The challenges of mobile advocacy

While mobile phones offer enormous potential to enhance advocacy work, there are challenges to be borne in mind.

Finding and tracking your audience

Before starting your mobile advocacy programme its worth spending some time thinking about and profiling your audience and how they their mobile phones. For example - if your audience is sharing handsets its inappropriate to be using mobiles to send or receive confidential or sensitive information.

In order to use mobiles effectively for advocacy 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 and that people agree to let their mobile number be used to contact them. If you have sufficient resources it's worth investing the time in setting up a database, using tools such as the organiser's database ( or CivicCRM ( 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. You should always ensure that people are able to easily unsubscribe from your SMS services.

Privacy and Security

  • Your mobile phone contains a great deal of sensitive information, so it's vital to think about security. To learn more about how to keep yourself and your data safe see the security information article.
  • Your country's legal system may place constraints on your organisation's use of SMS messaging, for example requiring you to inform people what you may do with any data you collect from them or limiting the number of SMS messages you are able to send. To find out the legal situation in your country, contact the government body which deals with telecommunications.
  • “Text spamming”, or the sending of unsolicited text messages, is illegal in some countries. Users have to ‘opt in’ either by text, via the internet or during a recruitment process, in order to receive SMS messages.

Technological Challenges

  • Much of the advocacy work that is currently being done using mobile phones is groundbreaking, and lessons continue to be learned. There are many examples of failed mobile campaigns, most of which don't make the news, and a few successes. It is important to have reasonable expectations from the beginning.
  • The specialised tools and software that are needed in order to do this sort of work with mobile phones are mostly very challenging to use and require technical support. To learn more about these tools and to find out about some online services which may be easier to use, see the guide to What types of tool are available?.
  • If you are thinking of using mobile phones to conduct a survey you should bear in mind that the SMS format can be very restrictive because it offers no help or context to users who may be struggling to understand or interpret your questions. Answers to survey questions will have to be very short and formatted in a particular predetermined way in order for automated systems to cope with them.
  • Interactive voice response systems which allow users to dial in for a menu of choices can be a great way of providing dynamic information to a large audience of non-literate people but are very technologically challenging to create and maintain.

Roaming Issues

  • If your organisation wants to set up a mobile phone programme across more than one country users may find it expensive to call or send an SMS abroad. Check with all the mobile operators who operate in the region to see which can offer the most competitive rates.


  • Setting up and maintaining a short code (a short, easy-to-remember telephone number usually 4 or 5 digits in length) for people to dial when accessing or subscribing to your organisation's services is often very expensive.

Audience Issues

  • Mobile phone use is very different among different groups, for example young people often use SMS much more than older users. When designing a mobile advocacy programme you should tailor it to the appropriate audience or audiences.
  • When developing programmes it's important to remember that mobile phones are often shared between users. Many people still access telecommunications services through shared phones or “Village Phone” schemes (shared phones are phones purchased and shared between friends and family members. Village Phones are mobiles purchased, mostly by women in rural areas (often via a small micro-finance loan), which can be used by members of the community to make calls for a small fee. In developing countries in particular, especially in rural areas, people who don't own phones may be unable to participate in mobile campaigns. This reinforces the need to consider mobiles as just one part of a wider strategy, to ensure that you also engage with people who don't have access to mobile phones.
  • The literacy of mobile phone users should not be assumed. Some manufacturers have responded to the challenge of designing for non-literate or semi-literate users by developing mobile phones which respond to voice prompts in local languages.
  • Obtaining the phone numbers of target audiences can be one of the biggest challenges NGOs face when trying to use mobiles in their work. People may be reluctant or suspicious when asked to provide their phone numbers and a lack of trust between parties can mean an early end to mobile-based projects.

Language and font issues

  • Ensure that your target audiences are able to read SMS messages that you send them. If your audience speaks a minority language the font for that language may not be installed on your phone. Installing minority language support on phones is not trivial and usually has to be done by an official repair centre rather than by the user.
  • If you are delivering information, you may need to offer it in more than one language.

Mobile operating systems

The mobile phone operating system is the software that makes your phone work. Two operating systems run more than 95 percent of the world’s computers, but dozens of systems are behind the 2.5 billion mobile phones in circulation.

The benefits of open source software which have led to innovation in the traditional computing environment don't apply to mobile platforms because the hardware isn't accessible to software developers. Mobile phone software and applications are developed to order for the mobile operators who pass only the functions on to the consumers.

This is the opposite of the web development environment. In the web context innovations develop at a rapid pace because it's easy to experiment, make mistakes and 'play' with technologies by demonstrating on a small scale that an idea or programme works.

This closed platform presents challenges for those in the not-for-profit sector wishing to develop mobile applications that are adapted for those who may need to use their phones in different ways, for example by making the phone interface locally relevant (providing different languages and/or fonts) or by producing applications that are appropriate for disabled users (such as visually-impaired people or people with tremors).

This situation is changing with the advent of the Google Android system and the Open Moko which is billed as the “World's First Integrated Open Source Mobile Communications Platform”. However it is unclear whether the Google system will be compatible with older phones. One of the most important operating systems, Symbian, is also in the process of converting to open source.

Big business

Those hoping to set up programmes using mobile technologies are obliged to do so via the global mobile industry which provides carriers and aggregation services.

  • Pricing structures are complex and vary from country to country. For example in some regions SMS messages are more expensive than voice communication, which has made them a less popular way of communicating. Sometimes data has to be sent via the country where the service provider is based, which is also expensive.
  • The challenges of cross-border messaging and roaming: an organisation wishing to set up a trans-national messaging programme must attempt to ensure that the service is reasonably priced in all target countries.
  • Privacy: NGOs and activists doing work which is politically sensitive must try to make sure that their data, conversations and messages stay private.

The political landscape

The political situation in a country or region has an impact on the development of programmes and tools using mobile technologies.

Human rights issues

It is worth taking into account the political and labour rights issues related to handset manufacture. A recent report produced by SOMO - the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations entitled The High Cost of Calling detailed the poor working conditions in the factories of the five largest mobile telephone companies: Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG. Workers in factories producing parts for Nokia and Motorola work without proper protection and are exposed to chemicals that cause chronic illnesses and serious physical harm.

Environmental issues

As with any electronic device there are environmental issues related to the entire life cycle of the mobile phone. The mining of coltan (a mineral essential for mobile manufacturing) is associated with human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo The dumping of e-waste such as old mobile phone batteries in developing countries is also a problem.

Health issues

There are concerns that the prolonged use of mobile phones might cause several types of health problem. One source of peer reviewed clinical data suggested the following; "There is no convincing evidence linking mobile phone use to cancers of the head. What evidence we have points to there being no link, though what cannot be excluded is long-term heavy use of mobile phones, with a long latency for cancer development."

Read a summary of the UK's biggest investigation into mobile safety.