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SMS to the Rescue: Text messaging bridges the Digital Divide

| Monday August 25th, 2008 | 1 Comment

sms-phone.jpgAccording to Walter Stahel — one of the founders of the sustainability movement and original thinkers behind the Cradle-to-Cradle design philosophy – social ecology is one of the five pillars of sustainability. He defined social ecology as encompassing “…the fabric of societal structures, including peace and human rights, dignity and democracy, employment and social integration, security and safety…” Simply stated, addressing issues of social sustainability is equally important as the economy and the environment for ensuring the survival of our species.

Many of the initiatives addressing the issues of social ecology rely on bringing modern technologies — like cell phones, computers, and Internet access — to populations in need. These initiatives are helping to “bridge the digital divide” and are often referred to as ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development). ICTs are used either directly by the disadvantaged population in some manner, or can be used to assist aid organizations and NGOs to improve socio-economic conditions. We can’t remember what our lives were like before the use computers and mobile phones; we often take these tools for granted, but for many people in developing regions these communication tools can have a profound impact on improving their lives and communities.


Foundations and many of the large western technology companies are contributing resources for ICT4D. One program I’m familiar with is Alcatel-Lucent’s Digital Bridge Initiative which contributes infrastructure and expertise to bring Internet access to under-served, usually rural areas, in emerging markets. These programs have produced a number of success stories, helping connect rural communities to the rest of the world to enhance economic development, education, and health care. But for every one of these successful projects, there are literally thousands more that go unattended. These are the small, grassroots aid organizations and NGOs whose needs fall below the radar of mainstream Digital Divide programs. They may have limited use and knowledge of computers; or they may have a computer but no connection to the Internet; and for many the primary communication tools available are basic mobile phones.

sms-hold.gifThe good news: recognizing the widespread use of mobile phones even in the most remote areas, several non-profits are helping to grow this “Social Mobile” space, providing simple tools and basic training to grassroots NGOs. One of the more prominent non-profits in this space is kiwanja.net, founded by Ken Banks who offers an explanation for his focus on mobile phones, “Clearly, mobile phones are relatively cheap (when compared to personal or laptop computers, anyway). They are small and portable, have good battery life, provide instant voice communications, have SMS functionality at the very least… What’s more, hundreds of millions of some of the poorest members of society either own one or have access to one. No other two-way communications technology comes close.”
Ken Banks and kiwanja.net have developed the FrontlineSMS text-messaging hub that allows two-way communication between NGOs and their field workers using the SMS functionality of mobile phones. SMS stands for “short message service” and is also referred to as text messaging. Ken Banks explains, “with the growing popularity of mobile phones, especially in developing countries, SMS has become a familiar and widely used form of communication. It offers advantages over traditional voice services including reduced cost and the ability to send messages to large numbers of people in a short amount of time.”
FrontlineSMS is a PC-based application but does not require an Internet connection. Instead, any GSM mobile phone can be connected to the computer like a modem to provide connectivity to the mobile phone network. kiwanja.net provides the FrontlineSMS application at no cost to qualifying NGOs, and it now runs on Windows, Mac, or Linux based laptops. The concept is simple: an administrator at the NGO can compose text messages in FrontlineSMS and send them to the mobile phones of individuals or groups. These individuals can reply using their mobile phones. The replies appear in the FrontlineSMS program on the administrator’s PC. The application keeps a log of all transactions and allows for automated replies, but the real power of the application is one-to-many concept: the administrator can compose a message once in FrontlineSMS and send it simultaneously to hundreds of volunteers. The program has been used by NGOs in over forty countries for a wide range of activities including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights and conservation workers, election monitoring, and coordinating healthcare workers.
sms-sign.gifA recent entry on kiwanja.net blog provides a good example of how the application is being used to assist health clinics in rural Malawi. FrontlineSMS connects the clinic with its network of 600 volunteer Community Health Workers, all of whom carry mobile phones. Community workers are able to text message the clinic administrator, reporting how local patients are doing on their drug regimens. In return, the administrator texts the field volunteers with names of patients that need to be traced, and volunteers can report back on their condition. Before the implementation of Frontline SMS, the clinic had no centralized communication hub to coordinate its widespread community health network.
FrontlineSMS has also found its way to the frontlines in the Afghan war – currently deployed by an international humanitarian NGO to facilitate communication with its field workers. According to the NGO: “Drivers receive updates on traffic congestion, road blocks, police operations, VIP movements, local minor security incidents and anything else that might be useful as they travel. Senior staff receives SMS messages regarding larger security incidents that may require them to modify program activities for the short term. Finally we have an ‘All Staff’ category for those situations where we need to notify or account for everyone as quickly as possible.”
These are just a few examples of the how the FrontlineSMS text-messaging hub can be used by NGO’s for any purpose they can imagine. The good work of Ken Banks and kiwanja.net is being recognized by prominent foundations like the MacArthur Foundation, who in 2007 provided a grant through the Digital Vision program at Stanford University to allow kiwanja.net to develop the newest version of FrontlineSMS. Just released in July 2008, kiwanja.net has already received 400 download requests for this latest version.
The concept of “appropriate technology” underlies the success of FrontlineSMS. (Ernst Schumacher was the first to articulate the concept of appropriate technology in his book “Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.”) The design is needs driven, rather than technology driven, developed with particular consideration for the cultural, social, and economic aspects of the grassroots NGO community it is intended to serve.
sms-tower.jpgThe application is designed to address simple, low cost implementations, what Ken Banks calls the “long tail” of social mobile. These applications are the easiest to build and deploy, the simplest to use, most versatile, and the most impactful because they provide solutions to the greatest number of grassroots NGO’s. Unfortunately, most of the development money for social mobile applications is going to the high cost, highly customized, large-scale applications. These may be used in high profile projects with lots of PR value to address very specific needs, but they aren’t applicable or appropriate for the thousands of smaller, grassroots NGOs all of whom have unique needs according to their focus.
The SMS protocol has a limitation of 160 characters, but FrontlineSMS is proving that much can be communicated in just a few words. So the next time you text your friend “hw r u?” to ask how they are doing, think about the power of this simple tool to impact social sustainability around the world.
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Jim Witkin is a marketing consultant and blogger focusing on ICT4D and sustainable design. He volunteers for kiwanja.net and is also pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management. You can reach him at jameswitkin at yahoo dot com


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    The application is designed to address simple, low cost implementations, what Ken Banks calls the “long tail” of social mobile. These applications are the easiest to build and deploy, the simplest to use, most versatile, and the most impactful because they provide solutions to the greatest number of grassroots NGO’s.