Mobile communication is capable of reaching people in the furthest flung corners of the planet. Many parts of the African continent are benefitting from SMS messaging, which is doing everything from facilitating cash transfers to Rwandan refugees to sending weather forecasts to Malawian farmers.
In Sierra Leone, SMS messaging is being used to tackle Ebola. The SMS Voice project (follow the link to donate) was set up by Christian Aid. It enlists ‘volunteer citizen reporters’ to share vital information about the virus and which regions are the most badly affected by sending text message alerts.
Raising awareness is the most effective strategy for combating Ebola. Why? Because it’s not all that easy to contract. The virus has a reproduction number - or R0 - of 2, which means the average number of people who catch the disease from one person is two. By way of comparison, HIV has an R0 of 4, measles has an R0 of 18 (assuming nobody in the population is vaccinated). For Ebola to spread, it required close contact with bodily fluid like blood or vomit.
With such a low susceptibility risk, the answer to the recent outbreaks in West Africa comes down to a lack of education about how Ebola spreads. Every culture has an instinctive tendency to increase human contact whilst caring for the sick. Misinformation and basic lack of information is responsible for the ongoing epidemic.
Which is where programs like the SMS Voice project come in. Even in the poorest areas of Sierra Leone, basic feature phone ownership is high but far fewer people have access to the internet. SMS messaging is the most reliable way of exchanging the spread of Ebola for the spread of information capable of halting the disease.
SMS Voices isn’t just dealing with healthcare. Social ills are being addressed by the program, which enables the ‘citizen reporters’ to raise concerns with local councilors via anonymous ‘microreports.’ Fitting inside the 160 character limit of a standard text message, each report contains crowdsourced information regarding youth, governance, access to services, gender and justice and security.
Issues raised via text message alerts include the scarcity of teaching resources in school, poorly maintained roads, bridges and other infrastructural components, and conflicts between local interest groups. The project is also tackling clean water, FGM, domestic violence and teen pregnancy.
The SMS Voice project is not alone in facilitating text message alerts for health and social crises. Similar programs, backed by charities, businesses, governments or a combination of all three, are connecting people in some of the most deprived parts of the world in the only way possible: by SMS messaging.