Outreach & participation

Finding and engaging audiences can be a big challenge for NGOs. Mobile phones can help by providing a new means of staying in contact with those audiences. For example through SMS updates on campaigns and activities which can be carried out using FrontlineSMS or a commercial service such as Clickatell or BulkSMS. Mobile phones also provide a very direct means of outreach - enabling organisations to reach those who might not be accessible via email or the internet.

Mobile phones can allow their users to engage more fully in civil society and the democratic process, and hold the powerful to account. They can be used along with other media such as community radio in order to gather feedback and opinions. Here are a few ideas for how your organisation can enable participation by using mobile phones for surveys, petitions, monitoring and for the provision of information. We have also included some examples of successful current and recent projects which have used mobile phones in interesting ways.

Look at the Coordinating and mobilising section for more on how mobiles can help in emergencies and situations which demand a quick response.

Information provision

Alerts, news, and updates on a particular cause, event or project can be distributed in many ways. Sharing information with users keeps them interested, helps educate them, fosters engagement and can be a catalyst for spontaneous person-to-person campaigning. There are various means of using mobile phones to provide information.

You can send messages and encourage your supporters to forward them. This has the advantage of being cheap for you and is the easiest way to provide information via mobile phone.

SMS subscriber services for specific campaigns can keep users engaged by providing updates and news alerts. This requires ongoing funding to support the sending of messages during the whole campaign. You should also ensure that you provide users with an easy means of unsubscribing from this service and that you have sufficient funds to scale services up should they become unexpectedly successful. See our budgeting section for more information. You can use commercial services such as BulkSMS or Clickatell for this or set up your own SMS hub using FrontlineSMS.

You can also set up an interactive voice response (IVR) system which allows users to dial in for pre-recorded information on a particular topic. This is of particular use for outreach with low literacy communities. In Zimbabwe an IVR system was set up by the civil society organisation Kubatana to disseminate sexual health information for teenagers from a website called Auntie Stella.

This requires more technical knowledge, and the use of TrixBox, Asterisk or FreePBX. If you want to know more about the skills you'll need for this, look at this guidance we've included in the toolkit.


Information from mobile phone surveys can help you understand your constituents' needs and hopes, which means you can better represent them and plan more effectively. Surveys can also be used to get opinions and feedback from the wider public or from sections of the public. People surveyed can be asked to provide opinions on a range of topics such as recent news items, themes or current affairs, or they can take part in voting or polling.

Mobile phones can be used in a variety of ways for polling. It is possible to simply call people up and ask them questions, but this can get very expensive. A cheaper way of polling people is to use SMS messages, where the user sends in a given keyword (selected from a list of possible answers that you have offered them) in response to a question. This can be a good way of getting quick reactions from people as they carry their mobile phones with them most of the time. However, since there is a limit of 160 characters on SMS, you should be very clear about what you are trying to achieve with the poll, and about how you phrase your question and the possible answers. Test the poll on a small group of people before you begin polling in earnest, to see if the question and answer options are clear enough.

In estimating the cost of this type of project you should factor in the expense of publicising the phone number you want people to dial in to. You could consider buying a short code (a short phone number people may find easier to remember). This is an expensive option but might encourage people to respond.

It may also be worthwhile to set up a general phone number which your organisation can use to gather feedback on an ongoing project or activity.

You can use a commercial surveying service or use FrontlineSMS' survey manager function. You can also use Episurveyor, which is specifically designed for surveys.

In Kenya informal surveying has been carried out to allow people to report corruption and environmental degradation. interactive SMS services to influence local governance have been set up to which enable constituents to influence constituency project choices and to monitor development activities.

Petitions and protests

It is possible to set up petitions that can be signed either online or by text message, which means people don't need to have internet access to take part. The technology needed to support this is still fairly challenging. It can be done using FrontlineSMS or any Bulk SMS service (such as Clickatell or BulkSMS) which converts an SMS message into an email. These SMS messages can then be integrated into an existing online petition as additional signatures. To do this you will need to write some computer code in a programming language such as PhP.

One of the first examples in Africa of Signing a petition via SMS was when the African NGO Fahamu joined forces with women's groups across Africa to promote the ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Supporters were encouraged to text the word 'PETITION', along with their names, to signal their support for ratification.

The first cyber protest in the Philippines was a successful Consumer protest using SMS petition, led by the consumer group TXTPower. Some 28 million Filipinos opposed the Philippine Congress recommendation to impose a text tax. In Nigeria, Taking on big business with SMS messaging and mobile boycott was a successful tactic where a one-day cellphone boycott was organised by the National Association of GSM Subscribers of Nigeria and the Consumers Rights Project, with the sole objective of obliging providers to reduce tariffs which were considered unreasonably high.


