Action through mobiles

Mobile phones are the most popular, and most widely used, form of communication technology we've ever seen: it is estimated that 86% of the world's population are now using them.

Mobile devices are also helping people overcome barriers to internet access, caused by poor infrastructure.

This section will not cover all the mobile phone tools, platforms and apps that you could use for advocacy. Rather, it will focus on some inspiring cases, from around the world, of how organisations and individuals have used mobile phones to engage with civil society and democratic processes. This section will also explore the strategic issues you'll need to think about if you want to take action with mobile phones yourself.

Why use mobile phones in your campaign? 

For those without smartphones, applications like Binu enable users of standard mobile phones to access Facebook, Twitter and even the draft Zimbabwean constitution. In Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, Google has made it possible for people to access email via text message.

There's been a rush of interest in mobile phones in many sectors, with initiatives dedicated to the use of mobile phone technology in health, education, agriculture, and women's economic development, among others.

How can I use mobile phones in my campaign?

Before getting started, consider five things: 

  1. Campaign goals
  2. Audience
  3. Capacity
  4. Context 
  5. Technology

1. Campaign goals: What is the change you want to see?

Before you start, revisit the Campaign basics section to familiarise yourself with the foundations of campaigning. 

Then think about what exactly you want to achieve:

  • Do you need to mobilise, make a call to action, disseminate information or provide updates on your campaign?  For these, you'll need to facilitate one way communication. Tools like FrontlineSMS can help with this, by enabling you to send targeted messages to groups of supporters.
  • If you need to conduct a survey, document what is happening on the ground, or co-ordinate actions and protests, you will need two-way communication. Tools like Magpi - a survey tool which runs on a wide range of different platforms - could help with this.

2. Audience and stakeholders: who are you trying to connect with?

To design interventions that will 'fit' your intended audience, you need to find out how the people you're aiming to reach use their phones.

Think about how you use your own phone. What kind of phone do you use? Do you use voice or text more? Do you have multiple Sim cards for use on different networks? If you use a smartphone, do you use it for email, maps or a favourite app that lets you communicate for free? Understanding your own use of mobile phone technology will help you design a mobile intervention that will match the capabilities of your audience's phones.  

You should also consider tailoring your messaging for different groups – being clear about who you want to engage, and what you want them to do.

  • If your audience just use text message and voice technology (rather than smartphones), then you should focus on a strategy that works with text message and voice technology . 
  • If they have internet capabilities, you could also think about using Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to post information updates about the campaign and calls to action.

Also consider the costs involved in:

  • Making voice calls
  • Sending a text message
  • Receiving a text message 
  • Using data/internet
  • Communicating across mobile networks

If data/internet costs are high, for example, then your general audience likely do not use their smartphones to access social networking sites or Twitter.

What can happen when you don't think about audience? The citizen engagement project Maji Matone in Tanzania, which aimed to collect data on problems with water supply, received only 53 reports during a six month pilot period. One of the reasons the project failed was that they didn't take into account the fact that while women are mainly responsible for collecting water, they are generally not the people in their households who own a mobile phone. There were also problems with unreliable mobile access in rural areas.


3. Capacity

Thinking about your organisation's technical capacities will help inform your mobile advocacy strategy. For example, setting up a system like FrontlineSMS (designed for NGO use) requires a bit of technical understanding - though quick and informative technical support is offered through the FrontlineSMS forum.

If you have some funds available, a commercial text message provider is also an option. When choosing a provider, make sure they have a sense of the needs of NGOs, and see if you can get a reduced rate as a not-for-profit organisation.

4. Context

Mobile advocacy can be expensive and a drain on the resources of small NGOs – so it's worth considering these context issues before you get started:

Advocacy context

Are there any potential partnerships you could nurture with organisations who are working in your sector, or who have related campaigning or advocacy goals? They may have contacts they can share with you, or may wish to collaborate on a mobile outreach programme.

Legal context

Make sure you are compliant with data protection and other relevant laws in your country if you are planning on using bulk text messaging systems. You may be required to inform people what you may do with any data you collect from them, or there may be limits on the number of text messages you are allowed to send. 

Political and digital security context

Remember that mobile communication is extremely easy to intercept and that mobile phones are easy to steal or lose. Extreme caution should be used when using mobile phones in sensitive contexts.  Always think about how communication can put individuals at risk. 

For example, if you are working on issues around domestic violence and you want to offer support to women through text or voice messaging, then you need to be sure that the women you are working with do not share their phones with the people who are placing them at risk. You should also be aware of the implications of bulk SMS texting without giving your audience the option of opting out of receiving information, especially when it comes to sensitive issues. For instance, blanket texting constituents about a new anti-corruption reporting initiative is not recommended if the fact of receiving this information endagers them by association, due to the political climate of the country they're in.

