The SMS4D Technology Salon focused on the power of Short Message Service (SMS) text technology to create scaled impact, starting at the local and regional level. We went through an inspiring round of implementations and use cases of on-the-ground efforts using FrontlineSMS in cross-sector development situations.Throughout the examples, we were constantly reminded that mobile phone-based development solutions – while they may be globally replicable – usually start locally.
Microfinance solutions, tying the payments to the notifications via mpayment were the purview of CreditSMS, lowering the costs of each loan by dramatically reducing transactional costs, allowing MFI account managers to deal with the exceptions (late/missed payments) instead of wasting time and making mistakes in tracking payments to records and managing each interaction.
mHealth, a favorite topic of Tech Salons can use SMS to replace timely and costly travel to report medicine stock levels and local disease trends, but also mobile-centric medical records management and remote, low-cost diagnostics tools, all using SMS:Medic.
The data coming out of a tool like this also can bubble up into knowledge products — a dashboard of geo-tagged symptoms linked to key infectious diseases would be invaluable at spotting outbreaks and managing stock levels, targeted outreach/intervention, or other responses.
Democracy and governance, another example of a sector with clear needs for interactivity and data-gathering, can benefit from SMS:Gov, enabling 311 style systems via SMS to go through a decision tree of interactive text messages to report problems or get information. Anything from reporting a pothole to figuring out what pest is destroying farmer crops. Local government could also data-mine the text message stream to track local trends and spot emerging problems – handily also increasing their likelihood at getting re-elected.
Even mobile-enhanced education was discussed as SMS:Learn, and presented in a very realistic framing at the Salon as an assistance technology to existing educational programs. Trainers and educators could use decision tree text messages as an interactive learning tool or testing method to individualize learning.
SMS provides robust measurement and evaluation data – each response is tied to a unique phone number and can be tracked over time. Local governments, donors, and implementing partners could use dashboards from all four of these solutions to monitor usage and effectiveness of various services and expose systemic problems.
Yet, SMS does have its drawbacks. Its visual and written, and not every user will find it an optimal interface, so SMS can be parried with other technologies, like interactive voice response or FM radio, for maximum impact.
Also as with politics, all change is local. The reverberating message from the SMS4D Salon was to have your technology where the decision-makers are. If you want local, on-the-ground reaction to a text message, then the actor and the technology need to be local and on-the-ground too.
Cloud-based, Internet-only apps have their place, but the beauty of locally-managed text messaging is that it operates off-grid. Truly mobile phone-leveraging solutions are those that can follow mobile devices to the place of use – regardless of electricity and Internet connectivity constraints.