«Text to change helps NGOs to launch social campaigns and collect data via SMS, track a project and evaluate its impact through mobile phones, and share information with thousands of people.» In the heart of Amsterdam Vps met Hajo van Beijma, founder of Text to change, social enterprise using mobiles to serve international cooperation.
[By Serena Carta, from ICT4dev]
Hajo van Beijma is the Mark Zuckerberg of the Netherlands. He was still in high school, when he made the lives of his classmates easier by creating a database that allowed them to do target researches on topics of interest. “I’ve always been fascinated with helping people gain access to the incredible amount of existing information. More often than not, we know that the information we seek does exist somewhere, but we are not able to retrieved it”.
Such challenge inspired Hajo to establish a social enterprise, Text to change, (TTC) in 2007. He pioneered the use of phone as a tool for social change and innovation in the South to NGOs, international organizations and Governments alike. TTC now has 44 projects in 16 countries worldwide; a 35 people and nearly 44 million SMS sent across the globe. TTC is an award-winning reality growing at a very fast pace, so much so that Hajo was appointed Young Global Leader 2014 by the World Economic Forum.
I met Hajo in his Office of’s-Gravenhekje, on the first floor of what Amsterdam knows as the AmLab, a social innovation hub for cooperation in international development.
S: Hajo, tell me what you guys at Text to change actually do.
H: TTC was born in the wake of mobile phone boom in the African continent. We basically work with small NGOs and United Nations agencies, as well as with private companies. We set up and manage social marketing campaigns and data collection in emerging markets (such as Africa and South America) using mobile technology. We develop software allowing people to send or receive SMS, voice messages and data about education, health, agriculture and the environment in those areas where access to this kind of information is not easy. Our goal is twofold. Through the use of free mobile services, we want to spread existing knowledge among as many people, organizations and institution as possible. Secondly, we aim at helping them organize massive data collections to simplify the interaction between international cooperation stakeholders. It could be useful for the assessment of the impact of the project and for the definition of the strategy to come. I find that the phone is perfect for speeding up these processes.
S: Can you provide me with some examples of product developed by TTC and put at the service of development?
H: As a general rule, all our services are based on interactive quizzes and questionnaires whose purpose is to either collect or provide information. We are talking about health management information systems, disseminating messages reminding doctor appointments or medication administration to the patients, or broadcasting product market prices to farmers who want to sell them. We designed Vusion, an open source platform for messaging, able to connect millions of people via SMS. In Tanzania, for example, women and men are reached by SMS informing and sensitizing them on everything you need to know about pregnancy. However, not all projects are based on SMS. Given that a large number of users is illiterate, we developed voice recognition software to facilitate communication in remote or rural areas. In Uganda, we have opened a call center allowing user to set up surveys in both English and local languages. Thanks to special agreements with the telcos, all these services are free of charge for so-called project beneficiaries.
S: Among the many projects supported by TTC, can you speak about one having an obvious social, political, economic impact?
H: Yes, the one I mentioned before, in Tanzania, in the field of m-health. We developed an information system through which the Ministry of health can implement medical prevention of unwanted pregnancy and reduce maternal and child mortality among the Swahilis. From 2012 on, 21 million SMS were sent to over 300 thousand pregnant women, new mothers, obstetricians, and midwives. Funded by US Programs (including USAID), the Tanzanian Ministry had started working on this project with local radio, but the recipients ‘ scale has risen if using cell phones. Users sign up to receive free SMS informing them about how to behave when pregnant (namely, what doctor appointments to go to, how to prevent malaria or HIV/AIDS transmission to their child, how to feed the baby and what precautions to take during the first few days after birth). This initiative had plenty of success. In all likelihood, it would not work the same way in Burundi! It is important to know that each project is closely linked to the context in which it is being developed. So in this sense it appears that the people of Tanzania were very receptive to this project.
S: have you ever happened to see an ICT based project creating more inequality than benefits?
H: Yes. In Uganda, we partnered with an NGO working to raise malaria awareness. The project was based on smartphones, which were distributed in a disorderly and unfair fashion among the population. As a result of it, quarrels and conflicts broke out between those who received the phone and who did not. This warned us on the importance of not invading the local context with new technologies. We must then invest on tools already present and used on-site, or else we might produce adverse effects.
S: from your experience in this area, what is your take on the impact of ICT in international cooperation?
H: Through the use of new technologies, especially mobile phones, NGOs may gain a better perspective on what they do. A poll launched via SMS sent to thousands of people allows for the gathering of feedback and useful data. They, in turn, can lead to a better assess the performance, impact of supported initiatives and improvement for better outcomes. I can not deny that our services, like so many others, come with a price tag, but in the long run it is definitely an investment for the future.
S: what is the biggest hurdle you encountered in working with technology in the South?
H: Based on my experience, there two main hindrance. First off, mobile operators can be difficult to work with because they hardly give you good contracts. Secondly, in those countries where the governments holds a monopoly on telecommunications, hyper-tax bills and restrictive legislation can definitely be issues.
S: Finally, what is the difference between TTC and Frontline SMS?
H: Let me start with making it crystal clear that we have always been on good terms, we are not in competition! They start smaller projects, usually involving local communities in limited regions, whereas TTC often covers entire countries and reaches large population groups. I admit that it is better to use Frontline SMS for qualitative surveys in small groups, where the NGO itself can take care of everything without intermediaries or technical assistance. TTC is better suited to nationwide campaigns.