Look at tools

This section of the toolkit will present a few tools and services that can be useful in mobile advocacy. There are hundreds of tools and services available but we've worked with a team of mobile phone experts and advocates to test, review and recommend a selection to give you an idea of what is possible. The tools that we've selected are not all designed to be used directly on mobile phones: for example, we have included interactive voice response systems that people can call from their mobile phones.

Tools are software applications that are installed on a phone or on a computer, and services are commercial services available through the internet, such as online systems for sending bulk SMS (text messages). We have tried where possible to include tools that are Open Source and therefore available free of charge.

We've divided the tools and services according to the equipment and services that you need to have in order to use them, either:

If you click on the link to an individual tool you will learn more about it and about the skills you'll need in order to use it, and you'll find links to further documentation.

We have also provided links to tools that aren't included in the box but which may be useful, including tools that you can use to access the internet and email on your mobile phone.

The mobile telephony landscape is changing rapidly. Operating systems and mobile handsets are evolving to incorporate new functions, such as GPRS systems for tracking your geographical location. The mobile operating system is opening up with the development of the Google Android platform.

Mobile advocacy tools designed to be installed on a server or a desktop computer are currently fairly challenging to use and often require Linux administration skills. Because this is a fast-developing field it's likely that in a few years more accessible tools will have been developed, including some designed specifically for use by NGOs, such as the Freedom Fone which will provide a voice database, allowing users to access news and public-interest information via land, mobile or Internet phones.

Factors to consider

Before you can use a tool you need to find out whether it will work on your computer or mobile phone.

Different mobile telephony applications may need to be installed on different pieces of equipment. For example, applications such as Fring which allow you to access your instant messaging or Skype account on the move, are installed on a phone, whereas FrontlineSMS, which is used for sending and receiving large numbers of SMS messages, is installed on a computer. Some applications will require a particular sort of phone or computer in order to work, for example to use Episurveyor you will need a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant).

Computers run using three main operating systems: Windows, Mac or Linux. Many tools will work only on one or two of these systems, so you should check that your version of the application, and any additional software you want to use, is compatible with the system that runs your computer.

Because applications for mobile phones also run on different operating systems (the main ones are Symbian or Windows Mobile), the same problems of application compatibility may arise as with computers. Make sure that the application you want to use will run on your phone's operating system.

To use the tools which help your phone and your computer communicate you will need a special cable to connect your mobile with your computer. To use some of these tools you may also need access to the internet, a phone line or a spare USB port.

Tools on a mobile phone

Applications such as Shozu will allow you to publish and share multimedia content, such as photos, from your phone onto websites such as blogs, social networking or photo sharing sites. Some applications are used for communications: Gizmo or Fring allow you to access your instant messaging or Skype account to send text or voice messages. If you are using tools such as Gizmo, Fring or Shozu you should bear in mind that they send information via mobile data connections, which can be very expensive. 

Installing applications on your phone

There are two ways of installing applications on your phone: directly from the internet via a browser on your mobile phone (which can expensive and relies on you having a reliable data connection), or from your computer.

To install applications from your computer you download the application to your computer's hard drive first and then transfer it to your mobile phone. There are two main ways of accomplishing this transfer:


Use Skype, or your favourite instant messaging application, on your mobile phone.

Fring is a mobile application which uses VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol - the technology that makes the transmission of voice calls over the internet possible) to allow instant voice and text messaging to other users of the application and to users of other similar PC-based services including Skype, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Twitter. It uses a 3G or GPRS internet connection from your phone, or Wi-Fi if your phone has this function.


Make cheaper phone calls and log in to your favourite instant messaging application on your mobile phone

Gizmo is a communications application which is installed on your phone. You can also use it to send voicemail messages via email. Gizmo requires a data connection to work so you need either a 3G or GPRS data connection from your phone or Wi-Fi. A version is also available for your computer.


Publish multimedia content on the internet from your mobile phone

Shozu is an application which you can install on your phone to allow you to upload videos and photos from your mobile phone to your online sharing sites, blogs (such as your Wordpress blog), email address and newsrooms.

Tools for mobile phone and connected computer

The mobile phone applications discussed here, such as FrontlineSMS, run 'locally' on a computer, and can be accessed without using the internet or any other computer network. 

Conduct surveys on your phone


Collect data on your mobile phone and send it back to a laptop or other computer.

EpiSurveyor is a web-based application that enables anyone to create forms online, and collect data with those forms on a mobile device. Once collected, data can be uploaded to the website for analysis or export. The EpiSurveyor mobile app is available for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Symbian phones (basic feature phones). Simple information can also be collected from any phone using SMS.

