emergency relief

Information provides real benefits for drought-hit communities and ActionAid alike

Late last week, ActionAid won a Technology4Good Innovation Award for their work using FrontlineSMS to communicate with staff and communities in Isiolo, Kenya, during the response to the recent drought in the Horn of Africa. Together with our partners, Infoasaid, who supported the deployment, we are very proud to be associated with their ground-breaking and crucial work. Bravo ActionAid!

Below is an extract from a blog post describing the programme and the impact FrontlineSMS has had - you can read the full post here.

When disasters strike, people need information as much as they need shelter, water and safety. By providing, the right information, at the right time, from the right source, lives and livelihoods can be saved.

At the same time, if people have access to useful information during disasters they can make their own choices and decisions, and become more active participants in the process of their own recovery and claiming their rights. They can feed back, complain, voice their opinions and, in doing so, hold agencies like ActionAid - and other bodies like local and national government - to account.

Since May 2011, ActionAid has been partnering with a consortium called infoasaid to mainstream communications with disaster-affected communities in our emergency preparedness and response.

As part of the partnership, ActionAid is implementing a pilot project in Isiolo, Kenya, where ActionAid (in collaboration with the World Food Programme) provides vital food rations to over 80,000 people every month.  Distribution of the supplies is handled by community members themselves through self-organised “Relief Committees”, and overseen by Food Monitors employed by ActionAid.

Broadly, the project aims to help combat food insecurity amongst communities affected by last year’s drought.  It uses innovative technology – FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone – to transmit information simultaneously to multiple recipients from a laptop computer, and to provide a channel for communities to feed back to ActionAid staff.

The project provided basic mobile phone and solar chargers to 250 Relief Committee members, and 30 Jave-enabled mobile phones to ActionAid Food Monitors, regional office staff and others including warehouse owners and food truck drivers.

A recent review of the project found that it had brought benefits for both drought-affected communities and ActionAid, by;

Boosting household income

Edward, Relief Committee Secretary: “A man asked ‘how is the livestock price in Isiolo?’  I told him it is lower, he immediately called people in Nanyuki so that they could go to buy [in Isiolo] and sell in other towns. He bought so he could sell at higher price.”

Improving relations between communities and ActionAid

Fatumah, ActionAid Food Monitor:We used to argue. The community wanted to know why I had not told them about the distribution dates.  Now they have time to prepare.  Within 30 minutes we are done.  Before we had to ask neighbouring villages to help with off-loading - that could take 2-3 hours.”

Increasing the speed and efficiency of food distribution

Community member in Oldonyiro: "There is a big change now. Long before, food used to stay overnight because there was no communication. Now we get information immediately even when the trucks are still in Isiolo. We are aware that food is arriving tomorrow, and we go ready for distribution."

Food Monitors also report that the use of Frontline SMS has reduced the need for frequent travel to rural communities for face-to-face meetings – in one case from 24 per month to just 12 – saving time and money.

Enabling community members to better plan their time

Halima, community member: “In the past we saw the [food] trucks arriving and we might have gone to attend to other works. Now, we get [information] one or two days before, we can put off our jobs and come to collect food.”

Providing information on when food distributions will arrive means children no longer have to leave school to tell parents the trucks are on the way, as was the case previously.

Enabling communities to link with the outside world

Salesa, community member: “When one [child] was bitten by the snake we used the phone to call the vehicle to help take them to hospital.”

Improving the speed and efficiency of data collection

Thomas, Food Monitor:The Frontline SMS forms are very easy to fill. They do not consume even 10 minutes.  The information goes to the hub and…it is secure. Before, I gave the information on paper which can disappear.”

Texting for life in Pakistan: the International Organisation of Migration

The International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental organisation working to support people to return to their homes after being displaced by disaster of conflict, have been using FrontlineSMS in Pakistan for some months. Below, the twenty-eighth FrontlineSMS guest post is an operational update from Maria Ahmed and Isabel Leigh, in the Mass Communication Team.

October 15th is Global Handwashing Day, and in Pakistan, the IOM have been sending messages about hygiene and sanitation as part of their response to the devastating floods that hit Pakistan in recent months, affecting approximately 20 million people according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).

IOM are leading the  communication response on behalf of the UN 'Cluster System' of humanitarian responders, and have developed over 50 Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in Pashto, Sindhi and Punjabi on topics including  prevention of diarrohea and malaria, water purification methods, mother and child health during the fasting month of Ramadan, child protection issues, treating snake bites, setting up durable shelters and fire safety in camps.

