A Crowd-Seeding System in Eastern Congo: Voix des Kivus

With thanks to Ushahidi for letting us re-post the below from their blog.

Guest blog post by Peter van der Windt, PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University focusing on Africa. Peter has been directly involved in Voix des Kivus from the start in 2009 when he presented the project (see video) at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009). More on Peter's research, teaching and background available here.

Voix des Kivus

A crowd-seeding system in Eastern Congo that uses cell phones to obtain high-quality, verifiable, and real-time information about events that take place in hard-to-reach areas. This pilot project is led by Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys from the Center for the Study of Development Strategies at Columbia University.

The pilot

Atrocities in hard-to-reach areas – for example many areas in Eastern Congo – often go unnoticed because of the lack of accessibility, both due to poor infrastructure and to the simple fact that fighting makes it too dangerous to get close. The inability of international organizations and humanitarian NGOs to collect information under these conditions hampers the provision of assistance in a timely and effective manner.

There is fast growing recognition of the role that technology can play in addressing these problems. But a real challenge faced by many approaches is the difficulty of getting data that is not just real time, but representative. Columbia University (with support from USAID) began the Voix des Kivus pilot project in summer 2009 to assess the technical feasibility of a decentralized, representative, SMS-based information system in the region and to assess the utility of the program to participating communities and potential users. Presently (beginning 2011) the program is operating in a random sample of 18 villages from four territories of the war-torn province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Phoneholders and the goal

It works like this. In each village participating in Voix des Kivus there are three cell phone holders: one representing the traditional leadership, one representing women’s groups, and one elected by the community. Holders are trained extensively on how to send messages to the system. They are provided with a phone, monthly credit, and a codesheet that lists possible events that can take place in the village. Sending messages to the system is free but it is also voluntary – while users do not have to pay for each message they do not get any financial rewards for sending content to the system.

For participating communities Voix des Kivus provides a system for creating histories, archiving testimonies, and communicating with the rest of the world about events that affect their daily lives. For researchers and practitioners working in the region the information gathered forms an important resource to learn more about the situation on the ground in hard-to-access areas.

Technology and the data

The technology for Voix des Kivus is cheap to set up and simple to use. Built on the freely available FrontlineSMS software, the system allows holders to send numeric or full text posts from almost any cell phone. On the receiving side a standard cell phone linked to a laptop linked to the internet comprise the necessary equipment. With other freely available software (R and LaTeX – our code is available upon request), messages received are automatically filtered, coded for content, cleaned to remove duplicates, and merged into a database. Graphs and tables are automatically generated which can then be automatically mounted into bulletins spanning any period of interest and with different levels of sensitivity. Translations of non-coded text messages (often from Swahili into French and English) are undertaken manually.

Over the last 18 months phone holders have sent thousands of pre-coded and text messages ranging from reports of attacks and abductions to reports of crop diseases and floodings. The constant flow of data from our phone holders is kept in a database and captured in weekly bulletins. Each Monday a bulletin is produced and disseminated that presents events that took place in the preceding week. These bulletins are shared with organizations that have received clearance from Voix des Kivus and its phone holders. The latter includes several development organizations based in Bukavu, DR Congo who can use the data to evaluate the situation on the ground throughout the region.

Crowseeding vs crowdsourcing

An important question for a system like this is whether the messages received can be trusted. Here we find the true value of crowdseeding. In most crowdsourcing approaches anyone can send information directly to the system. Crowdseeding works in a more restricted way with phone holders that are pre-selected, and only they can send in information. Crowdseeding has three main advantages for data quality: 1. The data is received from a representative set of areas; 2. All senders are known to the system and are in a  long term relationship with the Voix des Kivus program; 3. Because more than one holder is selected in each village “internal validation” is also possible. The system can also be used for sending information to holders and for engaging in more interactive forms of data collection. There are also disadvantages of this approach relative to crowdsourcing, the most obvious is that because of their relation with the program there may be concerns about the security of holders.

What we learned from the pilot

We have learned a lot from the pilot. The technical and social capacity is there right now. Interest in participating areas has been very great as witnessed by the steady stream of messaging. Technical barriers were also not as great as expected; solar technology can be used to power phones in the most remote areas and cell phone coverage is much greater than some maps suggest. Data quality appears good with fairly high levels of internal validation. Two questions though are still unanswered. First although we encountered no security concerns we do not know how safe the system would be for holders if it operated on a larger scale. Second, we don’t know whether this information will get seriously used. At the scale in which we have been operating many organizations expressed great interest in the concept and the data; but we do not know of any serious reactions from international actors to the messages coming in, including real time reports of attacks and abuses. Phone holders have continued to engage with the system despite the poverty of reactions, but we cannot expect that to continue forever.


