FrontlineSMS helps The Busara Center for Behavioral Economics cut 16 hours of work down to 30 minutes

Many thanks to Maneesh Kuruvilla, a final year BS Hons Economics & Psychology student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland and a research intern at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Kenya. We hope you enjoy his post on the his work with FrontlineSMS and his research in behavioral sciences.

The Busara Center for Behavioral Economics is a research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya focused on  providing researchers around the world with an opportunity to conduct studies in a variety of behavioral sciences with a strongly under-represented subject pool. Headed by Johannes Haushofer, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the Busara Center strives to replicate the controlled lab settings in a novel environment. Busara is housed under the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a non-profit organization focused on developing and evaluating poverty alleviation programs around the world.

Busara utilizes 20 state-of-the-art touchscreen computers that enable both computer-illiterate and entirely illiterate respondents to participate in computerized experiments. These respondents, now totaling over 4500, are recruited from several informal settlements within Nairobi, most notably Kibera and Viwandani. This serves to overcome the tendency of many researchers to base their conclusions exclusively on studies of well-educated participants from wealthy countries, mostly university students. The goal at Busara is to better understand how people living in poverty make decisions and eventually use the knowledge to facilitate the design of poverty alleviation policies.

Our task begins when we go out into the field to recruit respondents. Willing community members are registered into our database by providing their fingerprint, some basic demographic information (e.g. education level, employment status, etc.) and a cellphone number. Recent research (Marx et al., 2013) has shown that cellphone penetration among the urban poor in Kibera is exceptionally high (83%). This makes accessing prospective respondents for potential studies in the future both reliable and simple. It is also our experience that illiterate respondents show the message to their friends or relatives who can read and have it explained to them.

One of the central requirements at Busara is being able to invite and remind respondents to attend a study in a way that is both time and cost effective. Typically, we have close to 100 participants each day. Given that not all who are invited will be willing or available to participate, there is a need to create an additional buffer of 50-100%. In such a situation, making 150-200 individual calls per day can be quite a strain on resources. This is where FrontlineSMS has proved to be a transformative mass communication tool. With the help of Frontline SMS we are able to send, for example, SMS from a computer to 30 different people inviting them to a specific session, at a specific time on a specific date. In addition, messages are sent out several hours before the session, to gently remind participants of their invitation.

There are numerous advantages from being able to contact respondents via SMS. Direct benefits accruing to Busara include savings on airtime and Field Officers’ (FOs) time and wages. Normally, it takes 2 FOs up to 8 hours a day to perform the 150-200 calls as described above. By using FrontlineSMS, this outcome can now be achieved by 1 FO in less than 30 minutes. There is also a flexibility associated with shaping the content of SMS. For example, it is easy to customize messages to include different transportation reimbursement amounts depending on whether our respondents are coming from Kibera or Viwandani.

Sending SMS also aids respondents. We are able to access them at times when it may not be convenient for them to talk. SMS also reduce the chances of them mixing up session dates and times by having to solely rely on memory. Further, SMS act as a sort of proof of invitation for both parties, consequently limiting any potential misunderstandings or miscommunication.

FrontlineSMS has transformed the amount of time and money it takes us to get respondents from their homes and into the lab. Looking ahead, it is our hope to be able to use their PaymentView software to simplify the way we compensate respondents for their time at Busara.