Aker, uses mobile phones as tools to aid in adult literacy acquisition in rural Niger. This project is funded by UC Davis, Oxford University, Tufts University and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and housed at and managed by CRS/Niger.

Adult literacy in rural areas faces an inherent problem. In Niger, for example, there are no novels, newspapers or journals in native languages like Hausa or Zarma. The 20% of Nigériens who are literate are literate in French. The vast majority of rural villagers have struggled to maintain their livelihoods since time immemorial without ever knowing how to read a single word. What’s the point of literacy if there is no need for written materials?

Mamadou Issoufou, like 80% of people who live in rural areas, has access to a couple of different weekly markets where he can buy and sell his millet. One market, Dogon Kirya, is 11 kilometers away and the other, Doubélma, is 15 kilometers away. As Dogon Kirya is closer, he usually travels there, but he knows that sometimes he can get a better price when he goes to Doubélma. If a fellow villager who traveled to Doubélma the previous week indicates that prices were better there than in Dogon Kirya, then Mamadou might decide to go the extra four kilometers, but he’s not sure he’ll get the same prices this week, too. He leaves it up to chance.

On Wednesdays, the Service d’Information sur les Marchés Agricoles (SIMA) sends radio broadcasts on the prices of the most important staples like millet and sorghum for the largest markets in the country. Unfortunately, Mamadou, like most rural farmers, doesn’t have access to the broadcast, and if he did, his two main markets aren’t large enough to be covered by SIMA. Even if they were large enough, Dogon Kirya’s market is held on Tuesdays, so any information from the radio would be six days old.

Farmer, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

If Mamadou had access to some sort of real-time, demand-driven information, he could make better choices on where to buy and sell his goods. The mobile phone is a perfect device for transmitting information, but even though Mamadou may have access to a phone, he can’t read. The point of literacy in rural areas is increase access to information, and this is where FrontlineSMS plays an important role.

This past summer, between my first and second year as a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, I was fortunate to work with Jenny, the amazing staff at CRS and SIMA, including Djibou Alzouma, Aïchatou Bety, Sadou Djibrilla, Scott Isbrandt and Ousseïni Sountalma, to develop a system called IMAC – Information sur les Marchés Agricoles par Cellulaire. IMAC – pronounce ‘ee-mak’ – allows users to query for farmgate and market prices of agriculture products in a number of markets in four languages. It is built to work as one of the Projet ABC components, but can be used in areas with higher literacy levels.

Mobile training, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

In addition to the querying functionality, we added the ability for SIMA-trained CRS agents to update the crop prices by sending IMAC a specially formatted SMS. The prices are quickly checked for errors in Niamey, the capital, and then are live for all to use. Before, it could take up to three weeks for market prices to get recorded, go through a number of different administrative stages and finally end up in the database in the capital, but now it takes a matter of seconds before the data can be accessed.

Although the data is stored and updated in the database, FrontlineSMS is the primary access point which captures the message, sends it to the database for processing, waits eagerly for the response, and speedily sends the response to the waiting villager. By exploiting FrontlineSMS’ HTMLRequest functionality, we were able to access a backend system and turn FrontlineSMS into a demand-driven automatic information dissemination tool.

I was fortunate to return to Niger in October (2009) to not only see how well the system was still working - a big relief for developers - but to be surprised by the number of new markets and products that had been added to the system. Thanks to FrontlineSMS, CRS and SIMA, these additional markets will allow even more villagers, once at least semi-literate, to obtain information that will better help them make more informed decisions about their economic resources.

Joshua Haynes Candidate, Masters of International Business, 2010 The Fletcher School Tufts University

Chipping away at the SMS literacy barrier

With all the excitement surrounding Monday's launch of FrontlineForms, we almost forgot the other improvements we've made to the FrontlineSMS software. As well as support for IntelliSMS - another Clickatell-style online aggregator - we finally got round to adding Unicode support which, to the non-technical, means you can now send and receive messages in foreign scripts, i.e. non-Latin or non-Roman character sets. Projects in India and the Middle East have been asking for this, and it's exciting to see it finally delivered (thanks Alex!). FrontlineSMS Arabic

Although there are still very real literacy issues for SMS-based social mobile projects, at least allowing messages to be sent and received in the local language - assuming handset support is available - removes at least one more barrier. We're excited to see how much this ends up being used, and what further opportunities it opens up for FrontlineSMS users around the world.