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Using FrontlineSMS: Lessons from East Africa

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In this blog, Gabrielle Solanet of Search for Common Ground introduces the reader to FrontlineSMS technology and how SFCG is using it in Africa to monitor and strengthen media programs, and track incidences of conflict.

  1. Introduction

FrontlineSMS is a free software that lets you send, receive and manage communications via SMS and missed calls using a laptop and modem, an Android phone, or a web-based SMS service. In several countries across Africa, Search for Common Ground (SFCG) teams and partners have started using Frontline technology to increase two-way communication with the listeners and viewers of our media programming, or to facilitate the collection of crucial data to monitor incidences of conflicts in areas where we work.

Recently, SFCG collaborated with FrontlineSMS to produce a series of 8 walkthrough videos in English and French. These free videos guide users through each necessary step of choosing, installing and using FrontlineSMS and its online version FrontlineCloud. The videos are accessible here.

In this paper we would like to share here the benefits, challenges and lessons’ learned from East Africa, including Burundi, Uganda and the DRC, where our teams have successfully started using Frontline technology.

  1. Benefits

Engaging listeners and viewers of our media programming: Frontline enables us to engage listeners/viewers into our programming, and collect their feedback without having to physically meet them! At the end of a media program, we advertise a single phone number for audiences to provide their feedback via SMS. Text messages are then recorded through the FrontlineSMS platform. If listeners beep the number, we can also call them back to collect their feedback. All feedback is then collated in a database and categorized according to the station, program, theme, type of contact (call or SMS), type of feedback (opinion, question, appreciation), age of sender, gender, profession, location. Launching SMS quizzes through Frontline are also an effective tool to engage our audiences in a fun way while evaluating how well our messages are understood and internalized. With Frontline, listener responses are automatically recorded, and answers filtered automatically so that correct answers are grouped together. Winners receive a prize. This not only motivates audiences to participate and hence engage more with SFCG, but also allows us to understand whether the programs are being received in the intended manner.

Keeping track of contacts: Frontline enables us to create and save a database of our contacts. As an example, our DRC program possesses a database of 3,000 contacts, with whom they maintain frequent interaction. FrontlineSMS makes it possible to save contact details with names, which means that when you send out mass text messages, it will automatically include the name of the addressee in the body of the message, adding a personal touch to motivate audience members.

Measuring listenership and understanding of our media programming: the information collected through Frontline enables analysis of the level of listenership and better understanding of our media programming. In Burundi for instance, SFCG learned that the themes triggering most reactions are social cohesion and resilience to political manipulation – and that listeners retained several messages from our radio program, including on the behaviors that would help them resist different forms of political manipulation. Data collected with Frontline enables SFCG to determine which programs are most popular among various audience groups, determine what our strengths and weaknesses are, and use it as a learning tool to adapt our programming to our audience needs. It also provides an indication of whether our programs where broadcast by our partners, since no feedback is a warning sign that the stations may not be receiving the programs, or not broadcasting them. Finally, when it is time to report on our activities, the data collected through Frontline helps both to speak about our results and to evaluate whether we are responding to population expectations, and provide reliable information.

Developing a marketing strategy for our media programs through Marketing SMS: This enables building loyalty and engagement with the themes of the program; encourage listeners to provide their feedback on the program; and consolidate listenership by reminding listeners to tune in. In the DRC, the team created contact groups based on the radio station that the listeners tuned into. They then sent SMS to listeners one day before the broadcast, to remind them to tune in. Results were immediate: in the two weeks following the launch of the marketing campaign, the program received 168 text messages with feedback and opinion, compared to 37 during the 2-week period exactly one month earlier, when there was no marketing.

Receiving alerts from media managers: the DRC team set up a system of SMS Alerts whereby radio managers inform SFCG of the situation in their station, if they are encountering any difficulties, including technical, thereby helping to maintain connections with local radio stations that are often located in remote areas.

Reporting conflict alerts and collecting data for conflict assessments: In Uganda, SFCG uses trained conflict monitors based in different areas across the country to text SFCG every time a verified conflict incident occurs. These SMS go into a database and enable us to analyze conflict trends, which then feed into our monthly conflict assessments.

  1. Challenges

Practical challenges: In countries like South Sudan, our team has faced practical challenges such as limited phone access, illiteracy and diversity of languages spoken by the targeted populations. Vulnerability of phone networks and government’s oversight of mobile telecommunication can also make people unable or unwilling to answer questions by SMS, so it is important to be aware of contextual challenges when designing FrontlineSMS systems to maximize their utility.

Technical challenges: FrontlineCloud, the online version of FrontlineSMS, has proved more difficult to use, because it requires a payment of 10$ per month, a stable internet connection, and a computer that stays on during the entire duration of the SMS exchanges. Also, it does not work with a modem, only with a virtual SIM (that can be purchased online, via the Frontline software) or an Android phone. However, if you have a stable internet connection and the budget available to cover the monthly fee, FrontlineCloud is a better option as it can stock all the SMS sent and received online, and can be accessed from any computer.

Social challenges: Occasionally, listeners mix different shows, and answer to other shows’ questions using SFCG’s Frontline number. While this poses a challenge in terms of monitoring, it also shows that SFCG’s number is the first that comes to their mind, and the degree of confidence they place in SFCG’s programming.

  1. Lessons’ learned
  • Use FrontlineSMS or Frontline Cloud on an Android phone, if possible. This enables responding to phone calls from listeners – since both the SIM card and Frontline are on the same phone.
  • Ask very concrete questions, to allow for a qualitative analysis of the results. Vague questions will only bring vague responses, which will be difficult to analyze. Do not hesitate to greet people in your SMS, for instance by wishing your receiver a good weekend, holiday or else.
  • Keep the modem connected until all the messages are sent, to ensure that your SMS are delivered. If you close your computer or remove the modem before they are all sent, those that haven’t been sent yet will not be delivered.
  • Send SMS regularly, to maintain relationship with listeners (if possible, dedicate one person to this task).
  • Use SMS to encourage listeners to spread the word about your programs to friends, as a means to increase your audience base.
  • Take advantage of cross-cutting themes to build up your audience: for example you can send mass messages to listeners of a women’s program encouraging them to tune in to another program on a day when the theme deals with women’s rights.
  • Partner with a national telecommunications’ company not only to negotiate SMS packages reducing the costs of sending text messages in bulk, but also to obtain a free number for people to text in to. This will enable even those with very limited financial means to participate.
  • Communicate the themes of programs ahead of broadcast, so that listeners can better prepare their feedback and better engage with the program’s core messages.
  • Maximize audiences’ participation through quizzes, giving listeners a 10 minutes’ time limit to answer the question, from the moment it is announced. A quiz can be organized around one specific episode, or follow a series of several episodes, to maximize audience’s loyalty. The prize must be attractive.

Gabrielle Solanet is a Regional Project Coordinator at Search for Common Ground (SFCG). As such, she oversees the implementation and monitoring of the organization's cross-border programming in the Great Lakes and East Africa. Prior to that, Gabrielle worked on program design and donor relations for SFCG, based both in Africa's Great Lakes region and in Brussels, Belgium. She holds an MA in War Studies from King's College London in the UK.