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...

Desert SMS

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:]

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

What’s Next

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)