Advances in text messaging have extended to social causes, including those fighting disease and providing assistance to third-world communities.
International development charity Christian Aid launched “SMS Voices” in January of last year, working in partnership with ENCISS, a Sierra Leone-based governance program funded by U.K. Aid and the European Union. The program is designed to help elected officials and citizens maintain an open dialogue, and was created by Radar, a U.K. communications nongovernmental organization.
SMS Voices trained 45 volunteers from Sierra Leone’s Bo and Koinadugu districts, including farmers, traders, students, and teachers, to become “citizen reporters.” Throughout 2014 they used text messaging to report issues of concern to their local councilors via anonymous micro-reports. Issues raised included the lack of teaching materials in schools, conflict among local groups, unsafe roads and bridges, clean water access, female genital mutilation, teen pregnancy, inefficient waste management, and violence against women and children.
Messages were received by nine participating elected officials, who were instructed to respond to micro-reports through text messaging and explain to reporters their plans to rectify these issues in their respective communities. Some said they would investigate, while others claimed they would bring the issues up at council meetings or alert the relevant police officer or mayor. Whatever the decision and outcome of the reports, an effective dialogue was indeed created between officials and citizens.
Over 300 reports were sent during the 12-month period, and towards the end of the year some two-thirds concerned the Ebola crisis. Volunteers discussed how households were affected by quarantine regulations, reported regulation breaches, and shared concerns about infection.
“During the rebel war there were no mobile phones; now with Ebola, communication is possible,” remarked Martin M B Goba, deputy chairman of the Bo District Council. “During my time in quarantine, I was able to communicate with my ward development committee with an immediate response.” Goba lost several family members to the disease.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s helping me to improve on my job and to know the problems in my community, so that I can find solutions to them,” he added. “It has improved my interaction with civil society and shown me how to act immediately and promptly to community concerns.”
The project has demonstrated the possibility of running low-cost, innovative programs in low-resource environments, such as within Sierra Leone, where less than 10 percent of the population have access to electricity, and a mere 2 percent use the Internet.
“I have seen change,” remarks volunteer Evelyn Turay. “I have now seen council officials in the community raising awareness on issues around teenage pregnancy and early sexual activities [of young people] which I have been reporting on.”
As the program progresses, it’s increasingly obvious that text messaging provides a powerful tool for helping third-world communities stay engaged and empowered.