SMS hubs

An SMS hub is a stand-alone system which allows you to send and receive large numbers of text messages via the mobile phone network, without needing to be connected to the internet or to any other computer network. Read more about SMS hubs.

Tools for mobile phone plus a computer connected to the internet or to a server

A server is usually a dedicated desktop computer running programmes (server applications) which help the applications on connected computers to work. Servers are often unattended and are left running for extended periods of time. Examples of server applications are Apache (a web server) and Asterisk (described later in this section).

Interactive voice response systems

Interactive Voice Response, or IVR systems, run on computers. They handle incoming phone calls and provide callers with a range of automated options, allowing them to report specific events or get specific information.

Read more about Interactive voice response systems.

Online services for creating mobile websites

Mobile websites are created according to the mobile industry standard (.mobi). This standard means that sites are designed and built in an agreed, uniform manner and are compatible with a wide range of mobile phone handsets. Having a version of your website for mobile phones is a good idea because it means that people without access to computers and people on the move can access your organisation's website.


MobiSiteGalore is an online service which allows the building of mobile phone internet sites.


Wapple.net offer an online service which allows the building of mobile phone internet sites. The free version will display Google ads on your site.

Nokia Mobile Internet Toolkit

Nokia Mobile Internet Toolkit enables you to create content such as web-pages and multimedia messages (MMS) which are viewable on a phone. This toolkit will give you a preview on your computer screen of what the site or message looks like on a mobile phone


Web based services for mobile phones

The services detailed below will require that you have access to a credit card. If an SMS hub is not feasible for your organisation (perhaps you haven't got a computer or mobile phone, or there is no mobile phone network coverage in your area), SMS aggregators provide a similar service through the internet. SMS aggregators are companies which sell text messages in bulk and deliver your text messages for you. After logging on to their websites you can type in your contact mobile numbers and the message/s you want to send. In addition to generally being cheaper than sending the messages individually or through your own SMS hub, SMS aggregators are able to send larger numbers of messages more quickly, which is useful for organisations with a large target group. We have included details of one of the leading services, BulkSMS, in the toolkit.

is a commercial SMS service which allows you to send SMS messages via their web site or through desktop software. It offers SMS coverage to over 500 networks globally.

is a commercial SMS service which allows you to send SMS messages via their web site or through desktop software. It offers coverage for 712 networks in 212 countries for outbound messages and almost 100 countries for outbound and inbound messages (two-way SMS). If you are using FrontlineSMS and you have an Internet connection, you can use your Clickatell account to send and receive messages rather than using a GSM modem or a mobile phone

There are many other commercial SMS services, so shop around because lower prices might be available.

Other mobile applications

There are others tools and services that weren't chosen for inclusion in the toolkit but are worth investigating.

Web, email and social networking tools

These tools make it possible to access your email or social networking site on your mobile. You should bear in mind that they require a mobile data connection, which can be expensive.

People's media tools and services

Disaster and quick response tools

Security tools

Other tools and projects

Interactive voice response systems

Interactive Voice Response, or IVR systems, run on computers. They handle incoming phone calls and provide callers with a range of automated options, allowing them to report specific events or get specific information.

You can use FreePBX, Asterisk or TrixBox to do this. These tools are powerful and have great potential for advocacy, but they are currently very challenging to install and require Linux administration skills.

Interactive voice response works like this:
Someone calls your number and is greeted by a recorded voice message, for example: "Welcome to the election monitoring action line". The caller is then presented with a range of options: to register as an election monitor, press 1; to make a positive comment on the election, press 2; to report a violation, press 3; to hear a news update on how the elections are going, press 4; to repeat these options, press 5 and so on. The caller either speaks the appropriate number or presses it on their telephone key pad. They are then either taken to a new set of menus or asked to record a message. The whole process is automated

These systems are useful for guiding callers to specific information, such as a news broadcast or update, or allowing them to leave a message. Although IVR systems are more traditionally used in high-volume call centres (typically in telephone banking or customer services), they can also help NGOs to gather and distribute information, via voice, from and to the people they serve.

What are the advantages of using an IVR system?

Once an IVR system has been set up and configured, information is automatically distributed to and collected from incoming callers, requiring little further intervention from the NGO (except for updating any news or information broadcasts and monitoring the system's use and its reliability). IVR systems can therefore be left to run without much further manual intervention.

IVR systems are very useful where some of the people served by an organisation are illiterate, because they use voice rather than text. What's more, information can be gathered and distributed in greater volume, more cheaply, and generally faster, using voice than using SMS. Finally, since people are phoning you rather than the other way around, your NGO avoids the costs of making calls or sending texts.

What skills do I need to set up an IVR system?

The person setting up an IVR system for your organisation must have a knowledge of systems, network administration and basic telephony.