After operating for more than  a year and a half as a pilot in Eastern Congo, the Voix des Kivus experience suggests that obtaining verifiable, high-quality data in real-time from these hard-to-reach areas is not only possible, but needs much less expense and oversight than previously thought. Our pilot is now coming to an end and Columbia is bowing out from Voix des Kivus. The big question we face now is whether and how to continue the system after the pilot, whether this should be run by a domestic group or an international group, whether this should continue as an open resource or as a resource tied to the operations of organizations that can respond. Please post your thoughts here.

For more information see: and

Update: Domestic violence - An SMS SOS

This update is the twelfth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Anthony Papillion - Founder of OpenEMR HQ - shares the latest news on its use in his Oklahoma home town, where the software is helping provide relief to women suffering domestic violence Anthony Papillion"In late May of this year, I assisted a local crisis center in deploying a solution we've now dubbed "FamilyFIRST". FamilyFIRST is an SMS based system that allows victims of domestic violence to reach out to police, crisis counselors, and to document abuse incidents all via simple SMS messaging.

When the project first began, neither I nor the agency involved were sure how it would be received or if it would even be used. Educating victims to think pro-actively in crisis situation is a difficult thing. Their first reaction is to simply hide or get out of the situation if possible. This often means running without a purse or mobile phone.

So the agency decided to tackle the deployment in two phases: Technical and marketing. Technical, thanks to FrontlineSMS, was incredibly easy. By integrating the software along with a bit of custom software written by me, I was able to get a working system up and running bug free in less than a week. It includes message routing and archival, and is structured in such a way that the evidence stored inside of it has been deemed acceptable by the court.

Then, came the marketing side. Obviously, the agency didn't have a lot of money so doing a huge PR blitz was out of the question. So they went about spreading word about the system in local PSA's, victims groups, in seminars, and through area counselors working with the abused population. Because this was all very grassroots, they were able to accomplish this with a near zero budget and we were all totally shocked by the response it received.

Domestic violence (

In the last two and a half months, FamilyFiRST has processed over 4,000 messages from victims of violence, not only in our local area, but around the state of Oklahoma. Evidence stored in the system has been used to help successfully prosecute 9 offenders and has resulted in combined sentences of over 110 years being handed down in those cases.

All in all, the system is a success and it couldn't have happened without FrontlineSMS. Even though I'm a software engineer by trade, I wouldn't have had the time or knowledge to build such a robust system from scratch and FrontlineSMS reduced 'building the system' to writing a few pieces of tie-in software and setting up a database.

Our future goal for the system is to work with other agencies in deploying in in health care (our core competency), domestic violence, and education. Thanks to this experience with FrontlineSMS, I'm confident that a robust system can be built quickly, easily, and very affordably (under $700 USD).

Thank you Ken and all the developers of FrontlineSMS. You're helping to change the world, one download at a time".

Anthony Papillion Founder OpenEMR HQ

(This post is also available on the FrontlineSMS community pages. Anthony's original FrontlineSMS guest post, which describes the thinking behind the project, is available here. Congratulations to everyone at "FamilyFIRST" for such a great, inspiring and hugely valuable initiative)

Missions look to SMS in Nigeria

This is the eighth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Mike Blyth - Computer Systems Coordinator at Serving in Mission (SIM) - discusses their use of the software among missions operating in central Nigeria

Jos, Nigeria has been in the news recently because of riots in November that killed hundreds of people. This was the second such episode since 2001, and the situation remains tense. Besides this, violent crime has increased rapidly in the past four years, with frequent robberies by armed gangs of up to 20 or more men.

Part of our response as a group of missions in Jos has been to strengthen our communications network, and FrontlineSMS has become a key part of that network. The mobile phone is the basic means of communication in Jos, where there are few if any functioning land lines, and where Internet access is still expensive and spotty. During the November crisis, we noticed that voice calls on the mobile network rarely connected, probably because of congestion, while SMS messages got through well.

Jos, Nigeria - Courtesy New York Times

Our response

It was shortly after that we started experimenting with FrontlineSMS, and we have so far developed a system with a number of features.

First, anyone can text the system and receive a response with the current status message. In a crisis, this could contain warnings, instructions, announcements and so on. Besides this 'on demand' capability, we keep one list of users who receive broadcast alerts.

Anyone can join this "text alerts" group by sending the request as a text message to the system. We ask people to send the message "JOIN" followed by their name. At this point, FrontlineSMS cannot automatically include the name when the phone number is added to a group (only the number is added), but we hope that feature will be included in the future.

We maintain other user lists such as compound security leaders, crisis management teams, and so on. Anyone can broadcast a message to the crisis management team by prefixing a text message with a code that causes FrontlineSMS to forward the message to all team members.

Finally, we use FrontlineSMS to send outgoing SMS messages through the Internet when it is available. They're sent via Clickatell, which routes them to the actual SMS network. Clickatell is very fast and inexpensive. We can send about 80 messages per minute this way, far more than is currently possible if we were to send messages directly via the mobile phone network.


