Engaging Afghan Radio Audiences through SMS

We recently spoke with Dr.Mohammad Anwar Jamili, Faheem Azami and Gordon Shettle from Equal Access, who are working on a project with 30 FM radio stations in Afghanistan to explore how FrontlineSMS can be used to enhance radio programming and engage local communities in discussions on social change. Equal Access specializes in communications combining the power of media with community mobilization, and interest was sparked amongst our community following a recent blog post introducing another of their radio projects in Chad and Niger, Africa.  The focus in this post on Equal Access’ work in Afghanistan demonstrates a rich diversity in approaches to using FrontlineSMS in combination with radio, and shows the unique solutions set up by different projects around the world.

After 30 years of war which began in the 1980s, the communications infrastructure in Afghanistan was virtually destroyed, and the country’s natural geographic and cultural isolation prevented marginalized groups from receiving critical information. Following disruption caused by war, the country has recently begun to see improvements in many sectors; media being one of them. In the space of the last 10 years, radio stations in Afghanistan have grown from just one to 170 and there are now 50 TV stations. This speedy growth, however, has also brought problems as services have emerged which lack some capacity and professionalism. Equal Access is working in Afghanistan to close this gap in radio stations to empower them with new skills and assist them to harness technology. Equal Access has been based in Kabul since 2002 working with 30 FM stations throughout Afghanistan. They have estimated their reach across various networks of broadcast networks through both local FMs, and national broadcasters with regional repeaters to be approximately 10 million. This wide reach is down to the access of the communications channels they are utilising; though most families will not have TV, almost all families in Afghanistan will have access to a radio and a phone.

On Equal Access shows, radio presenters regularly ask a question to their audience and invite SMS feedback by announcing a number whilst on-air. Topics which are covered range from human rights and women’s issues, Islamic education, health and hygiene, drug demand reduction, elections and civic participation, rule of law and peace building. Most recently Equal Access got a lot of SMS  feedback from a drama series that was produced for a media development project. The aim was to raise the awareness of the purpose of journalism, and some of the challenges that journalists face. Each program got up to 100 text messages per episode, and FrontlineSMS has proved to be a useful tool to manage the incoming text messages. Gordon Shettle who is working on the project for Equal Access says “SMS has provided us with a window into the listener who has the interest to interact with a program; it  allows us to see what issues people are most expressive about.” Use of SMS by the radio stations allows listeners to send in short answers in Pashto and Dari using the Persian script, facilitating grass roots engagement and community participation. Literacy in Afghanistan is very low - the national illiteracy rate in some areas is over 70% and locally produced radio programs have proved to be an effective way to educate and engage communities. If presenters get particularly interesting feedback via SMS they’ll often arrange a call back so speak to individuals on the show. Contributors are also added to contacts records and groups to assist with communication over time.

While some listeners reply to a topic as soon as they hear it, some reply with messages later in the day – or even week - so it is a challenge for Equal Access to identify which episode messages are related to. Using keyword automation functionality in FrontlineSMS can help with this, and this is something which the new FrontlineSMS:Radio software has been designed to assist with. The team have found they have higher response rates if they carry out a draw or competition, and interaction seems to be particularly popular amongst youth groups. Another factor that it’s important to consider is cost. For example, many to text a local number in order to keep costs down, or better, arrange for a toll-free SMS number. Gordon also explained another aspect relating to cost and sustainability, “We encourage SMS as a tool for radio stations to get to know their audience, and build its base of followers. It can be a path to sustainability if they consider using SMS for advertising or marketing, should they want to appeal to local businesses.” Furthermore, other FrontlineSMS functionality helps Equal Access to maintain a sustainable funding. Stations often export text messages to excel for monitoring and evaluation purposes, which can be done using FrontlineSMS. This offers invaluable information for reports and analysis, as well as to feed back to donors. The aim of Equal Access’ project is to build capacity of stations so they can encourage stations to start their own interactions. By conducting training, the team wants to ensure tools like FrontlineSMS are made accessible to stations to run themselves. Anwar Jamili explained: “One of our responsibilities is to  provide responsibility to local FM stations- responsibility for their own community besides profit making. I believe that radio can play an increasingly more important role in bringing together communities and government and our program will help them to be more interactive with their audience using SMS. This provides them with the opportunity to produce what their audiences want.”

