Missions look to SMS in Nigeria

This is the eighth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Mike Blyth – Computer Systems Coordinator at Serving in Mission (SIM) – discusses their use of the software among missions operating in central Nigeria

Jos, Nigeria has been in the news recently because of riots in November that killed hundreds of people. This was the second such episode since 2001, and the situation remains tense. Besides this, violent crime has increased rapidly in the past four years, with frequent robberies by armed gangs of up to 20 or more men.

Part of our response as a group of missions in Jos has been to strengthen our communications network, and FrontlineSMS has become a key part of that network. The mobile phone is the basic means of communication in Jos, where there are few if any functioning land lines, and where Internet access is still expensive and spotty. During the November crisis, we noticed that voice calls on the mobile network rarely connected, probably because of congestion, while SMS messages got through well.

Jos, Nigeria - Courtesy New York Times

Our response

It was shortly after that we started experimenting with FrontlineSMS, and we have so far developed a system with a number of features.

First, anyone can text the system and receive a response with the current status message. In a crisis, this could contain warnings, instructions, announcements and so on. Besides this ‘on demand’ capability, we keep one list of users who receive broadcast alerts.

Anyone can join this “text alerts” group by sending the request as a text message to the system. We ask people to send the message “JOIN” followed by their name. At this point, FrontlineSMS cannot automatically include the name when the phone number is added to a group (only the number is added), but we hope that feature will be included in the future.

We maintain other user lists such as compound security leaders, crisis management teams, and so on. Anyone can broadcast a message to the crisis management team by prefixing a text message with a code that causes FrontlineSMS to forward the message to all team members.

Finally, we use FrontlineSMS to send outgoing SMS messages through the Internet when it is available. They’re sent via Clickatell, which routes them to the actual SMS network. Clickatell is very fast and inexpensive. We can send about 80 messages per minute this way, far more than is currently possible if we were to send messages directly via the mobile phone network.

acerfrontlinesms

Real life examples

Fortunately, we have not had actual rioting since we set up the system. However, there have been times when it has been very useful to send warnings and to raise the alert level. Here are some actual examples:

  • @Alerts: Jos is tense, please avoid downtown today
  • @Security: X and Y have been robbed tonight & report the robbers took their Toyota Land cruiser and muttered something about Hillcrest on the way out
  • @Alerts 20Feb 655pm. Serious rioting reported in Bauchi. No problems in Jos. Obey curfew, avoid areas that could be troublesome
  • 22 Feb 8am. *** Rioting on Friday Bauchi, churches & mosques burned. Now controlled. Keep on alert. Report signif news this num or ur security rep
  • SecGrp: Some rumors are going around about unrest planned for Friday, …. Email or txt me if you know more. –Mike

Effectiveness

The system has worked quite well. The most serious limitations to date have been problems with the modem and Internet, which have had a tendency to lock up, failing to receive messages, and have to be re-initialized manually. In addition, message delivery is sometimes delayed for hours, occasionally more than a day. This is a fault of the local network and has nothing to do with FrontlineSMS or Clickatell.

In summary, FrontlineSMS has served us very well as a way to communicate quickly by SMS. We would recommend it to others in similar situations.

Mike Blyth
Computer Systems Coordinator
Serving in Mission (SIM)
www.sim.org

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