SMS messages bring crucial information to light

Texting helps me avoid having a conversation when I don’t have the energy or time to talk. But text messages are serving a far more important purpose in many parts of the world where web access is limited.

Responding to Cyclone Giri, which hit Myanmar last Friday, involved our staff travelling 36 hours across mountains blocked by mudslides to reach the remote coastal cylcone-hit region. Once an emergency response in a region is set up, how do you ensure that things are running smoothly and that the local community has adequate supplies? How do you ensure that none of the staff involved in running the programme is diverting funds for their own purposes?

Careful recruitment is, of course, important. But what about giving the local community where the project is being rolled out a way to report on any irregular behaviour? That just what’s happening in flood-affected communities in Pakistan through a hotline set up in early August.

Due to one SMS, we installed a water pump when someone pointed out that they had no clean water available. And another SMS message reported on a staff member’s fraudulent activity. “A complaint was received that a community volunteer supervisor was deducting 10% from the pay of each community member engaged in the cash-for-work program,” said Khurram Masood, Save the Children’s media and communications advisor in Islamabad.

“Upon investigation it was clear that the community volunteer supervisor was unjustly deducting the amount for his own pocket. Save the Children then changed its policy to ensure that its staff would be present when people were paid,” he said.

Obviously, even in the most difficult of emergency circumstances, our staff are working long days doing heroic work. But in those rare cases where someone might try to abuse the system for their own purposes, then SMS messages can help us identify fraudulent behaviour.

Reports of violence sent by SMS or via the web are also being used to develop maps that detail the incidents. Called Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili, the open source tool was first developed by citizen journalists to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout, and has also been used to map out sexual assaults and deaths in the DRC.

The data and map updates are done by staff receiving the SMS messages. Reports that are posted on the website are then verified by local NGOs and are also given a credibility rating, according to the BBC.

Potentially this information could be used by human rights investigators to trace the perpetrators or take steps to better protect the population in those areas.

Without SMS, important information like this might not have ever seen the light of day.