UNHCR mobile phone usage in refugee situations – pilot project

SMS as a tool for humanitarian aid is becoming an increasingly common tool, and you can find several examples of this highlighted on the TechSoup Public Computing, ICT4D, and Tech4Good forum branch – most posted by me, because I’m oh-so-interested in this subject.

UNHCR Innovation recently piloted an SMS system in two UNHCR operations: Esmeraldas, Ecuador and San José, Costa Rica. There is an online article highlight its experiences piloting FrontlineButt in San José, Costa Rica and lessons learned. The project, named Ascend, began as a collaboration between Stanford University and UNHCR Innovation.

The goals for this particular pilot were:

  1. How do we best utilize SMS to connect with refugees residing in an urban area?
  2. How do we embed a new tool like SMS in organizations to be sustainable, even after the pilot is over?
  3. What types of utilities does an SMS application need to appropriately handle the requirements of UNHCR and non-governmental organization (NGO) staff?

A few key takeaways were observed: one, the need for message classification to handle a large number of inbound SMS (think Gmail classifying messages as priority or not priority); two, the ability to have a feature rich application to conduct polls and surveys via SMS; three, a focus on visualizing the data received and report generation in order to convey effectiveness to potential donors.

Before the implementation of the project, project organizers sat down with four refugees to get feedback to help with this project. The interviews are available here. In short, some key takeaways were:

  • Phone presence – most of the interviewees had mobile phones and used them, though some only used them for family matters. The majority cited mobile phones as a good means of reaching them. There were also two who said it was better to call rather than send an SMS.
  • SMS uses – by and large, most of the interviewees wanted more information on activities and opportunities that were available to them. In addition, some thought it would be a good way to ask questions to UNHCR, ACAI, or Aprode.
  • Challenges faced – the biggest challenges for the refugees upon arrival was surviving in a context they were not used to. In a similar vein, they also found it very difficult to find jobs.

At the end of the monitoring and evaluation phase, UNHCR again contacted the same refugees to get their opinion on the project. These interviews were conducted over the phone and the interviews can be viewed here. The responses were overwhelmingly positive which is a big success for the pilot as a whole.

My favorite takeaway:

Initially we had started the pilot with a prepared list of contacts to message. Sending the blast welcome message explaining the project elicited many responses saying, “Who is this?” or “Why am I receiving this?” After interviewing refugees we began to see a pattern. People were hesitant to trust a message from an unknown number. We ended up tackling this issue by first advertising the number in UNHCR and the other NGOs so that people would become familiar with the project and expect to receive messages. In addition to that, we set up boxes in which people could drop their contact information and we would then add that phone number to the FrontlineButt database. In this way we increased trust in and awareness for the project.

Here’s the full article from UNHCR.

And for some perspective, here’s an article from October 2001: Handheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy .

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