The following post is by Hollie Russon Gilman, PhD author of The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America and a co-organizer of the #TABridge network.A concept we return to often in our bridging work is that context matters, in how organizations tailor their tools to their needs, and in how citizens’ daily interests can drive advocacy. Because mobile phones are personal and networked at the same time, SMS has become highly valued technology for advocates in the human rights and good governance fields.
Campaigners seeking good examples of mobile participation can learn from the progress of UNICEF’s Ureport SMS platform. This free system enables young Ugandans to submit opinions on community issues and work together to address public problems.
Ureport is unique for its large user base, as well as for the advanced software UNICEF uses to analyze hundreds of reports. More than 200,000 young people have enrolled, and 200 to 1,000 are reportedly joining each day.
The tool provides a centralized knowledge platform where information from local TV, community events and radio are aggregated and then disseminated through SMS. “Ureporters” also receive weekly poll questions and results. Recent questions and messages include: “What challenges and problems do you think children and youth living with disabilities face in your communities?” and “Do you know the dates for the upcoming polio campaign? A) 21st to 23rd Sept B) 28th to 30th Sept or C) Don’t know.”
The responses are processed with advanced computing tools from IBM to create an automated classification system that aggregates incoming messages. Results are displayed with easy to comprehend visualizations and data breakdowns. The Ureport system also routes compiled reports to decision-makers in Uganda’s parliament and administrative offices.
By focusing at the hyper-local level, Ureport builds participation on the information that’s most relevant to local community members. The platform is also both convenient and legitimate—providing credible information from multiple sources. Together, the focus on citizens’ daily lives and the relative ease of the system help Ureport gather not just knowledge, but a network that increases participation and even accountability.
As U.S. groups pilot more SMS-based citizen initiatives, such as participatory budgeting, it will be critical to learn from Ureport. This two-way information sharing, combined with an “opt-in” approach to gather the most interested users, can help maintain the proper incentives to participation, which unfortunately are too often overlooked. Proper incentives in turn create legitimacy for a platform and increase the chance that a mobile campaign can help enhance public service delivery and good governance.
If your organization is thinking about SMS-campaigns and e-participation in policy and decision-making, here are three good practices to bear in mind: 1) provide citizens with the information they need the most, in the most accessible way; 2) create two-way channels for communication; and 3) use technology as both an aggregator for open information and a participation platform for local communities.