In the age of Twitter, the blogosphere, iPhones and Androids, it is often difficult for people in more developed nations to imagine what it is like to have no voice. Yet for populations not served by broadband Internet and Wi-Fi connections, exclusion from national dialogue and debate continues, leaving many communities and people out of the conversation on social and political issues.
In this edition of Digital Diversity, Prairie Summer and Lucy Lyon – both from Equal Access International – explain how their organisation helps bridge this divide by using mobile phone text messaging (SMS) and radio to engage with their listening audiences.
Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.
By Prairie Summer and Lucy Lyon
Equal Access International (EA) works to include communities in matters of national dialogue with the help of FrontlineSMS’ groundbreaking technology. EA specializes in educating and empowering people in some of the world’s most remote regions through media and community mobilization. With millions of regular listeners, our media programs leverage radio dramas and chat shows, mobile theatre, television shows, listening discussion groups, leadership training and community actions to foster positive change.
Linking our innovative methodology with technology like FrontlineSMS, we have been able to convert a traditionally one-way information flow into an open dialogue, allowing listeners to express their ideas, perspectives, questions and feedback, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
EA has been using FrontlineSMS in Chad and Niger since late 2009. We produce six radio programs in these two countries and, for each show, listeners can send text messages to a dedicated telephone number, which is toll-free in Niger. The radio stations receive messages from thousands of listeners, some in response to questions posed on the radio program and others sharing their views and commentary on the programs. During an 18-month period 1,119 messages were received in Chad and 2,330 messages were received in Niger.
In Chad, Equal Access produces a youth radio show titled “Chabab Al Haye” (Youth Alive) which uses a presenter-led chat show format to discuss peaceful ways of addressing grievances, tolerance, livelihoods information and problem solving. Listeners can send in feedback through our FrontlineSMS system asking questions, such as this young listener who texted:
“I lived for a little while in the North, and I noticed that tribalism still exists there. The young people from the North and South avoid relating to one another. How do we get past this behavior?”
Questions and comments like this one can be featured on our radio programs and discussed, helping youth from all reaches of the country feel included in the conversation.
Perhaps most importantly, we use FrontlineSMS to create interaction with the radio programs and include listener feedback in the programs, to show listeners that they are being heard. In closed communities, or those struggling with violence or intolerance, the act of engaging in an interactive dialogue via a mass communications platform such as a radio can help people feel engaged and included. As one young listener in Niger texted:
“[EA’s youth show] Gwadaben should be congratulated because it is an essential environment for young people, where we can discuss and address the questions that concern us”
In Niger during the pre-election period running up to the peaceful and democratic transition from a military junta to an elected civilian administration, radio listeners around the country were able to express their views about positions and candidates through SMS messages in response to our radio programs. The messages contributed to a more open and inclusive debate because audiences were able to connect to program producers directly through a toll-free SMS message line.
We also noted a measurable increase in the number of responses we received when radio stations began reading out the text messages received from listeners on the radio programs. We have learned that audiences like responding to questions posed on the radio program and this was verified through audience research conducted by InterMedia in Chad and Niger in 2011. That research also showed us that producers should remind audiences of the phone numbers after asking questions on the radio program, allowing audiences to respond in real time. In addition to engaging the listeners in the conversation, FrontlineSMS allows EA radio producers to increase their responsiveness to listener preferences and needs.
Since life in capital cities, where our production hubs are generally based, is far removed from the rural communities of many of our listeners, the feedback on SMS also provides a window into cultures and customs of remote tribes and communities. In this sense, FrontlineSMS has proved to be a vital data collection tool and link between increasingly disconnected urban and rural communities.
EA has also integrated FrontlineSMS into our programs in Cambodia and Nepal and plans to do so in several of our other projects around the world, building on our experiences and lessons learned so far.
With our popular programming and the increasing reach of mobile phones, the volume of SMS interactions with our shows continues to rise and we look forward to the future versions of FrontlineSMS which will be able to handle this increased traffic. Although the FrontlineSMS software is not as robust as commercial applications equipped to handle thousands of messages per minute for advertisement campaigns and commercial contests, the simple interface and availability in Arabic and French makes FrontlineSMS a great choice for our projects.
In the future, we plan to continue innovating with FrontlineSMS, including using the keywords feature of the SMS system and allowing listeners to join groups by texting in specific words. For example, users could text in the name of their favorite drama character, which would place them in a contact group to receive regular updates or a special mobile drama mini-series about the character. We are also implementing FrontlineSMS to enable radio presenters to ask multiple-choice quiz or poll questions that test audience message retention and to send out ‘flashes’ – an SMS sent to an audience contact list that informs listeners about the next radio broadcast time on their preferred station.
We are keen to continue exploring the many potentials of making our radio shows more interactive using FrontlineSMS.
English versions of our radio programs in Chad and Niger can be heard here:
“Chabab Al Haye” (Youth Alive):
Gwadaben Matasa (Youth Boulevard):
You can also watch a short video on how we use FrontlineSMS in our Peace through Development (PDEV) program – “Ideas come from the community and what is produced goes back to society again” – available on the FrontlineSMS community pages.
Finally, if you’re interested in the combination of SMS and radio, check out the FrontlineSMS:Radio website
Prairie Summer is the Director of Communications and Development for Equal Access International (EA). She is responsible for grantwriting, building partnerships and sharing the impact of EA’s work. Equal Access International’s mission is to create positive social change for millions of underserved people in the developing world by providing critically needed information and education through innovative media, appropriate technology and direct community engagement. Combining the power of media with direct community engagement, EA addresses the most critical challenges affecting people in the developing world in the areas of youth life skills & livelihoods, women’s and girls’ empowerment, human rights, health, and civic participation & governance. An avid reader and traveler with extensive international development and communications experience, Prairie has lived and worked in Jordan, Lebanon, and Nepal and is now based in San Francisco, CA.
Lucy Lyon is a London-based documentary-maker who worked with Equal Access International for two years in Afghanistan, and latterly in Chad and Niger for the start-up and implementation of the Peace Through Development (PDEV) program between 2008 and 2011. She produced and co-directed “This is my Destiny” a ground-breaking film about the impact of drug use on Afghan men, women and their families which is currently being distributed for broadcast throughout Europe. She also filmed, produced and directed a short film, “The Leaders of Change” showing the impact of the PDEV program through the testimonies of local radio producers, community reporters and Islamic leaders.
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.