Members of the public can be asked to help with election monitoring, for example, or to report specific events such as human rights violations or environmental damage. Monitoring using simple SMS and voice services is accessible, and helps grassroots communities to engage in the political sphere. Individuals can make a very effective contribution by helping, in real time, to gather and report widely dispersed information which can then be centralised and analysed on a computer database and redistributed in various forms.

Mobile phones have proved very useful in election monitoring around the world (see case study below). SMS messages can be used to feed observations from monitors back to a central computer hub. The collected text messages can then be collated and passed on to other monitoring groups and authorities. Citizen election monitoring through SMS was carried out in Nigeria where The Human Emancipation Lead Project used Frontline SMS to monitor elections and ensure that they were transparent and fair.
Using mobile phones to monitor local elections. Also in Nigeria The International Center for Accelerated Development (ICAD) in Nigeria used mobile phones to monitor local elections and succeeded in having disputed polls cancelled and in removing the head of the electoral body responsible.

Informal monitoring can also take place via phone numbers established specifically to receive SMS reports from members of the public, for example alerting you to violence or environmental disturbances. This is especially useful in situations where attempts are being made to prevent abuses as they happen. These reports can be displayed on a website. In addition, this kind of monitoring can be an effective and low-cost means to encourage more people to participate in your human rights or environmental monitoring programme, and all it requires is a dedicated SIM card and someone to transcribe the messages onto a website. After the disputed elections in Kenya in late 2007 SMS was used for Documenting human rights abuses, with a map featuring the SMS information being displayed in real time on a website.

SMS has also been an invaluable tool for raising the alarm over environmental devastation. In Argentina, Greenpeace used mobile phones to mobilise communities concerned about illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Greenpeace provided indigenous people with mobile phones, which allowed them to text for help when their lands came under attack from developers. Members of the communities sent SMS messages to warn the Greenpeace activists when their land was being bulldozed.

Monitoring via mobile phone isn't limited to SMS. Mobile phones' multimedia capacities are being used more and more for documenting human rights abuses. In Malaysia mobile phone footage of police brutality has been circulated online and 'virally' via MMS. To learn more about doing this, take a look at the People's media section which focuses on how to use the multimedia features of your mobile phone in your advocacy work.

Issues & problems

If you are considering using SMS (text messages) to conduct a survey it can be difficult to secure the trust of respondents. There is a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, ensuring that the data you are collecting is legitimate and therefore your results are valid and on the other hand protecting the anonymity of those who have responded to your survey.

You should also consider that the SMS format can be very restrictive because limits on the length of texts mean that it's not possible to offer explanatory notes to users who are struggling with the questions. Survey answers will have to be very short and formatted in a particular way for automated systems to cope with them. Mobile phone SMS surveys typically have a low response rate.

Another problem with SMS surveys is that answering questions by SMS will cost respondents money through their phone bills. This may have a negative impact on the number and quality of responses you receive. However it is possible to set up a pre-paid number so that people are able to answer your survey for free.

Before you start your campaign, it's a good idea to take some time to evaluate the effectiveness of providing information through SMS. Some communities you work with, for example young people, may respond better to mobile campaigns whereas other groups might prefer to get information in more traditional ways.

If you have sufficient resources it's worth investing the time in setting up a supporters database, using tools such as the organiser's database (http://www.organizersdb.org/home) or CivicCRM (http://civicrm.org/). Be sure to let people know that you may be using their mobile phone numbers.

If you are using mobile phones for monitoring purposes in areas where electricity supplies are unreliable you should ensure that alternative power supplies (such as solar phone chargers or generators) are available to ensure that monitoring can take place around the clock. When Greenpeace was supporting mobile phone-based environmental monitoring by communities who live in remote forest areas they also supplied car batteries to charge the phones in villages where there was no power supply.

In some countries the mobile phone network has been shut down by the authorities during election periods. For example, in response to the effective use of text messages to communicate with and mobilise supporters by the NGO Kinijit after the contested election in Ethiopia in May 2005, the government shut down SMS services. The services were only restored in 2007.

Security considerations

If you are collecting data for a survey or petition you must consider how to protect the anonymity of those who are submitting information and also find out what your obligations are under the data protection laws in your country. This could affect how you store people's information and how you let them 'unsubscribe' from information updates.