Frontline allowed a Colombian organization to open non-traditional communication channels for different communities in a part of the country with very low connectivity.
Coming to you from the University of Cambridge's Centre of Governance and Human Rights, we are pleased to feature a short film about the Africa's Voices project. This research pilot project supported local radio stations to use FrontlineSMS for audience participation, in an effort to continue to enhance citizen-based dialogue. Radio is still the killer app in Africa for sharing information. Adding mobile turns a one-to-many medium into a two-way interactive opportunity, empowering people to ask questions and hold their leaders to account.
Assessing whether to use SMS is even more important than figuring out how to do it, as Joshua Pepall, World Vision’s United Kingdom Senior Accountability Advisor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, reports in a special guest blog post. Improved accountability to communities and value for money are hot topics for World Vision and for the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which funds the accountability for development pilot that l support in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Accountability and quality assurance guidelines like the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) and INGO (International NGO) Accountability Charters highlight the need for agencies to effectively provide accurate and timely information to communities on project plans and activities. Doing this is not always easy.
World Vision development projects work through area development programmes (ADPs). ADP Catchment areas can be made up of dozens of villages, hundreds of households and thousands of people. A real challenge for World Vision staff is how to effectively communicate programme information to community members quickly, cheaply and effectively. Organising a meeting can take days and may not the best use of people’s time, or represent good value for money. Using SMS to provide basic information on project activities and to coordinate community engagement events seemed like one solution.
Mobile phone usage in Cambodia is remarkably high - everyone seems to have a phone. Judging by the number of people that own two or three, owning multiple phones is somewhat of a status symbol as well. Phones are relatively affordable here - a Chinese 3G phone can cost as little as $60 while a basic Nokia is as little as $18. Some estimates put the number of mobile phones registered in Cambodia at 13 million (BubbleCom, 2012). Nine mobile phone operators have invested heavily in mobile phone infrastructure and there is almost total coverage across the country.
It’s easy to get excited by new technology like FrontlineSMS, and start using it before listening to the people who will receive the information and give them the opportunity to decide if SMS is their preferred communications channel.
Effective information provision to communities of project information requires careful planning - you need to identify who your community audience is, and target your approach to that audience. Luckily, we had the flexibility and time to do this.
Our national and World Vision UK teams developed a simple community assessment questionnaire designed to learn more about community mobile phone usage, the cost of SMS and cell cards, phone ownership and the kind of information people wanted from World Vision.
We learnt a lot. Some of our assumptions were also challenged. Age did not seem to be the big obstacle to mobile phone use as we had anticipated and even the poorest village community members had phones and used SMS. People also wanted to use SMS to report issues of domestic violence in the communities to World Vision staff. Potentially, Frontline SMS might be able to be used for a variety of applications and not only to send information.
Rather than compile a big report about the assessment we set ourselves the challenge of communicating the results in one page - the infographic on the left.
So what next? We’re still SMS novices and learning as we go. We will be trialling the use of Frontline SMS in one village to send SMS to households on the date and time of community meetings and project information. By starting small we hope to learn what works and does not. By getting some wins under our belt we hope to then roll it out to other ADPs.
The team at Better FM, a radio station in Fort Portal, Uganda, were the most recent testers to install FrontlineSMS:Radio as part of the ongoing trial. Florence Brisset-Foucault, a researcher for the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at Cambridge University in the UK, is currently in Uganda, and helped with the installation, saying “I'm excited to report that it is running perfectly!” Here, Florence shares some updates from the station and the way they engage MPs in dialogues with listeners about public service delivery. By Dr Florence Brisset-Foucault
Better FM was created in 2008. Despite the fact it's a relatively new station here at Fort Portal, it seems very successful in terms of audience and reach. It has a high degree of response from local politicians, who are keen to engage with local citizens and hear their feedback. Honourable Alex Ruhunda, Member of Parliament for Fort Portal Municipality, District councillors and Tooro Kingdom officials regularly frequent the studios. Better FM has several programmes which focus on ensuring more transparency and accountability on public service delivery, especially concerning procurements and the building of infrastructure, particularly road, electricity and water.
One programme is called 'Know your leaders' which offers an opportunity for listeners to interact with their community’s decision makers. Another is called the ‘Listeners’ Forum’ and is sponsored by a local organisation called Tooro Development Network who specialize in empowering grass root organizations with ICTs and promoting transparency. Both shows are hosted by Better FM presenter Wilfred Mukonyezi, and have a heavy emphasis on being interactive with the community. Wilfred takes around 10 calls during each show and usually receives around 50 SMS, some of which are read on air.
For the past two weeks the station had a technical problem with their internet provider meaning they were not able to receive text messages. On 19th April, we installed FrontlineSMS:Radio – which does not rely on internet connection - on the studio's computer, and Wilfred was really excited.
We played with the software for an hour in order to get more familiar with it; sending text messages and testing functionality by creating imaginary polls. Wilfred immediately created "shows" for all his colleagues, a functionality in FrontlineSMS:Radio which allowed him to set up a space for each presenter to manage SMS relevant to them within the same system. After two weeks without SMS, Wilfred is glad he won't have to depend on the internet to receive messages any more. He said "All my workmates will enjoy this software! It's cheaper, it's easier, and [unlike relying on an internet connection] it doesn't give me a headache!"
To find out more about FrontlineSMS:Radio click here
To find out more about the research of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights click here. Find out about the Africa's Voices project as part of CGHR research on their website or join the conversation on Facebook
To read a recent update on the trial and research in Uganda and Zambia click here
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.
FrontlineSMS recently attended an event called hosted by the Indigo Trust, the Institute for Philanthropy and the Omidyar Network -- called 'The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development'. Wired wrote a follow up piece on a panel at this event, which featured FrontlineSMS and our founder Ken Banks, who spoke on the panel Wired chose to focus on. Below is an extract from the Wired article, and you can find the piece in full on the Wired website here.
"There is a lack of accountability within philanthropy because the people who provide the resources aren't sufficiently well-connected to the beneficiaries they are supposed to be funding. Technology can change that, according to a panel speaking at an event ... called 'The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development'.
The panel -- which included the Indigo Trust's Will Perrin; Owen Barder, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development; MySociety's Tom Steinberg; Kiwanja's Ken Banks and Sodnet's Philip Thigo -- argued that data collected by NGOs tends to only serve to make donors feel better about their philanthropic efforts. That means that the data describes allocation of funds and supplies photogenic case studies, rather than focusing on the quality of the execution of that aid....
Ken Banks from Kiwanja talked about empowering local communities to take action, with systems such as Frontline SMS, a free, open-source piece of software that allows you to distribute and collect information to the masses via SMS with just a mobile phone and a computer. As Banks describes: "The software turns a low end laptop, mobile and dongle into a two-way messaging system."
To read the article in full visit the Wired website here.