Mobile communications can be subject to close government surveillance. In Iran in 2012, for example, the local currency dropped sharply in value against the dollar. Mobile telephone text messages that included the word 'dollar'-- in English or in Farsi -- were censored, and these messages were not received. The Farsi word for 'foreign money' was also blocked.

See our Security in-a-box guides on How to use mobile phones as securely as possible and How to use smartphones as securely as possible. These include hands-on guides to a variety of useful applications for smartphones. For example, if you're using your phone to take pictures of people at demonstrations, think about using the application ObscuraCam to disguise the faces of people who do not want to be recognised. Internews has created a great resource called SpeakSafe, a media worker's toolkit for safer online and mobile practices.

In many countries, it is now compulsory to register your SIM card, leading one blogger to raise the possibility that governments might use devices called IMSI catchers (devices that track and identify mobile phone traffic) to target potential 'troublemakers' at events, such as peaceful demonstrations. Recent elections in India, Ethiopia, Cameroon and the DRC have seen governments imposing text message bans – showing how powerful the medium can be in politically sensitive contexts.

5. Technology

Mobiles are fast-moving: new devices, services and apps come onto the market all the time. Connectivity is also changing fast, and ultra-fast 4G mobile internet is set to arrive on the African continent before much of Europe.

One of the challenging aspects of using mobiles in advocacy and campaigning work is the complexity of mobile phone tools and platforms. For example, applications that are developed to work on iPhones won't work on Android smartphones.

What's wrong with blanket texting?

The World Bank project in the Democratic Republic of Congo was unusual in that it sent messages to all numbers receiving a signal from a particular tower – so you didn't have a choice whether you received a message or not. This kind of  'blanket texting' is not a good strategy for advocates – people will likely experience these messages as unwanted Spam. Always provide a way for users to unsubscribe from your messages, and think carefully about how to tailor communications to target audiences.

Sending recorded information through mobile devices

In recent years some exciting projects have been developed using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Systems. These systems – where a user can dial in to receive recorded information – are great for connecting with illiterate communities or for delivering complex, confidential information such as sexual health information.

In Zimbabwe, the Freedom Fone system, developed for NGO use, has been used across Africa and elsewhere for a wide variety of uses. While the system is still quite complex to use, and requires dedicated hardware, it has been well documented at the Floss Manuals site and on their own site.
In the US, the New Day, New Standard IVR system was set up to provide an interactive hotline informing nannies, housekeepers and their employers about their rights under a new piece of legislation.

These systems are currently quite challenging to use but they are becoming more accessible: the VOIP Drupal project is bringing IVR functionality to Drupal websites, while Freedom Fone is planning a cloud version of their software to make it easier for users to deploy.

Case studies

Mobiles on the front line

For human rights advocates, mobile phones are now a vital tool – whether they are in Syria, livestreaming footage via Bambuser, or using apps like 'I'm Getting Arrested' in the US, or Byt2abad 3alia in Egypt, which allows protesters being arrested to send a text message alert with their location to a group of contacts with a simple click.

But the use of these apps has also demonstrated the dangers involved in using easily-traced mobile communication - Bambuser feeds, for example, have led Syrian authorities to locations where users were broadcasting.

Transparency and accountability (DRC)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, mobile phones were used as part of a participatory budgeting project by the World Bank– people were invited to meetings to discuss budget allocations for provincial government via text message, and then allowed to vote via text message on their priorities for government spending.

Surveys and feedback (Uganda)

Mobile phones were used by Unicef in Uganda to run the Ureport project, giving young people a voice in local democracy through RapidSMS. Young people sign up via text message to become a volunteer ‘U-reporter’, and then share their observations and ideas via mobile phone on a wide range of development issues - including outbreaks of disease, safe water, early marriage, education, health and inflation. A poll on female genital mutilation in February 2013 had more than 20,000 responses.

Monitoring (Sierra Leone and Senegal)

During elections in Sierra Leone and Senegal, technologists worked with networks of local election monitors to conduct large-scale election monitoring projects based on text messages. This large-scale project allowed monitors to submit coded reports via text message, and the data was then verified by teams of local experts and displayed on a map. The map showed voter demographics (including numbers of female voters and voters with disabilities), turnout, and irregularities in other data. The success of this project – with thousands of verified reports -- was attributed to the strength and commitment of the local civil society networks.

Crowdmapping used crowdmapping techniques to display real-time citizen-sourced data on a map. While their specific project required dedicated software, there are tools available from the Ushahidi project which allow you to set up your own crowdmaps and analyse and verify the data you collect. The software can also be used in conjunction with Frontline SMS.

Crowdmap is a cloud-based crowdmapping platform which is simple to set up and use. Ushahidi, on the other hand, allows for more customisation, but requires a server. SwiftRiver enables you to filter and verify real-time data from channels such as SMS, Email, Twitter and RSS feeds.