IOM first started using FrontlineSMS in the North in 2009, to mirror humanitarian messages sent out using radio broadcasts with informational texts. People in Northern Pakistan, nearly 3 million of whom were displaced by conflict in 2009, use cell phones extensively amongst family members, often texting in Urdu ( the national language) using the English script. Using FrontlineSMS has saved IOM over $15,000 compared to the  costs they would have paid to develop an organised, mass texting system using a commercial supplier. Supported by Zong, the Pakistani subsidiary of China Mobile, IOM is sending free, bulk, informational messages to affectees and humanitarian workers across Pakistan to enhance informational outreach.

In the South, people are used to using mobiles for voice calls, but send far fewer text messages. So IOM are partnering with Zong, who have donated a million free phone calls through 100 cell phones to IOM to enable a free phone service for flood victims to get vital information, seek help and access relief services offered by the Government and aid agencies. IOM hope to continue to expand the service to reach more handsets in Sindh, Punjab and KP, and from January onwards, in Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

What could an SMS do in humanitarian aid? Monitor a programme, send in a complaint... and administer a cash transfer?

Lawrence Haddad's recent column in the Guardian (23rd June) got me thinking about ways to use mobile to enable communities to hold agencies, whether governmental or not, to account for the aid they provide. This is a critical element of good development and aid work. As Haddad says;

Helping communities report on whether the aid reached them is a good contribution to fixing the broken feedback loop in international development and to reducing waste and corruption. But asking these communities if the aid was working – and how they define "success" – would be even better.

Maasai tribesmen texting

I can easily imagine using FrontlineSMS to administer a complaints and response mechanism using SMS; the agency could publicise a number, and complaints could come in from community members by text, even from a village phone provided as a livelihoods element of the programme. The agency could auto-reply to the message with thanks; and where appropriate, respond or request more information by text as well. The list of numbers they collect would enable them to send out text updates on their progress, and perhaps announce meetings and focus group discussions.

Enter PatientView - and complex data management using SMS

But an exciting development from our colleagues over at FrontlineSMS:Medic might allow agencies to take SMS even further in their programmes. PatientView, which is now out in beta, represents a huge step forward for complex data management using SMS. The plugin, which runs on a souped-up version of the core FrontlineSMS platform, can turn a computer and a set of Java-enabled phones into a patient records management system - one which doesn't need an internet connection.

So what could this mean for humanitarian and development programmes? Well, below I'll set out some ideas for using a PatientView-like implementation of FrontlineSMS for a cash transfer programme - a key tool in the humanitarian toolbox. A good set of guidelines for this type of intervention is available from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - below I'll imagine how you might use SMS as the medium through which the large amounts of data involved in a cash programme might be passed back and forth.

Registration, markets and monitoring

Imagine you're setting up a cash transfer programme. Instead of paperwork, which as any veteran of such a project will tell you is an unavoidable part of the process, you would create a new record for each new recipient of cash. Their record would capture all the usual information about them - basic data such as name, number of dependants, gender, and date of birth; up to more detailed information about any special needs, their official identity information, even a photo. (Coming soon: MMS!) Attached to their record could be a separate category (based on the staff records in PatientView) for the programme information, or alternatively, for the staff member administering the cash transfers in that village - perhaps both. Whatever works for your programme structure.

Immediately post-emergency, when blanket distributions are taking place, you might start with relatively little information about the people you're supporting - perhaps just data about the cash given to them. As the programme progresses, you might build up additional information them as more detailed assessment and targeting teams swing into action. When you need to manipulate the data, you can sort beneficiaries by any of their characteristics.

Even more exciting, as the project timeline rolls on and you need to maintain up-to-date market monitoring, you could imagine enabling community members to update a live database, much as the FAO did in Banda Aceh. They could also query the database themselves, to find out where to sell or buy goods at the best prices.

Don't panic, it's easier than it sounds to set up

Malawi 2008 FrontlineSMS:Medic training

If this all sounds a bit technical, don't worry - users have been setting up and running with FrontlineSMS in the field for many years, and we have a team of developers and experienced users standing by to provide support. In the field, FrontlineSMS:Medic, piloting in Malawi, found that community health workers needed six days' training over six weeks to be trained to text data in to the hospital - from a starting position in which many weren't familiar with using mobile phones at all.  Data can be exported from FrontlineSMS as a .csv file, which can be imported into Excel and many other programmes and databases. And in terms of kit, all you need are a computer, a GSM modem, and Java-enabled handsets for your field staff.

