Get the Word Out: Using SMS to Support Harm Reduction for Vulnerable Women

Guest post from FrontlineSMS user Gordon Gow, University of Alberta Here at the University of Alberta we are using FrontlineSMS to support graduate student research in communication and technology. Among its range of activities, the Mobile Applications for Research Support (MARS) Lab provides access to FrontlineSMS and mobile phones to allow students and community groups to set up and run pilot projects using text messaging.


Among our projects, the MARS Lab is providing support for “Get the Word Out” program operated in partnership with Edmonton’s Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE). CEASE works through partnerships to create and pursue strategies to address sexual exploitation and the harms created by prostitution. Their work includes public education, client support, bursaries, counselling, trauma recovery and emergency poverty relief for individuals working to heal and rebuild their lives after experiencing exploitation.

“Get the Word Out” is a harm reduction service that uses FrontlineSMS to enable women involved in prostitution to anonymously report incidents or concerns about violence or crime that is affecting them or may affect others. The program also offers an network for these women to share thoughts or provide peer-based social support using anonymous text messages. FrontlineSMS is set up to auto-forward incoming text messages to a distribution group that includes frontline support agencies and clients who have chosen to subscribe to the service. The auto-forwarding process removes the callerID from the text and preserves only the contents, ensuring anonymity of the issuer. Text messages are also forwarded to a set of email addresses provided by the frontline agencies, as well as a protected Twitter account.

The MARS Lab is also involved in other projects using FrontlineSMS.  For example, it is working in collaboration with Simon Fraser University to pioneering the use of FrontlineSMS in combination with Ushahidi to explore the use of social media in campus health and safety.  This project is using FrontlineSMS to receive text messages from students and staff at both the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University to report health and safety concerns on campus. The goal of the project is to better understand how text messaging can provide a low cost, low barrier means of reporting to encourage the campus community to help mitigate risks to health and safety on a university campus.

Furthermore, in early 2012 the MARS Lab will be launching a pilot project in partnership with LIRNEasia and the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture to explore the use of text messaging to support Agricultural Extension Services in the Dambulla and Matale districts. This pilot will involve deployments of FrontlineSMS at three agricultural information centres and is also expected to include a deployment of FrontlineSMS:Radio with a local radio station to support audience interaction for one of the live agriculture talk shows.

It's great to see the diverse range of projects which the University of Alberta is supporting in their use of FrontlineSMS! This post was originally shared on the FrontlineSMS Community Forum. You can see the full original post and connect with Gordon on our forum here.

Interoperable Technologies in International Development: Access to FrontlineSMS

By Ashley Mannes FrontlineSMS was recently included in an academic paper, written by Ashley Mannes, of Georgetown University, USA, and titled ‘Interoperable Technologies in International Development: Access to FrontlineSMS.’  In the below guest post, Ashley introduces the main themes of her paper and what compelled her to write about FrontlineSMS:

"When I first got the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world, I began to understand and appreciate the beauty and unique qualities of the cultures that unite our global community. My interest in development flourished during my master’s degree program in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University. The program helped me to realize that a great opportunity is provided by today’s technologies; to communicate with and connect to cultures and climates that once seemed so distant. In this manner, I discovered the work of organizations like FrontlineSMS that are using technology to help people to connect and communicate across the world.

I actually came across FrontlineSMS by chance, as I was preparing to write a paper on Networks and International Development. I knew I wanted to explore how open lines of communication and access to technology were helping NGOs connect with local communities in order to give them a more global voice, and it was when I began searching for organizations with this type of a mission that I discovered FrontlineSMS.  Through my research I saw how technology was positively impacting local NGOs and communities around the world due to FrontlineSMS’ work.  Therefore, it seemed ideal to focus on FrontlineSMS as the case study for my paper.

I chose the title Interoperable Technologies in International Development: Access to FrontlineSMS to tie together ideas of access to technology and economic development. My paper explores the “bottom billion”, an idea proposed by Paul Collier that addresses the specific needs of the populations of least developed nations that have been left out of the discussion, and the struggle to prosper in today’s economic climate. I suggest that in order for these countries to rise from the “bottom”, they must build upon their own bonding capital and reciprocity in order to use the communication networks that are available to them.

In this sense, struggling nations must focus on the local connections that they have in order to expand their voices to a more global platform. I stress that new technologies, such as mobile phones, are fostering much more crosscutting communication; these new technologies have the ability and potential to aid development goals and economic activities. However, in order to take advantage of these new technologies, these networks must be interoperable and open.

FrontlineSMS is utilizing both the technology of mobile phones and the networks of communities to spread information, communicate, and affect lasting change. I focused on two case studies in particular to demonstrate how FrontlineSMS can be flexible and accessible technology, used by NGOs to accomplish both their local and global missions. In Pakistan, for example, the global NGO, the International Organisation for Migration is using FrontlineSMS software to send mass text messages of health and sanitation information to countless displaced refugees who need this information to remain safe and healthy during natural disasters. The ability of these NGOs to access this technology and reach out to local Pakistani citizens through text messages is a huge step for development, and one that allows for an open line of communication with those who may need it most.

The second case study I looked at focused on the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Hubli-Dharwad district of India. Here FrontlineSMS was utilized to connect a network of development groups to the local sex-workers infected by, or at-risk of contracting, HIV/AIDS. The FrontlineSMS data collection tool FrontlineForms allowed field workers to quickly collect important information on their mobile phones and export it to their headquarters to be gathered and documented for further development purposes. Interoperable technologies have helped development practitioners collect more information faster and more easily.

It has become clear that openness and flexibility are necessary components of technologies that can help to successfully promote development. Access to technologies that harness the network capability of a common mobile phone can provide the needed link and physical line of communication to isolated communities.  Interoperable technologies can be used to network a group of development practitioners or to distribute mass amounts of information and assistance to a local community. They can be used to collect information in the field or to simply communicate between individuals.

Regardless of the manner in which the technology is utilized, the accessibility of this technology can help to open up a path of communication between the local and global, ultimately building social capital at the local level and cultivating a more global sense of capital and reciprocity through working together and expanding these development networks. I enjoyed exploring how FrontlineSMS is helping communities and NGOs to interact, and hope that I have done justice to this in my paper."

Read Ashley’s paper here - Interoperable Technologies in International Development.