Sending a Message of Accountability: SMS Helps Improve Services After Pakistan Floods

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.

To read PEPL's Guide to SMS Engagement in Pakistan, "A Practical Guide for Civil Society, the Humanitarian Sector, and Government," please click here.

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