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Published on October 4th, 2013 | by EJC

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Ureport: Local Issues Driving Mobile Participation

This article was written by Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman and originally published at The Transparency & Accountability Initiative on 23 September, 2013. Republished with permission.

A concept we return to often in our bridging work is that context matters, in how organizations tailor their tools to their needs, and in how citizens’ daily interests  can drive advocacy. Because mobile phones are personal and networked at the same time, SMS has become highly valued technology for advocates in the human rights and good governance fields.

Campaigners seeking good examples of mobile participation can learn from the progress of UNICEF’s Ureport SMS platform.  This free system enables young Ugandans to submit opinions on community issues and work together to address public problems.

Ureport is unique for its large user base, as well as for the advanced software UNICEF uses to analyze hundreds of reports. More than 200,000 young people have enrolled, and 200 to 1,000 are reportedly joining each day.

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Photo: Uganda Scouts Association

The tool provides a centralized knowledge platform where information from local TV, community events and radio are aggregated and then disseminated through SMS. “Ureporters” also receive weekly poll questions and results.   Recent questions and messages include: “What challenges and problems do you think children and youth living with disabilities face in your communities?” and “Do you know the dates for the upcoming polio campaign? A) 21st to 23rd Sept B) 28th to 30th Sept or C) Don’t know.”

The responses are processed with advanced computing tools from IBM to create an automated classification system that aggregates incoming messages.  Results are displayed with easy to comprehend visualizations and data breakdowns. The Ureport system also routes compiled reports to decision-makers in Uganda’s parliament and administrative offices.

By focusing at the hyper-local level, Ureport builds participation on the information that’s most relevant to local community members.  The platform is also both convenient and legitimate—providing credible information from multiple sources. Together, the focus on citizens’ daily lives and the relative ease of the system help Ureport gather not just knowledge, but a network that increases participation and even accountability.

As U.S. groups pilot more SMS-based citizen initiatives, such as participatory budgeting, it will be critical to learn from Ureport. This two-way information sharing, combined with an “opt-in” approach to gather the most interested users, can help maintain the proper incentives to participation, which unfortunately are too often overlooked. Proper incentives in turn create legitimacy for a platform and increase the chance that a mobile campaign can help enhance public service delivery and good governance.

If your organization is thinking about SMS-campaigns and e-participation in policy and decision-making, here are three good practices to bear in mind: 1) provide citizens with the information they need the most, in the most accessible way; 2) create two-way channels for communication; and 3) use technology as both an aggregator for open information and a participation platform for local communities.

About the Author:

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Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard University and is currently a Democracy Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance and an Advisor to the Governance Lab at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. As part of Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project (TPP), she worked with the Open Society Foundation’s Transparency and Accountability Initiative to empower NGOs in the developing world to use  Internet Communication (ICT) for greater citizen power. Most recently, Dr. Russon Gilman served as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Photo: Ken Banks

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