SMS technology: A game changer

by Ashley Kasprzak, JVA Consulting

While some of the sessions at the 2010 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference, which was recently held in San Antonio, Texas, were highly academic, others were easy to dive into. My views on the sessions are likely because of my perspective as “an accidental evaluator.” I call myself this because I don’t have formal academic evaluation training, but I do have lots of professional training and real life experience collecting data and even a little experience with analysis. One of my favorite sessions at AEA, and one of the easiest for me to dive into, involved a really simple concept: SMS technology.

SMS means (short messaging systems) and is the text messaging service component on phones. A few years ago I was at a conference where a youth-serving organization in California talked about using text messaging to communicate with its clients. It found that youth became more deeply involved in the mentoring program and consequently had longer-term involvement than youth participating just a few years earlier before this technology was in place.

JVA evaluators Julia Alvarez, Nancy Zuercher and Randi Nelson (left to right) lead a discussion at the American Evaluation Association's 2010 Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

At AEA, program evaluators from a worldwide capacity building firm called PACT, described how they use SMS technology as a communication tool and data collection function. This simple concept is a game changer because even countries that lack infrastructure for Internet access are able to speedily connect with volunteers in the field through SMS. For example, PACT works with others in the field to assist orphans and vulnerable children. PACT’s Web site reads: “Engagement partners include not only our traditional grassroots groups and local NGO partners, but also government agencies and socially responsible corporations, as well as donors and policy makers.”

Representatives from those partners as well as independent volunteers on the ground in places like Namibia, Malawi and more, each agree to monitor approximately five children at a time. Each volunteer has a simple form that they can complete each time they come in contact with a child who they are monitoring. The form includes name, birth date and just a few questions including: Has the child missed 10 days or more of school? Is the child injured or sick? Is the child in need of clothes? Is the child in need of food?

The form is filled out and received within seconds by PACT office staff. If the form has any red flag areas checked such as injury or lack of food, then it is classified as “Red.” These cases are addressed most immediately. Other forms are labeled “Orange,” “Yellow” or “Green.” The needs of children are more quickly met through this simple system and PACT has solid data that doesn’t have to be re-entered by a staff person collecting hard copy forms.

This is a practical application of technology. Since I first heard about it a few years ago, I have mentioned it to multiple clients. They often shrug their shoulders and say something like, “Huh, sounds interesting, but boy the cost would really be high.” I beg to differ!! The cost of continuing to process information through several people in hard copy form is needless and can be costly. It’s time to look toward processes being used in developing countries to save time and money here. I encourage nonprofit leaders to explore the different uses of SMS technology that are out there. The forms needed to create a short questionnaire like the PACT uses are easy to download online, using free open-source software. The possibility of corporate sponsors underwriting text messaging is also and option. And, I expect that grantors will soon begin to see the value of this technology for better communication with clients, volunteers and staff. Moreover, with SMS technology, data collection can become easier.

After reading this blog, my husband, commenting on the simplicity of text messaging said, “Yeah, texting really isn’t innovative.” Despite its simplicity, and the fact that most people have text messaging capabilities on their phone, few are using it, making me wonder what is stopping nonprofits from using technology that they already have. If you’ve thought about using SMS technology, but haven’t yet implemented, I’d love to know why. Alternately, if you’ve had success with texting in your own program, I’d love to hear about that too.

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