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 ( or CivicCRM ( 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.