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Are Smartphones Making SMS Projects Obsolete?

By Guest Writer on September 21, 2015

Are SMS projects still relevant? Are toll-free phone numbers still needed? As more and more people in developing countries have access to cheap smartphones and third generation (3G) network coverage, should we still be utilizing text messaging and voice calls in development programs?

Having completed a coordinated program of cross-sectoral mobile phone projects in Papua New Guinea, funded by the Government of Australia, I came up with seven guiding principles for the use of mobile phones in development efforts in Papua New Guinea and similar contexts.

Papua New Guinea is a developing country north of Australia and east of Indonesia. While resource rich, it performs poorly on development indicators. The country looks set to fail on all the Millennium Development Goals, despite having had growth in gross domestic product for most of the period since the goals were devised.

At the time that the seven guiding principles were expounded early last year, there were still parts of Papua New Guinea with no mobile phone signal. Where there was signal, it was almost entirely second generation (2G) network and in most places there was only one network provider.

Since that time, dominant player Digicel has expanded its network, from 800 towers nationwide at the start of 2014 to 1,100 towers. They have also introduced fourth generation (4G) network coverage in the country’s two cities, as well as 3G network in many towns. Another player, bmobile, joined forces with Vodafone last year, created a 3G network in numerous towns, and began to offer competitive data packages.

During the recent Pacific Games in Port Moresby, the government telecommunication provider, Telikom PNG, offered free WiFi at games venues and this resulted in a spike in data usage. In neighbouring Pacific island nations, the trends have been similar in recent years, with a combination of 2G and 3G network coverage now available, along with 4G in some cities.

These changes have led me to ponder whether the seven guiding principles written just over a year ago are still relevant. Let’s look at each of the principles in turn.

  1. Distribution of mobile phones is not recommended. This principle was formed on the basis that most of the rural-based workers we engaged with on pilot projects had access to mobile phones. It is in keeping with Mike Trucano’s sentiment that technology distribution is a “simplistic approach [and] is often at the root of failure”. However, this has been the most frequently contested of the seven principles. Indeed, a number of non-government organizations and companies provide mobile phones for their staff members. Even so, I still caution organizations to consider what will happen if a handset is broken, lost or stolen. Will the organization provide a new one? If the intended user is not an employee, I believe this principle warrants serious consideration.
  2. Simple is best. Clearly, this principle still holds true. If a message can be written succinctly and delivered via SMS, which is accessible on any mobile phone handset, then why not send it that way? Perhaps it could also be posted on social messaging sites, for those who access them. As Mike Trucano says, “the best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford”.
  3. Design should be appropriate to the local context. This still holds true. If the context is shifting slightly, meaning that some target beneficiaries may have smartphones, you could add a smartphone or social media component to your project. Meanwhile, many of the people you want to reach may still have basic handsets and no access to 3G network. If the person does not have regular access to electricity, could the organization provide a solar mobile phone charger?
  4. Consider other valuable, relevant and accessible media. When I wrote this, I was primarily thinking of radio and face-to-face community meetings. Perhaps we may now add social media, for tech-savvy, urban based community members.
  5. Stakeholder participation is vital. This principle remains important.
  6. Rigorous research is constructive and highly recommended. Although the body of research in this field is growing, there is still great value in effectively assessing the value of projects and programs.
  7. The use of mobile phones offers potential rewards in terms of cost-effectiveness and time-efficiency. This statement remains true. Mobile phones are more widely accessible and more frequently used in Papua New Guinea than radio, television and newspapers.

It’s pleasing to see that the principles still hold true, even though they were written early last year, before a rise in the use of smartphones and data plans amongst urban-based people in Papua New Guinea. The reality is that many people do not have access to electricity or television. Even in the capital city, Port Moresby, this is the case – as is evidenced by the crowds that gathered recently at public venues to watch coverage of the Pacific Games on large screens.

I think that SMS projects and toll-free phone numbers are still of great value. Farmers are still likely to want to access crop prices through SMS or through voice calls for some time to come. People in India can report water supply issues using SMS. In Tanzania and Rwanda, family planning messages are available via SMS. In Papua New Guinea, SMS is being used to report anti-witchcraft violence and to report cases of corruption. A 24-hour toll-free service provides access to health workers for people in a rugged, mountainous region.

For many people in the Pacific region, mobile phone handsets are still quite new. Research has found that many rural women in the Pacific do not know how to use handset features.

In my view, simple, free, user-friendly services will remain useful for poor people in many parts of the world, including the Pacific region, for some years to come.

Dr. Amanda H A Watson is Mobile Communication Research Consultant with the PNG Economic and Public Sector Program. She is also a Visiting Fellow at The Australian National University within the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies.

The photo above is health worker Sr. Rose Elliot, who is charging her mobile phone using a solar charger in Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea.

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3 Comments to “Are Smartphones Making SMS Projects Obsolete?”

  1. Amanda,

    I’m not surprised that you concluded that SMS is still valuable. It’s certainly very valuable and incredibly popular here in Washington, DC in a population that is almost entirely equipped with smartphones.

    Have you checked out Magpi’s SMS data collection and broadcast messaging features? Collect simple data or very complex data using plain old SMS — or set up a system to send text (or audio) messages to any group.

    I think you’ll find the links below to be of interest.




    https://vimeo.com/139619181 (video about collecting data with SMS with Magpi)

    https://vimeo.com/88529599 (video intro to Magpi Messaging)

  2. Sabine says:

    I am running a project in Papua New Guinea which will deliver messages to our beneficiaries via mobile phones. This information is therefore very valuable. Thanks!

    • Omar says:

      Dear Sabine, I am also considering using SMS for our work here in PNG. I saw that you mentioned you are running a SMS project already. I would love to know more about it and to see how is it going. Please get in touch via my email if you have time. [email protected]