Technology solution for information-sharing from remote populations
“[SMS Voices] makes it cheaper and easier for the government. We are very grateful… you have eased our burden and made us very appreciated by community members, as a county government, as a department, and even myself as a minister.”
Hawa Abdulahi, Marsabit County Minister for Administration, Coordination and ICT
Remote citizens across the world can struggle to engage with governing bodies who often reside in, and prioritise, urban areas. As governance and public information move increasingly to digital spaces, that gap can widen even further. With the increase in mobile prevalence over the past 10 years, short form text tools like SMS have offered a way of sharing information to more remote populations. However, when used in accountability and development, it is rarely designed to enable a direct, personal response from duty-bearers to concerned populations. 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. SMS Voices is the successful culmination of 6 years of co-design and development with communities across Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe.
SMS Voices is a unique communications system that facilitates secure dialogue between remote citizens and their local councillors and generates a bank of qualitative information that can help shape government and humanitarian decision-making and inform national media. Across Sierra Leone, Kenya and Ghana, farmers, teachers, parents, students, community leaders and traders from under-served regions and wards were invited to become community reporters. They were trained to use community interviewing techniques to track and surface issues of local concern and share these with their local councillors anonymously, guided by a text bot, which helped to analyse and curate messages into themes and produce overview reports. Local councillors also received training to help them manage their responses and share updates on planned action.
The benefit of building a bespoke system was the ability to manage anonymous threaded conversations which protected reporters’ identities while enabling them to get real-time responses direct to their handset. The report also establishes a secure store of insight which can be analysed with ease and generate a rich picture of life in more marginal areas. The system can also show a metric of councillor responsiveness, which was highly appreciated by those working hard in government without a clear way of demonstrating that. Evaluations have shown that the system saved councillors time and money, enabled local fixes of infrastructure and injustices, and established lasting relationships between communities and government. In Sierra Leone, it offered one of the only ways for councillors to remain connected to participating wards in the quarantine periods during the Ebola crisis.
This project is delivered in partnership with Christian Aid and regional partners, and funded by UK Aid.
Read more about the project here.