To stay updated on Equal Access’ work in Afghanistan and in other contexts visit their website.

To stay updated on FrontlineSMS:Radio software development keep an eye on the FrontlineSMS:Radio blog.

FrontlineSMS Opens Up New Frontiers for Radio Mashaal

Republished from FrontlineSMS:Radio Guest Post By Zydrone Krasauskiene, Editorial Manager, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

FrontlineSMS software has opened up new frontiers for Radio Mashaal -literally- by creating a completely new and unorthodox way of making interactivity possible for Pashto-speaking audiences in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports the news where a free press does not exist or is not allowed by the government. RFE/RL reaches nearly 25 million people in 28 languages and 21 countries in Russia, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia. One of RFE/RL's newest services, Radio Mashaal was launched in 2010 and provides reporting in Pashto language in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and part of Balochistan province.  Until now the huge cost of calling the RFE/RL Prague headquarters prevented our listeners in Afghanistan and Pakistan from contributing to our programming.

I first heard about the FrontlineSMS open source software, which can turn any computer into an SMS hub, at the Online News Association conference in Washington DC last September. Then when I was in London in April, I visited the FrontlineSMS office and during a chat with Amy O'Donnell the Radio Project Manager, I asked whether we could try it out here at RFE/RL.  Our Mashaal colleagues used to experience great difficulties in engaging their listeners because they found that it was too expensive for them to call in.  So an SMS service looked like a promising solution.

After consulting with my colleagues, we installed FrontlineSMS software in our bureau in Islamabad and connected it to a GSM modem. Colleagues in Islamabad arranged to use a local SIM card and negotiated an extremely reasonable package with the local network provider connection, the subscription cost $1.75 per month including 10,000 SMS messages.

All was set, and on May 11, 2011 Radio Mashaal announced its phone number and invited listeners to contact moderators and program makers.

The response was overwhelming. On the first day, over 130 text messages were received containing political comments, pieces of poetry and praise for Mashaal programs. They even received some jokes via text! While we currently broadcast 9 hours daily, some of the listeners asked for an increase of Mashaal daily programming to 24 hours. In just six months, we received over 20,000 messages.

As a colleague from Radio Mashaal, Shaheen Buneeri explained, “The SMS facility has created an excellent opportunity for Radio Mashaal listeners to express their thoughts and feelings on social, political, cultural and security issues in the region. Through these messages, which are an important part of our news bulletins, listeners connect to their dear ones in foreign lands, and the Pashto diaspora shares messages of peace and goodwill with their friends and families at home.”

But even more than that, some incoming SMSs contained information that turned into reports. For example, about two months ago someone sent an SMS to Radio Mashaal from the Kacaha Panga area near Hango,  complaining that although they lived very close to a gas distribution station, they had  been disconnected from the main gas supply. The issue was taken up by producer Stonzi Aow Sarkar of Radio Mashaal, who challenged the relevant authorities to find a solution. The authorities promised to solve the problem. Similarly, Radio Mashaal received messages in August 2011 about the shortage of water and electricity in Pakistan's Balochistan province. Radio Mashaal correspondents checked the situation on the ground and found that it was true. A local reporter was tasked to take the issue to the relevant authorities. He did so and filed a report on it, creating widespread interest in the issue.

This SMS project has established an extremely effective communication channel for Radio Mashaal listeners. The only drawback is that because of the huge amount of incoming SMSs, we are unable to send SMS replies to all of our listeners.  But as Mudaqiq Amin, Radio Mashaal director says, “The most important thing is that the SMS service enabled our listeners, even the poorest of them, to contact us.”

More than 3 million Pashtuns live in the FATA region. According to last year’s audience research, Radio Mashaal's weekly reach in this region is 5.9 percent of the Pashto population. This demonstrates the power of radio in communicating with this community and the increasing need to offer platforms to allow listeners to engage with the station.

To quote just one SMS which came in last week, in English, “Mashaal Radio is 1 of the best radio [station] in the world!” Isn’t it rewarding?

