Context is King: Knowledge Sharing on Communications Tools at BBC Media Action

By Amy O’Donnell, FrontlineSMS:Radio Manager

Recently my colleague Flo and I visited BBC Media Action for a Knowledge Sharing session which focused on the use of innovative mobile technology to enable effective communication for social change. BBC Media Action (previously known as the World Service Trust) "uses media and communication to provide access to information and create platforms to enable some of the poorest people in the world to take part in community life. With a focus on programming that directly engages people in debate and discussion thereby encouraging  communication across political, ethnic, religious and other divides in society." We felt lucky to be one of the last visitors to their longstanding home in the iconic Bush House, London as the BBC is relocating from there after 70 years.

Often when people first hear about FrontlineSMS, it’s not just the software which inspires them, but the valuable lessons we learn from how the tool is being used. BBC Media Action works to directly engage people in debate and discussion through programming and this workshop explored the potential of SMS to open up participation.

To broaden participation, combine accessible communications channels

We explored how a radio station in Uganda is using FrontlineSMS to gather incoming audience feedback via SMS to put their questions to MPs while on-air; how FrontlineSMS is engaging citizen journalists in Indonesia and how the software is being used to run a news service for women in Sri Lanka. Introducing another popular open-source platform, we explained how the Ushahidi mapping tool was used in conjunction with FrontlineSMS for election monitoring by the Reclaim Naija project in Nigeria last year to illustrate reports in relation to their location. Many of these programs use SMS in concert with other platforms, whether radio, TV or the Internet - an important element of building a truly accessible, system that works for its unique context.

BBC Media Action’s own Jonathan Robertshaw shared his experience of using FrontlineSMS as a practitioner. He explained BBC Media Action’s role in a project run by ActionAid and infoasaid which which set up a food distribution alert and food price information system in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2011 drought. The project successfully took a multi-platform approach to improving communication between relief committees, food monitors and the public. The set-up gave people options, including voice (using an interactive voice-based software called FreedomFone); detailed SMS-based data collection (using  FrontlineForms, FrontlineSMS’ data collection tool); and text message (using FrontlineSMS’s core platform).

No matter how high-tech a program is, sometimes a low-tech solution can be the ‘killer app’ - the most impactful option. In the Isiolo program, the final message in the chain relaying information about the service to the public was distributed via a paper poster taped where communities could read it. The poster included a phone number, so that beneficiaries had the option to seek further information or stay up to date. Jonathan explained how the poster was not part of the original communications plan; the project and its communications mechanisms evolved and adapted to the context. Overall, the learning from this project demonstrates the importance of offering different communications options to meet different communications needs.

Technology is 10% of the solution

As the discussion with different Media Action project leaders delved into program specifics, we explored how technology often only represents a small proportion of overall project design. Looking at potential Media Action projects - including participatory audio dramas and humanitarian radio - reinforced how important it is not to lose sight of behavioral and cultural factors as well as critical delivery planning: outreach, messaging, integration, translation, verification and impact monitoring. One of the group asked how to anticipate the resources required to run a communication platform. Particularly when the volume of response depends on the level of interactive behavior, the group agreed there is no “one-size-fits-all” or “magic formula.” Program staff have to consider the context and stay flexible, tweaking the system to respond to the needs of their beneficiaries and staff as they develop. Resourcing this kind of responsiveness is critical and difficult, and there are costs in money and goodwill involved in introducing people to a new system, changing messages and systems too often.  The group agreed that, rather than committing to services which it may be difficult to estimate demand for, organizations should manage expectations and try to test ahead of time. Trying out communications in small trials or pilots can help scope people’s reactions.

The strongest message we took away from the session was practitioners’ motivation to learn about the different tools available in the communications toolkit. Often the design of a communication system is not about one tool, but the right tool or right combination of tools which suit the context. FrontlineSMS needs limited support and people are implementing projects all over the world using the software and tools readily available to them without requiring our team’s direct involvement. We're proud of how much that makes it a really sustainable piece of software for organizations working in the last mile, and a critical tool for long-term capacity-building.

BBC Click hosts FrontlineSMS as we launch Version 2

BBC Click interviews our Founder, Ken Banks and CEO Laura Hudson BBC Click aired an interview with FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks and its CEO Laura Walker Hudson, on June 12th 2012. To listen in on the interview, please click here.

On Tuesday June 12th, we celebrated the release of FrontlineSMS Version 2 at launch events in Nairobi, Kenya and Washington D.C., US. The London launch event is set for Monday June 18th and is expected to attract an audience of donors, partners, users, and journalists, and will include talks from FrontlineSMS users, Ken, Laura, and one of our most significant donors, the Omidyar Network.

FrontlineSMS has come a long way since October 2005, when our founder Ken Banks launched the very first open-source SMS management software. The team at BBC Click, including Gareth Williams and Bill Thompson, have always been supportive friends of FrontlineSMS and welcomed Laura and Ken to studios in Nairobi and Cambridge to talk about the launch and what it means for the future of the platform.

Hear the interview and download the podcast on the BBC Click website. You can read more about the software on our website.