When you install an IVR system such as Asterisk it will be bundled with the following applications so a working familiarity with all of these applications is a requirement. The knowledge required is for the administration and maintenance of the systems rather than for installing the systems.

On the pages about specific tools we have included links to documentation for each of the IVR systems in this toolkit. Further guidance can be found in the 'Building Voice Infrastructure in Developing Regions' guide which is available online. This guide is for technical and non-technical readers. The first part gives you the essential basic information about telephony via the Internet. For those interested in more technical details, hands-on guidelines and configuration files are included in the second part. The examples provide essential background for building your own low-cost telephony system. The last part demonstrates three realistic scenarios of how Voice over Internet Protocol can be used in rural communities in developing regions. The scenarios cover how to build a local telephony system and how to connect it to other voice networks.

What IVR tools are available?

For more about tools for creating an Interactive Voice Response system, look at TrixBox, Asterisk and FreePBX. These three tools have slightly different functions and levels of difficulty;

Set up an office phone system, make free or very cheap phone calls over the internet and create your own Interactive Voice Response systems.

Asterisk is an open source/free software system which allows you to set up a telephone private branch exchange (PBX) and to connect to other telephone services including the public telephone network. You can set up features such as voice mail, conference calling, Interactive Voice Response and automatic call forwarding.

Cost: Free

Set up and manage an office phone system - a simpler version of Asterisk

FreePBX is a free software application which has some pre-programmed functions that aren't available in Asterisk. It allows you to create and manage extensions, voicemail, IVR (Interactive Voice Response), and some other features. These functions are accessed via a user-friendly web interface.

Cost: Free

A more user-friendly version of Asterisk which incorporates FreePBX

TrixBox is a telephone system based on Asterisk (see above).

SMS hubs

An SMS hub is a stand-alone system which allows you to send and receive large numbers of text messages via the mobile phone network, without needing to be connected to the internet or to any other computer network.

You need a laptop or desktop computer with a number of mobile phones or GSM modems attached. A GSM modem is a small device without a keypad or screen that you connect to your computer. It works like a mobile phone, but is controlled through the computer. Messages are sent and received using software installed on the computer which transmits them through the attached phone or modem to the available mobile phone network. Because SMS hubs do not need to be connected to the internet, they are very useful for NGOs working in areas where access to the internet is not possible or is unreliable.

What are the advantages of using an SMS hub?

It is quick, cheap and fairly easy to set up an SMS hub, which makes them ideal for organisations that have few resources and low budgets or for those that work in sensitive areas or in countries with repressive dictatorial regimes. One user of FrontlineSMS comments:

“FrontlineSMS has opened up the seemingly complex world of automated SMS message handling to a novice SMS user like myself. Based in Africa in a country where broadcast technology is controlled by a dictatorial government, this software has enabled me to embrace SMS messaging as a means to communicate with the public at large. Since the software does not require me to set up any special relationships with carriers or internet service providers I am able to run my project without drawing unnecessary attention to myself - a good thing in this neck of the woods”

One of the advantages of SMS hubs is that since messages are sent using a local mobile phone and SIM card, users are able to reply through their phones, something which is not always possible if you use web-based messaging tools. (SIM cards are small plastic chips which your network operator sells to you and which allow you to access the mobile network). Web-based group messaging services, such as Clickatell or BulkSMS, are not appropriate for organisations working in places with unreliable telecommunications infrastructure or no internet connectivity at all. They also require a credit card. SMS hubs get around this by using the mobile phone network to send and receive their messages; so the messages are paid for through your SIM card

Issues to consider when using SMS hubs

Cost implications

Systems which send messages via an attached GSM phone or modem generally cost more to run than web-based alternatives. You pay for each message that you send according to the network price plan and SIM card you're using. In addition, because messages are being sent out one at a time the process is generally slower, with an average of 8 to 10 text messages per minute. Online (or web-based) SMS aggregators, through which you can send large numbers of messages more quickly, are generally cheaper.

Network and SMS constraints

Some networks limit the number of times you can send the same text message, to prevent illegal spamming. Text messages cannot be more than 160 characters long, which limits the amount of information you can transmit.


Very high levels of mobile phone activity through a single phone number could attract the attention of the authorities, which could prove dangerous in countries with dictatorial regimes where people are often required to register their phone numbers. For further details of the security implications of using text messaging, see the section on security.

SMS hubs included in the box

FrontlineSMS is a software application for desktop and laptop computers which does not an require an internet connection and which works with any Global System for Mobile (GSM) network. It is available in: Chinese, English, Finnish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili. The FrontlineSMS user community will also provide support to first time users.

SMS Server Tools 3 can provide a system for sending and retrieving text messages and also allow you to manage the some of the functions and configurations of your GSM phone or modem remotely, from your computer.