This post was republished from FrontlineSMS:Radio. If you are interested in the combination of radio and SMS check out

What is your Mobile Message? Sharing ideas via National Geographic

Today, with over 500 million mobile subscribers across Africa alone, and more people around the world owning a phone than not, mobile phones seem to be everywhere,” points out FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks in the opening post of  our National Geographic  blog series: Mobile Message. There has been a remarkable growth in mobile phone use in recent years, and increasingly mobile phones are being used for innovative social change projects. Last year Ken was awarded the title of National Geographic Emerging Explorer, in recognition of his work in the field of mobile for social change. In December 2010 FrontlineSMS launched our ongoing Mobile Message blog series via National Geographic, to help share exciting stories about the way mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Here we provide an overview of the diverse range of stories that have been shared in the series so far.

Mobile for development

In his introduction to the Mobile Message series Ken Banks traces the journey of mobile use in international development from 2003, when “he struggled to find much evidence of the revolution that was about to take place,” up to the present day, when mobiles are now being used globally in projects for health, agriculture, conservation and so much more. From his eight years experience in the ‘mobile phones for development’ field, Ken shares his knowledge on “the importance of building appropriate technologies, the importance of local ownership, and the need to focus some of our technology solutions on smaller grassroots users.” It is these principles that shape FrontlineSMS’s work, and these are also the themes that shape our Mobile Message series with National Geographic.

Mobile Technology gives Zimbabweans a Voice

Mobile phones often have the power to circumvent traditional forms of media, in areas where conventional news outlets are controlled or manipulated by the government. This was clearly shown in the second post in our Mobile Message series; entitled Mobile Technology gives Zimbabweans a Voice. In this post Ken Banks interviewed Bev Clark, founder of Zimbabwean civil society NGO Kubatana, and program director of Freedom Fone. Bev discusses how the use of mobile has helped address the challenge of state controlled media in Zimbabwe and “keep people informed, invigorated and inspired.”

Kubatana runs an SMS subscriber system using FrontlineSMS, and they have 14,000 people on their contact list. They use SMS to share news headlines and notifications of events, and also to encourage a two-way dialogue. They ask subscribers to respond with their views and opinions, by posing questions on social justice issues. By doing this, Bev explains, Kubatana is able to “extend the conversation to people living on the margins of access to information.”

Mobile Banking in Afghanistan

The global presence of mobile phones has also encouraged a wealth of mobile banking (m-Banking) and mobile finance, in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Jan Chipchase, Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design, tackled the topic of m-Banking in Afghanistan in the third post of our Mobile Message series. Afghanistan is an interesting case, as Jan explains, being “a country challenged by limited access to traditional banking infrastructure and widespread distrust of formal institutions.”

Jan conducted a field study in Afghanistan in 2010, which focused on use of m-Banking services such as M-Paisa. He looked at how “m-Banking has been extended to include bill payment, buying goods and services, and full-fledged savings accounts.” His study “aimed to highlight the sophisticated strategies that the poorest members of societies adopt in managing their limited resources.” Jan drew some interesting points from his research, and concludes his post by stating that “there will come a point when the idea of using mobile phones for banking will be as globally prevalent as credit and debit are in the U.S. today.”

Technology Helps Break Silence Against Violence in Haiti

Mobile technology is clearly used for incredibly diverse purposes. The fourth Mobile Message post looks at how SMS can be used to help break the silence against violence and human rights abuses in post-earthquake Haiti. Aashika Damodar, CEO of Survivors Connect, writes about how her organisation had worked alongside Fondation Espoir, a Haitian nonprofit organization, to establish a text message helpline to report violent crimes in Haiti.

The service, called Ayiti SMS SOS helpline, provides an option for anyone in Haiti to text if they witness or experience an act of violence. A team of trained helpline operators respond to the SMS, and direct people to relevant services needed to help. As Aashika points out “the need for a reporting system is dire. Thousands of displaced people still live in camps with little security or privacy, making them susceptible to threats and abuse.” Using SMS means help is more accessible to many of those who are vulnerable.

FrontlineSMS is used in this project to manage sending and receive messages. Aashika shares details of why this project chose to build their service around text messaging. “SMS is cost effective, discrete and fast, all of which work to the benefit of our target groups.” This summarises why many projects choose to use SMS to support their social change projects.