English in Action: Mobile Learning in Bangladesh

This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here.

In her role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, Amy Benziger has the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise.

For this installment of Mobile Message, she interviews Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, an initiative based in Bangladesh that incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs.

Mobile Message is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Amy Benziger

Most people know of the BBC as a source of reputable news from around the globe. Most don’t know about the action arm called the BBC World Service Trust, which uses the “creative power of media to reduce poverty and promote human rights.” I was first introduced to and amazed by the BBC World Service Trust through The 2010 Tech Awards where BBC Janala was honored as one of the winners of the Microsoft Education Awards.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).Janala is part of the English in Action campaign, which launched in November 2009. The initiative based in Bangladesh incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs. Janala’s three-minute mobile English lessons are equivalent to the cost of a cup of tea and accessible to those living on less than two dollars a day.

In my role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, I have the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise. I spoke to Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, to learn more.

How did the BBC Janala program come about?

The Bangladeshi government was concerned about falling behind their neighbors, specifically India, because of a lack of English. The BBC World Service Trust was commissioned along with two other organizations to implement the “English in Action” program with a mandate to teach 25 million people English. I flew over to Bangladesh in 2007 to start the initial research.

The Janala program specifically targets adult education outside of the classroom. The goal is mass media saturation. We link the new lessons on the television show to written quizzes in the largest Bangladeshi newspaper to audio mobile lessons three times per week. Visual, writing, auditory learning create a fantastic package so that whether you are picking up a newspaper, turning on the TV or using your phone, there is engaging content available.

Mohammad Noor-e-Alam Siddiqui – 26 years old/Ghoshnogora, Tangail:

Siddiqui‘s father used to be a primary school teacher and always aspired for his son to be well-educated. However, due to financial constraints, Mohammad wasn’t able to pursue higher education. “Since my father always encouraged me to become highly educated, I still regret that I couldn’t achieve the optimum level although I had strong desire to. As a result I still consider myself as a learner and try to educate myself utilizing every opportunity I get.” Siddiqui has been using BBC Janala 3 times a week. He added, “In addition to ‘Essential English,’ I like the lesson of ‘How to Tell a Story.’ I can actually relate the stories to my real life and later tell my own stories in similar way.”

Why make English lessons available via mobile phone?

What is quite historic about BBC Janala is that we negotiated contracts with all 6 mobile operators in the country, so the service can be utilized on any handset, at any location and at any time. It opens up access that didn’t exist before for millions of people because once they left primary or secondary school, they’ve had no educational opportunities available.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

There are English courses available from private tutors, but they are prohibitively expensive. On average each course costs 1500-6000 taka which is roughly $20-$80. Our service is 1.5 taka per lesson. The total cost of our course is 240 taka, which is under 5 dollars. It’s much more affordable and the quality is high. Having that flexibility to provide access to education at a very low cost is groundbreaking.

How do you measure success?

We have reached 4 million people in last 15 months via the mobile phone. You have to remember; we are targeting people who only very recently got access to mobile phones. Only 8-9% had received or sent SMS texts, so the quick uptake is amazing.

We are now a third of the way through the program, and we’ve started doing surveys of 8000 people in 4 out of 7 districts in Bangladesh. We are running a mobile specific panel giving participants oral tests every six weeks. We’ve been really pleased by their ability to reproduce the language and have conversations. They are scoring at 70% so there’s no doubt that the mobile service is teaching English.

Shafiqul Islam – 30 yrs old/Living in Mirpur:

“When I was in school English seemed very difficult to me and the village schools did not have teachers who were experts in English. They would just teach for the sake of teaching. Then BBC Janala came along and I saw the advertisements in TV. That’s when I started dialing 3000 and now I am a regular user. My willingness to learn English has led me to BBC Janala…English is always necessary; it doesn’t depend on past or future. We always need it. Now is the Internet time and in the future, the Internet will be used even more widely. If I want to pursue a teaching profession, I would want to use the Internet to collect all the latest information relevant to this field and to help my students. How will I do that if I don’t know English?”

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

How do you see mobile phones changing the learning landscape the developing world?

Many Bangladeshis have had a negative experience with education. Although the government is working towards the Millennium Development Goals of getting kids into the classroom, the challenge is that the quality is poor so they are dropping out as quickly as they’re going in. There is a very authoritarian approach to education so the fact that they can learn in private on a device that’s always with them when they’re waiting for a bus, walking home or for the few minutes at the end of the day is revolutionary.

Amy Benziger is the Producer focusing on content development for the SOCAP conference series. She is responsible for researching the social enterprise landscape, tracking trends and identifying thought-leaders to present at the annual event. For three years, SOCAP has brought thousands of individuals from over 40 countries to San Francisco to explore innovation in impact investing, venture philanthropy, design thinking, mobile technology, international development, public-private partnerships and food systems. Amy is a founding team member and strategic advisor to the Hub Bay Area, an incubator for social entrepreneurs dedicated to building solutions for social, economic and environmental sustainability as part of a global Hub community with 22 international locations. A lifelong traveler, she has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Thailand. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

Mobile Message is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Read all the posts in this series.