SMS Voices

Delivered for Christian Aid

Remote citizens across the world can struggle to engage with governing bodies who often reside in (and prioritise) urban areas. As mobile prevalence increases, SMS is becoming a practical tool for improving information sharing and active citizenship within more remote populations. Using heavily in elections and health development, SMS can provide a rich flow of citizen information, but rarely offers a direct, personal response from the duty-bearer. Christian Aid came to us in 2013 to develop a tool that would bring communities closer to their councillors and enable a genuine connection that would last.

We built a unique communications system that connect remote citizens to their local councillors using SMS. Across Sierra Leone and Kenya, we invited farmers, teachers, full time mothers, students and traders to participate and become community reporters. Each was training to used text messaging to highlight issues of local concern to their local councillors, by sending them anonymous microreports via SMS. Each report includes factual material crowdsourced from their communities, covering any of the five thematic areas: youth, governance, access to services, gender, and justice and security. These messages are received by participating local councillors, who also received training. The councillors are asked to respond via SMS and explain to reporters their planned response to the problems raised. Rather than going from handset to handset, the SMS reports were transmitted via our custom-built online platform, which stores the reports online, so they can be tracked by theme, location and councillor responsiveness.

 
 

What we love

We love that the emphasis of the whole project was on dialogue, effectively creating a productive conversation, feedback loop between local government and citizens. While it was satisfying to see the contribution the system made to local fixes - improved roads, flagged corruption and increased services - the most valuable outcomes were the relationships that developed between the councillors and communities that were deemed unreachable. The project was credited in strengthened the efficiency and transparency of civil governance in two districts in Sierra Leone, and one county in northern Kenya.

What we learnt

We learnt a great deal about building a technology system that was adaptable to different communities and context. First piloted in northern Sierra Leone in 2013, it has taken us three years to complete (and we are still fiddling!). The difference between the system and other mobile communication projects is the ability for reporters to receive direct messages back from the handset of their local councillor and continue that tracked conversation until they are satisfied and close the report. This was critical because of feedback that communities didn't want an extractive or prescriptive communication system, they wanted one centred around collaboration and problem-solving. Dialogue has become a key component of all our work since.

See a full review of the project here