Supporting Africa's Innovation Generation in Kenya

As well as increased efficiency, advances in technology also encourage innovation. Erik Hersman, co-founder of Ushahidi, wrote the fifth Mobile Message post about iHub (Innovation Hub); a project that brings together Nairobi's entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and investors. He explains how “leapfrogging PCs, Africa's burgeoning generation of mobile tech-savvy entrepreneurs are bursting with ideas and practical inventions, from African apps for smart phones to software solutions that address uniquely local challenges.”

You can feel Erik’s genuine enthusiasm for the many new and exciting ideas emerging: “real-world solutions to problems found by micro-entrepreneurs and everyday Africans... Here, we see ingenuity born of necessity.” The i-Hub provides a communal space for over 2,500 members of the technology community in Kenya's capital city. There are a growing number of “smart, driven and curious technologists with a leaning towards all things mobile” in many major African cities like Nairobi, Accra and Lagos, and Erik makes clear that “it's an exciting place to be, and the future is very bright indeed.”

Mobile Technology Helps Every Person Count

The sixth instalment of Mobile Message comes from Matt Berg, a technology practitioner and researcher in the Modi Research Group at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Discussing the value of increased accountability and recording capacity provided by technology, Matt looks at how using tech can help “poor or homeless people be counted as individuals with needs and rights - and receive their share of social resources.”

An example shared in the post is that across the Millennium Villages in Africa mobile technology is improving people’s access to social care in a project called ChildCount+. Matt discusses how “community health care workers (CHWs) register pregnant women and children under five using basic mobile phones and text messages... Using these patient registries, CHWs can make sure that all their children are routinely screened for malnutrition and receive their immunizations on time.”

Through a variety examples of work being done in India and in Africa Matt makes the overarching point that the recording systems provided by technology can provide increased access to services for vulnerable people, who can often get left out otherwise. In short, as Matt puts it, “technology is making it increasingly possible to count things, and thereby to make people count.”

Award winning FrontlineSMS

FrontlineSMS continues to be acknowledged for its powerful work in the field of mobile technology for social change. The latest Mobile Message post is an interview with Ken Banks, based on his recent award of the 2011 Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. Ken received the award for creating FrontlineSMS software, which is now used by thousands of non-profit organisations in over 70 countries across the world.

As we can see from this summary the power of mobile is reaching around the globe, being used in a remarkable variety of ways. Visit the National Geographic website to read any of the above posts in full, and keep an eye out for future posts which we will be reposting here on the FrontlineSMS blog.

FrontlineSMS: Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

In this, the second of a series of guest posts on how FrontlineSMS is being used around the world, Dr. Mohammad Akbar and Kenneth Adam - Director and Business Advisor respectively at Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) - talk about their current and planned uses of the platform, and the impact it is having on their work "A recent special edition of a radio programme for young people in Afghanistan was devoted to one topic – the shocking recent acid attack on girls attending school by violent extremists allied to the Taliban. The impact on the audience was recorded in some 300 phone calls from listeners – a record for the long running programme "Straight Talk", produced by a team of young broadcasters from Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA).

This audience response provides an example of what is possible given the enormous growth in mobile phones in Afghanistan, well over 6 million and rising at over 100,000 a month. Young people in the troubled south often feel isolated and bored, trapped in a conflict which shows no sign of going away. Development activities have largely been suspended because of insecurity. They want to hear and view programmes on issues important to them, and to contribute to the debate, and with 84% of households possessing working radios and 38% TVs, there is great potential in this approach.

MSPA "Straight Talk"

MSPA will be using FrontlineSMS as one of the tools in a new project as part of a British Government-funded media initiative to engage with young people specifically in conflict affected regions though interactive radio programming, tied in with a national competition for young people to produce short video films on their mobile phones. FrontlineSMS will play a key role in the competitive process of selecting the individuals to be given the new mobile phones and trained in their use. This project is planned to start in April 2009. Initial trials using the software are underway, with a view to collecting information on listeners’ views on a variety of topics and feeding these back to them with the help of FrontlineSMS. This will allow active dialogue on issues as varied as the activities of NATO forces in the country and whether Afghans should bear arms, to commenting on education and health services.

