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Friday, June 26, 2009

SMS in Program Outreach

Building on the last post, I wanted to share also some of the discussion at last week's Kenya workshop about incorporating mobiles into our work. People in general were pretty excited. Even those people who were skeptical seemed to see mobiles as tools that could improve work we are already doing if well incorporated and done from ‘the bottom up’ in sustainable ways, based on program information and communication needs. Some great discussions came up and participants shared some potential solutions and good practices.

Issue: Access

We are working with children. How many children have phones? How do we get information from children? We work with communities who are the “poorest of the poor” – so how do we get info from them using FLSMS – do we expect them to have phones? Or people may have phones but no credit? How do you handle such circumstances?

Use a short code if you can get one

Credit is a very important issue. If organizations or institutions want to use SMS, then there is an investment cost unless you can acquire a short code. If you have a short code you deposit money to make this free or much lower cost for people.

Don't assume that children don't have access to mobiles

We should not assume children do not have access to phones. If the information is out there, children will find someone that is willing to help them make a call or text. Many children now call us (at the Child Help Line) even without a fixed line. They have a teacher, an auntie, a big sister who will allow them to borrow the phone. I’ve seen that almost everybody in the community has a SIM card. They do not have a handset, but when they need to make a call they borrow the handset for a few minutes and somehow they do it. We can’t make the argument that children can’t use technology. There are innovative ways of using the technology so let’s put the technology out there and stop assuming that people can’t access it. The issue is how can we make the technology reach as many as possible?

Give out SIM cards with a few minutes on them to protect privacy and confidentiality

We had a similar situation with a reproductive health project that was offering out information that most girls wanted to remain confidential. What we did was gave out 10 bo SIM cards. We passed them out in little boxes. Many of the girls had phones but wanted to send in anonymous questions so they used the SIM cards to send the SMS in, and then removed the card from the phone, put it in their pockets, and replaced their original SIM. It only costs 1 shilling via Orange. We found that normally the SMS conversation lasts for around 6 shillings. They can maintain anonymity this way. It’s cheap and they can just keep these SIMs in their pockets.

Issue: If mobiles begin to replace face-to-face contact and relationships with partner communities.

Using Frontline SMS for community outreach and communications has many advantages, particularly in terms of the information that we constantly need to gather. However, we should be careful though that it doesn’t substitute field visits. If people get used to getting information quickly they are likely to avoid going out and getting in touch with communities to see what is happening. If you just sit and wait for an SMS you will lose this face-to-face contact with the community.

Mobiles can be a tool, but must be integrated with other communication means

This point reminds us that we should not totally substitute it but use it as an additional tool in the toolbox to improve, cut costs, reduce, etc.

Issue: A text does not give enough space for full and clear information in health or other cases

We talked about using Frontline SMS for radio. In our participatory youth media programs, children bring out issues in video, in radio, etc. We are not always able to respond immediately to their concerns and issues. FLSMS could be a way to respond to these issues. Are there examples of how to pass on this type of technical information? If I’m a midwife and am too far from hospital, I need very clear information. How could this be done with SMS via an auto reply and only a short amount of text?

Use SMS to bring face to face help more quickly and to track/record incidents

SMS isn't a solution for everything, but I know of an example of how that can work. There is another program called Ushahidi that is about crisis mapping. It’s a digitized map. Sometimes when a situation becomes extreme people are asked to share their locations using GPS and then you can send local people to these places on bicycles or through other means to help. This allows the professional help to arrive more quickly. Maybe SMS can’t solve it but it can bring help more quickly.

Use SMS as a supplement, not a replacement for human contact and long-term work

In the case of trying to change harmful practices and traditions, we need time and eye contact. If we are working with trying to make cultural changes, such as in the case of infanticide or something, you can’t just send a text that says “this is a bad practice”. You need to come close to people. I believe FLSMS can offer a secondary way or a supplement to a given community meeting, to strengthen a rapport with the community, but it's not a replacement for our long term work and ongoing relationships with people.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Linda for the great summary of interesting topics. The tip on how the keep anonynomity in questionnaires via using different SIMs sounds simple and practical.