Real life examples

Fortunately, we have not had actual rioting since we set up the system. However, there have been times when it has been very useful to send warnings and to raise the alert level. Here are some actual examples:

  • @Alerts: Jos is tense, please avoid downtown today
  • @Security: X and Y have been robbed tonight & report the robbers took their Toyota Land cruiser and muttered something about Hillcrest on the way out
  • @Alerts 20Feb 655pm. Serious rioting reported in Bauchi. No problems in Jos. Obey curfew, avoid areas that could be troublesome
  • 22 Feb 8am. *** Rioting on Friday Bauchi, churches & mosques burned. Now controlled. Keep on alert. Report signif news this num or ur security rep
  • SecGrp: Some rumors are going around about unrest planned for Friday, .... Email or txt me if you know more. --Mike


The system has worked quite well. The most serious limitations to date have been problems with the modem and Internet, which have had a tendency to lock up, failing to receive messages, and have to be re-initialized manually. In addition, message delivery is sometimes delayed for hours, occasionally more than a day. This is a fault of the local network and has nothing to do with FrontlineSMS or Clickatell.

In summary, FrontlineSMS has served us very well as a way to communicate quickly by SMS. We would recommend it to others in similar situations.

Mike Blyth Computer Systems Coordinator Serving in Mission (SIM)

Tackling domestic violence: An SMS SOS

This is the seventh in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Anthony Papillion - Founder of OpenEMR HQ - discusses his initial thoughts on being introduced to the software, and outlines his plans for its use in his Oklahoma home town to help women suffering domestic violence

"I only recently became involved with the FrontlineSMS project as an addition to a national project my company, OpenEMR HQ, is doing with a small African country. But, since discovering the software, I've been busily thinking of good ways it could be put to use by organizations in my own community and I've come up with a few I believe are viable. Today, I want to share one of those ideas and how we're going to use FrontlineSMS as a tool to help combat violence against women in the United States, specifically, in the small community of Miami, Oklahoma.

Cause for concern

Every year, millions of American women face domestic violence at the hands of those that are supposed to love and protect them. These women often feel powerless and suffer continued abuse without ever reaching out because they either don't know the resources are out there or because they're scared nothing will be done to their abusers if they do come forward thereby encouraging even more abuse. Community crisis centers serve as a front line of defense in these situations often shuttling abused women out of dangerous situations and into safe houses, interfacing with police to make sure victims get the services and protection they need, and providing the much needed emotional support those who've escaped violent situations are so desperately in need of.

Domestic violence (

Unfortunately, none of those things can be offered until the victim reaches out and getting abused women to take the first step can be a large part of the battle. Many women don't think or have a safe way to catalog the abuse, don't know how to report it, and don't want calls to crisis numbers showing up on the mobile phone bill. The end result is the complete isolation of these women from any help at all.

Seeking solutions

As I've been playing around with FrontlineSMS, I've been thinking about ways it could be used to address these situations and I'm slowly starting to piece together a system called CPR that I hope to soon have deployed locally as a test bed for a larger, maybe statewide system.

The basic idea is to give women a quick, easy, and safe way to report and catalog abuse, and reach out for either police or crisis worker help, all without ever making a traceable phone call. Piecing together a system that consists of a laptop running FrontlineSMS, a mobile phone, and a few PHP scripts sitting on an Internet connection, I'm creating a system where women can send messages to various help authorities or just record instances of abuse for later use in court. For example:

C <A message that she wants to send to a crisis counselor> P <A message she wants to send to a police officer> R <A message she wants to be recorded for later use in court detailing an abusive incident>

FrontlineSMS keywordsUsing the CPR system, women in dangerous situations can quietly and safely reach out for help when a phone call simply isn't possible. Using FrontlineSMS will allow both police and crisis agencies to have two way communication with the victim thereby ensuring the communication loop is never broken.

Building the vision

Since I'm still developing the system, I've not deployed an installation of it yet but I've been getting great feedback from various agencies I've spoken to. Eventually, I'd like to implement a way for victims to send pictures, video, and audio, and have it automatically attached to their case file within the CPR system for later use in court. That will come later and probably with some community help.

None of this would be possible without FrontlineSMS. While I am a professional software developer, I probably would never have developed a system like FrontlineSMS and the fact that it's available as open source makes it incredibly accessible.

I'll be sure to keep everyone up to date on how this project is coming along as it progresses. I'll also be sure to blog about how we're using FrontlineSMS in our Vision Africa project being launched very soon. Until then, feel free to send your feedback or make comments to this post. Thank you".

Anthony Papillion Founder OpenEMR HQ

(This post originally appeared on Anthony's "CajonTechie's Mindstream" blog, and is republished with permission)