The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

How SMS texting can help local and global communities overcome a variety of problems

6th August 2014

Local communities around the world face a variety of problems both domestically and globally. As a result they are continuously looking for cost effective and efficient solutions whilst simultaneously ensuring sufficient accountability and transparency.

The original concept of SMS texting was devised over twenty years ago by Freidhelm Hillebrand in his home town of Bonn, Germany. This came about by typing random sentences and questions where he counted every letter, number and space to the tune of 160 characters. This idea was later turned into practice in the early nineties when Neil Papworth officially sent the first text message wishing his friend “Merry Christmas”.

The initial growth was slow and during the mid-nineties, the average user sent 0.4 texts a month. However, with the rise in mobile phone ownership (93 per cent of people in the UK), the number of text messages sent daily is estimated to reach over 100 million a day. With its growth in popularity, texting has evolved to become more than just a way to communicate with friends, now enabling people to receive updates, keep track of finances and send emails.

Despite widespread popularity, data suggests that its popularity differs across population segments. For example, minority groups are more likely to send/receive text messages than white groups in the United States. Age also makes a difference: U.S. teens send/receive only 50 messages per day, whereas adults on average send/receive only ten.

Other research suggests text messaging is particularly popular in developing countries; in a survey of 21 countries, which included the United States, Great Britain and China, text messaging was found to be most popular in Indonesia, Kenya and Lebanon.

SMS also offers an accessible and cost effective solution for local government. Councils that have adopted this have realised significant advantages and improved the service that they provide. The list of possibilities is endless but can be used to inform residents about flood warnings, traffic bulletins, and campaign notifications.

Using SMS is accessible as the technology involved in sending a text is very simple, and the cost for wireless carriers is almost nothing. Furthermore, new advancements in text messaging across a variety of media, such as text messaging apps on mobile phones that can send/receive messages from other media, are predicted to drive the cost of traditional text messaging plans down due to decreased demand.

It is also a valuable tool as the general public have a cost effective and accessible mechanism for them to enquire and provide feedback to their local authority. This empowers younger residents to contact the council regarding private matters and maintain their confidentiality (privacy is commonly cited as one of the main reasons as to why youngsters are reluctant to ask for help and advice).

At an international level, various examples exist as to how SMS campaigns have improved the lives of residents in local communities. For example, a campaign conducted in Lira, Uganda, by the Text To Change company has proved to have been very successful with regards to increasing HIV/AIDS awareness.

The campaign involved radio advertisements broadcast to 145,000 asking them to subscribe to the Text To Change HIV/AIDS SMS Quiz. The quiz consisted of 19 questions testing both the respondent’s knowledge of HIV/AIDS and retrieving background information e.g. gender, location etc. Additionally a group of 7,000 people were targeted by Text to Change who all had SMS questions pertaining to HIV/AIDS awareness and messages encouraging people to go for free HIV testing.

Their campaign resulted in the doubling of HIV testing at the Lira AIDS Information Centre following an SMS reminder of the free service. Overall, 98 per cent stated they gained via this process new knowledge and on average 74 per cent of all questions sent via SMS were answered correctly.

Recent studies have shown that text messaging is an effective way to deliver health messages and change health behaviours. Although recognising that the technology has a long way to go to fully realise its potential, recent studies have concluded that its inclusion in health intervention to change behaviours should be adopted as a matter of urgency. As the results in Uganda demonstrate, it can produce real change in countries that lack wide-spread health education and coverage.

The main challenge now for researchers is to explore how characteristics unique to texting can be aligned with elements of health behaviour. For example, how interventions can deliver persuasive health messages at critical decision points (i.e. at the end of the work day when the decision is whether or not to go to the gym). Delivering such time sensitive messages means that the interval between the behavioural intention and the decision to perform the behaviour is greatly reduced, which may increase the likelihood of subsequently performing the behaviour.

This will be an important step to develop a process that has already proved to be beneficial to local communities (both domestically and abroad) in producing cost effective, efficient and transparent solutions to complex problems.

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