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Submitted by Samantha Custer on
Great comment, Ben! You've given us a lot of good food for thought. I think your comment raises four important points that I want to explore briefly. First, there are a variety of platforms to engage citizens via text message on the market and that are being piloted in field settings in interesting ways. We mentioned Frontline SMS as an illustrative example, however, there are definitely others that we should be watching and learning from. A UNICEF pilot in Malawi is using RapidSMS, a bulk messaging application, to capture health and nutrition information to great effect. In Kenya, a World Bank Water and Sanitation project is prototyping the use of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), a popular local interface between mobile phones and a service provider's computer, to communicate citizen satisfaction and complaints with their water and sewerage services. The African Development Bank has just signed a strategic partnership with GeoPoll to support the processing of mobile based surveys which indicates its potential. These are just a few of many interesting platforms out there. Second, how do we assess such tools in terms of a low-med-high tech categorization? When looking at a given platform, I would ask what is the burden of accessibility for most citizens to participate (i.e. - how easy or affordable is it for them to obtain the requisite tools, such as a mobile phone, to provide feedback). As mentioned in the guidance note, the difficulty with categorizing technologies is that the adoption curve can happen very quickly and what was high tech yesterday may become medium tech tomorrow and low tech in a few years time. I think that continuum is better used to evaluate a specific context at a given period of time. The rapid adoption of mobile phones in many parts of the world is indicative of this and varies widely depending on the context. In places with extremely low mobile phone penetration, such as the Central African Republic (16%) or Niger (18%), accessibility would be an issue for most citizens which may make mobile based applications high tech. Whereas, for places with higher mobile phone penetration, the same technology might be medium tech such as Nigeria (71%) or Ghana (59%). So, Geopoll and other platforms that rely on mobile technology, may be medium or high tech depending on the context. Third, we do need to balance optimism regarding the potential of these tools with a critical eye regarding resource intensiveness and functionality. The more resource intensive or less functional a tool is to manage, the lower the likelihood that a government or international organization is to sustain the system and respond to citizen inputs effectively. However, I would also say that the pace of iteration and the relative newness of these tools makes it difficult to definitively make a judgment on which is best and that is really beyond the scope of the guidance note. What I would rather see is a highly adaptive approach of experimentation with multiple platforms in different settings, capturing of lessons learned and channeling this knowledge back into refining these tools in the future. I think that a tool such as Geopoll should indeed be looked at, along with others, particularly because of the aggregation function. If you are interested in product reviews of different tools, I suggest a site such as mobileactive.org which has quite a few objective write-ups on the pros and cons of various platforms. Finally, your comment about text-based polling raises the important point that the way that SMS can be used to engage citizens varies depending on the specifics of a feedback system and its goals. Sometimes the interaction can be highly structured, such as in the form of a survey. This is particularly helpful in standardizing the form of responses and in aggregation. However, this is not the only form of interaction that might be beneficial. More open-ended and free form contributions such as suggestions, questions or complaints are also a valuable way to benefit from citizen views. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!