This post is inspired an upcoming workshop we are running in Washington, D.C., along with additional installments in Phnom Penh, Lagos, and Caracas in the coming months. All of these workshops revolve around the use of free or inexpensive tools and technologies that can be used to conduct research, communicate that research efficiently, and develop advocacy campaigns as a result of that research. For the more technologically inclined among you, this will not be that groundbreaking a post, but I find for many technology is akin to eating exotic food (however you define exotic): scary, slippery, and one is not sure where to start. So this is where we at Panoply Digital start. With some sort of logos to the whole thing.
- Technology should have a cultural antecedent: if the local populace communicates primarily through texting, then I will give them a texting application unless, and this is very rare, the introduced technology expands impact to such a point to warrant the conversion.
- If it does warrant that conversion (again, rare) then dedicated resources must be set aside for the conversion (human and financial) and for the operationalizing of the technology beyond the conversion. In short, you have to allocate resources away from existing activities.
- Technology should be manageable within time and labor constraints: no point installing a new application or tool without dedicated human resources to account for it. Surprising how often this is overlooked.
- Technology should have a lifespan above and beyond a yearly funding cycle. If technology (hardware) requires ongoing funding commitments, then that is fine, but must be accounted for upfront. No three year commitments and then we will see what happens.
- Applications/tools (software) are in some ways better as they are often free, open source, and at least nominally divorced from the whims of funders.
So towards that end, I might suggest the following sequence of tools for those in particular resource-constrained environments who wish to gauge the thoughts of a particular audience primarily through SMS.
I use SMS Poll for this, particularly for resource constrained environments, or where SMS is simply the most common form of communication. Very basic, very straightforward, good data analytics, including the ability to download the results and free. It also allows for embedding on a site, which allows you to gather demographics with connectivity and those relying strictly on SMS. I have written here before on a similar idea, UReport, which has taken this a step further and built a community around community polling. There are many such SMS polling tools, but SMS Poll is an accessible entry point for organizations looking to collect some cursory data with their communities. I like many of the audience response systems as well like Poll Everywhere, but they are relatively expensive and not as practical in resource constrained environments. If your audience has a bit more connectivity, you can consider Google Forms which is surprisingly robust for a free service.
Communication and Advocacy
For communication and outreach, again I look towards text-based applications for several reasons. First, there is that cultural antecedent I referred to earlier. SMS communication was the beginning of digital communication for many, remains the core method for more, and is now being gravitated to again as mobile technology is further foregrounded (a process I wrote about earlier on this blog). Again, there are many tools available but a few I particularly like are BulkSMS and Text.it.
Bulk SMS which is a SMS messaging service provider offering two-way SMS communication services straight from your internet enabled computer. It is fairly simple to use, assuming you have contact information for a particular community. You buy credits, craft a message, and send via SMS to a group. You can track everything from the dashboard. All very accessible and easy to use, particularly in conjunction with SMS Poll.
Text.it: I had written about Text.it before as well as I do like it very much. It is basically BulkSMS but with the added functionality of being able to design your own SMS applications via routing logic. This is an accessible design for the non-technical among us as these flows could easily be designed by teachers or administrators. The flows are as logical as a campaign strategy or curricula. For some of the educational environments where I work, SMS could easily be used to translate a system like that described in this graphic:
into this SMS logic:
For a pure communiction or advocacy effort, BulkSMS or Text.it could be used to gauge the impact of a particular effort or campaign. FrontlineSMS Cloud could reasonably be substituted for BulkSMS, if one had a particular preference.
When these tools are used judiciously and in conjunction, you would reasonably expect to see results. Further, it ascribes to the logical requirements we set aside for projects like this, the ones described at the beginning of this post.