Coordinating & mobilising

The fact that mobile phones have made rapid communication easier and cheaper means that large numbers of people can now connect to organise and coordinate their efforts; the work of non-profit organisations is now simpler for the same reasons. Mobile phones are particularly useful because individuals can spread information by forwarding messages from one phone to another. After natural disasters mobile phones have proved invaluable because they are often the only means of communication that still works.

Rallies, demonstrations and other actions can be organised quickly and efficiently and mobile phones can then be used to communicate as events unfold, allowing activists to share information on flash points and the location of police or army units, for example. For many advocacy organizations and their members and supporters, such action alert and quick response tools are vital.

This section of the toolkit looks at ways of using SMS (text messages), voice calls and the messaging service Twitter to support this kind of organising. Twitter allows you to post SMS updates to a website to which people can subscribe.

If you regularly want to communicate with a large number of members using SMS you can use FrontlineSMS or a commercial service such as BulkSMS or Clickatell.

Organising meetings

Mobile phones can be used to organise meetings through SMS forwarding or a relay of voice calls. It's important to keep an up-to-date record of the mobile phone numbers of your supporters and members; see below for tools that can help you do this. It's also vital to ensure that you allow people to opt out of the messages that you are sending them, for example by texting back the word 'STOP'.

Conference calls

When users are far apart, or when other communication systems have failed or are being blocked by the authorities, then communication is only possible via mobile phone.

Conference calls can be set up through the internet or through the mobile or fixed telephone networks, and they make it possible for a number of people who are far apart to speak to each other all at once. Conference calls can spare you considerable time, expense and effort because the callers speak by phone rather than meeting physically in a central location. Many mobile phones have conference call facilities, allowing a coordinator to telephone a number of people from a single mobile phone so that they can all take part in a single conversation, although conference calling in this way can be very expensive.

If you have access to a cheap mobile data package, using a tool on your phone such as Fring or Gizmo can help your organisation communicate more cheaply. Fring allows you to access your Skype account on your phone so that long-distance calls can be made more cheaply, or free, via the internet.

Action alerts & quick response

Mobile technologies can help you to alert supporters and members to upcoming events or actions and to respond quickly to an emergency or disaster.

For example when there are arrests of activists, or when there is an environmental or human rights emergency, a simple 'phone tree' can help a group of people to relay alerts to each other in order to trigger an agreed response such as contact with the press or an update on a website. The Migrant Workers emergency text programme initiated by MIGRANTE in the Philippines enables Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) to text in their complaints over abuses in the workplace and discriminatory laws passed by foreign governments.

The power of Using SMS in an emergency situation was demonstrated when the Society Against Internet Censorship in Pakistan started blogging live updates during General Musharaff's imposition of martial law in Pakistan.

If you are thinking of establishing a response system to deal with political crises bear in mind that it will need to be sophisticated, to be active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and that it should at the very least allow communication to and from a publicly known central voice/SMS number.

Protest actions

Mobile phones are a crucial tool for the preparation, coordination and conduct of mobilisations, demonstrations and other events. SMS can be used to publicise demonstrations by sending messages which can then be spread exponentially, with recipients forwarding the messages to multiple friends and family members and to supporters of the cause in question.

During demonstrations mobile phones can be used for coordination, for example to inform people about changes in route. They can also be used to let leaders know about any arrests as well as to initiate quick action at the police stations where activists may be held.

The 'microblogging' service Twitter can be updated via SMS and can be used to trigger protest actions such as sending emails and SMS messages. The Zimbabwean group Sokwanele have been using their Twitter account to post action alerts during the recent post-election violence.

Ringtones can be used as a solidarity tool so people can demonstrate their support for an issue - read more on using ringtones to popularise an issue and How to create a ring tone.

Viral campaigning

Viral campaigning means spreading a message from person to person, like a virus. Messages forwarded in this way on mobile phones can work very effectively and quickly to inform and mobilise people. This technique is cheap for the organisation that sets the message in motion, and an important or powerful message can make a great deal of impact when spread virally.

In China, members of the public were mobilised by SMS to demonstrate against the building of a chemical plant in Xiamen. A message warning of the dangers of the plant was forwarded to an estimated 1 million people. The call to action read: “For our children and grandchildren, act! Participate among 10,000 people, June 1 at 8am, opposite the municipal government building! Hand tie yellow ribbons! SMS all your Xiamen friends!“

Mobilising for events & campaigns

SMS can be extremely effective for mobilising in local and global campaigns. SMS messages can be sent once only or regularly during the lead-up to an event, using Frontline SMS or a bulk SMS service.

The Women of Uganda Network, together with Womensnet, South Africa and APC-Africa-Women (AAW), organised an SMS campaign during a global event, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. They sent out SMS messages each day for sixteen days, encouraging individuals and organisations to Speak Out, Stand Out, and Commit to preventing Violence against Women.

Using mobile phones to mobilise for an action campaign was successful in Nigeria where The International Center for Accelerated Development (ICAD) used mobile phones to bring people together for a rally during the the Global AIDS week of action campaign, which began in April 2008.

See the section on people's media for more information on how to use mobile phone cameras to capture images, sound and video safely and securely during actions and demonstrations.

Awareness building through SMS campaigns: In their Urgent Action appeals, Amnesty International-Netherlands used SMS to attract new members, to build awareness of the campaign against torture and to engage new people in responding quickly to cases of torture.

SMS campaign updates by EASSI Women's Day focussed on girl children in Kenya and East Africa after post-election violence. People who participated in this campaign received an SMS every day from 25th February 2008 to 14th March 2008 on their mobile phones.

Using SMS to mobilise response to abductions: this was effective among university students in the Philippines. KARAPATAN mobilised significant numbers of students from the University of Philippines and other universities through mass text messages demanding the release of two abducted students and calling for participation in protest actions.

Issues & problems

In order to use mobiles effectively for coordinating and mobilising it's vital that your organisation keep an accurate and up-to-date record of the mobile phone numbers of your staff, members and supporters. If you have sufficient resources it's worth investing the time in setting up a 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 viral techniques you don't have any control over how many people get your message, or who they are. You can't guarantee that your message will be forwarded on to your intended audience in time for the information to be useful.

While Twitter is an easy tool to use, in most of the world uploading information to it via SMS requires sending a costly international SMS message to a number in the United Kingdom. Reports have also started to arrive that Twitter is being blocked in some places such as Dubai.

Security considerations