FrontlineSMS:Medic have demonstrated immense cost and time savings in their programming, and there's the added benefit that data entry only has to be done once - no transcribing from paper to digital. The system is forgiving of typos, offering natural language suggestions for staff at base to map incoming SMS to records where no direct correlation is found. And ultimately, you can imagine a future in which FrontlineSMS:Credit, which plans to make all the major banking functions available through SMS, could enable you to carry out the actual cash transfers by text as well.

We'd love to hear whether you think these ideas are worth pursuing - join the conversation below, on Twitter, or on our Facebook page.

TSF, FrontlineSMS and humanitarian assistance in Niger

In this - the third in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts - Grégory Rebattu, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF)’s Niger Representative, and Oisín Walton, Head of TSF Communications and International Relations, talk us through their thoughts on the software, and its potential for emergency relief in Niger. "I work for Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), the leading NGO specialising in the deployment of telecommunications in emergencies, and head-up TSF’s base here in Niger. In emergencies, telecommunication networks are often seriously damaged or destroyed. Some humanitarian crises also strike in areas with no existing communication facilities. Today, TSF plays a key role in strengthening coordination and communication by deploying telecommunications centres within 48 hours of an emergency.  These centres offer broadband Internet access, voice communications, fax lines and all the IT equipment needed for a field office.

Telecoms Sans Frontieres

Our base in Niger is more involved in longer term projects particularly in strengthening food crisis prevention systems. Niger is ranked 174th out of 177 nations on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development list - making it one of the least developed countries on Earth. The living conditions in the Sahel desert are extremely harsh and recurrent drought leads to almost permanent food insecurity. Less than 12% of the territory is cultivable - so the widely reported current food crisis hits Niger particularly hard.

Telecommunication networks are also very much in their infancy, although GSM coverage is now on the rise and bringing infinite new opportunities for the humanitarian and development sectors. In particular, we believe that text messaging – used in conjunction with cutting-edge tools such as FrontlineSMS - are particularly powerful, enabling the collection and dissemination of data quickly and easily with very low running costs. Over the past few weeks we have been working closely with the FrontlineSMS team, putting the software through its paces and assessing its suitability in our work. We have been particularly excited by the new “FrontlineSMS Forms” data collection functionality which we helped test and which is being released next week.

Crucially from our perspective, FrontlineSMS is extremely user-friendly, allowing partner organisations on the ground to rapidly deploy a data collection and dissemination system from scratch. This simplicity is crucial for organizations which may lack technical skills, and users can be up and running in a matter of minutes with the minimum of mouse clicks. The intuitive nature of the software also means that little technical support is required once they’re up and running.

I have already presented the application to a group of NGOs and UN agencies who are very excited. These organizations - who work in a wide range of sectors including health, nutrition and agriculture - immediately saw the immense potential of FrontlineSMS and how it might enhance their capacity to save lives and develop local economy, not to mention their capacity to improve the security of their own staff.

On that note, our first FrontlineSMS initiative is about to launch, and will provide an SMS security alert forwarding service to Niger’s NGO community. This will allow aid workers to instantly warn the community about security issues in real time.

Gregory, TSF Niger

Concretely, we see other immediate applications for FrontlineSMS in Niger. These include the use of the new Forms feature for data collection for the National Health System which collects and monitors the number of cases per pathology in health structures. FrontlineSMS could also be used to collect market prices, and even to disseminate those prices to small farmers.

We are also planning to test its interoperability with satellite phones which will allow us and our partner organizations to extend its usage into areas not covered by mobile networks. We also plan to use it in our responses to sudden-onset emergencies where mobile networks are often disrupted.

Summing up, FrontlineSMS is a fabulous tool and one which presents huge opportunities to non-technical NGO users. Saying that, don’t be fooled by its simplicity – as well as standard incoming and outgoing group messaging, it has plenty of advanced and extremely powerful functionality. From our testing and evaluation, and our discussions with partner organizations, it looks like FrontlineSMS has infinite applications in the humanitarian world, and this is great news for those we are trying to help.

As we often say here, it’s now no longer a question of technology, it’s a question of imagination!"

Grégory Rebattu, Niger Representative Oisín Walton, Head of Communications & International Relations Télécoms Sans Frontières www.tsfi.org