Another important application this year will be in the run up to the Presidential Election  in September. The media is key to informing the population about the rights of voters, and about the policy of different candidates. FrontlineSMS could be used to elicit the views of listeners in different categories and feed back the results to listeners, prolonging the debate and in so doing capturing the interest of people who are actively engaged in the debate".

Dr. Akbar, MSPA Director Kenneth Adam, MSPA Business Adviser Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA)

FrontlineSMS on the frontline

The October 7th, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan didn't only mark the beginning of the "War on Terror". It also paved way for the introduction of the first mobile phone networks into the country, networks which today find themselves pawns in a game of cat-and-mouse between the Taleban, the government, security forces, mobile operators and aid agencies working to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Afghanistan is rarely out of the headlines. Just this morning news broke of three women aid workers and their driver being killed near Kabul, demonstrating in the most graphic terms imaginable the huge dangers faced by so many NGOs working there. Decades of invasion, war and fighting has run the country ragged. There can be fewer more dangerous places on earth to work. As recently as July 2008, the Crime and Safety Report described the security situation as remaining "volatile and unpredictable":

"No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other western nationals at any time. There is an on-going threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens and non-governmental organization (NGO) workers throughout the country. Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of the citizens and visitors"

In such a challenging and hostile environment, non-profit organisations rightly spend considerable amounts of time and effort doing everything they can to limit their exposure to risk. With improved communication often at the heart of security strategy, many have turned to the growing influence and availability of mobile phone networks in the areas where they operate, and to tools which give them the potential to communicate quickly, widely, efficiently and effectively.

Within months of the US-led invasion in late 2001, the first Afghan mobile networks began to appear. Today, Afghanistan has four privately-owned networks and, according to a recent report by the BBC, mobile phones are the "only way most Afghans are able to communicate, especially in remote areas where they are used to summon medical help or contact relatives". The importance of mobile technology hasn't gone un-noticed by the Taleban either, who have recently been destroying towers in an attempt to stop security forces using the technology to co-ordinate night-time attacks against them. That particular game of cat-and-mouse continues.

Mobile masts aren't the only target either, for the Taleban or invading 'liberating' forces. As is often the case in conflict situations, infrastructure - and innocent civilians - are among the early casualties. Power lines are also a target, presenting further challenges not only for the wider civilian population but also for operators and mobile users alike (photo above of a destroyed power pylon courtesy of Jan Chipchase, "Future Perfect").

Facing a continued and growing security threat, in January 2007 a major international humanitarian organisation approached and within days started using FrontlineSMS as a field communication solution in their Afghan operations. Today they continue to use the Windows version in their main operations room (see image below), and the newer Mac version is used as a backup by a senior Security Officer. The software is primarily used to quickly pass time-sensitive security information to staff in the field via SMS.

According to the NGO:

Drivers receive updates on traffic congestion, road blocks, police operations, VIP movements, local minor security incidents and anything else that might be useful as they travel. Senior staff receive SMS messages regarding larger security incidents that may require them to modify program activities for the short term. Incidents that influence activities in other areas are sent to the sub-office group. Finally we have an 'All Staff' category for those situations where we need to notify or account for everyone as quickly as possible

As this use of FrontlineSMS demonstrates, the software continues to prove remarkably versatile, and its increasing use in a growing number of non-profit activities is testament to kiwanja's approach to building tools for NGOs, and not to try and build solutions to specific problems. As a forthcoming "Publius Project" guest article argues, communication is a fundamental yet often overlooked NGO need, whether they be working in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria, Aceh or the United States, or working in human rights, activism, environmental protection, health, economic empowerment or education.

Promoting the use of FrontlineSMS among the wider NGO community - particularly those working in conflict zones - whilst at the same time trying to protect identities is a fine balancing act. After the reported killings this morning, I decided to remove the name of the organisation using FrontlineSMS in Afghanistan from this post, even though I was given permission to use it.

However keen I might be to help other NGOs in similar situations get their hands on FrontlineSMS, some things simply aren't worth the risk...

An update following today's attacks outside Kabul:

"... FrontlineSMS was essential for us getting the word out quickly. E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We had two female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quietened down. All my staff made it home safe today"