SMS Platforms Compared

While smartphones and instant messaging are on the rise, they depend heavily on wifi or on a reliable 3G networks, neither of which is a given in many countries – especially not in rural areas. SMS on the other hand is available more widely and provides humanitarian organizations, development agencies, the Red Cross Red Crescent and NGOs with a more robust technology to communicate with people.

Photo: Internews on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sahal Gure Mohamed, 62, texts on his cell phone while waiting in line at dawn to register at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo: Internews on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Not surprisingly, this has given rise to a large number of SMS platforms, making it difficult for project managers to decide which is the most appropriate. To help UNHCR make these decisions for their health-related activities, CartONG contacted me some months ago and asked me to compare some of the more established platforms. The report was published while I was on mission in Greece, which is why I’m a little slow to share it with you here.

In total, nine SMS platforms made it into the final report: Commcare, Echo Mobile, FrontlineSMS, Magpi, TeleRivet, TERA, TextIt aka RapidPro and Voto Mobile. Many more were excluded based on the following list of criteria:

  • Must support one-to-many messaging as well as one-to-one messaging
  • Must support two-way-communication
  • Must be able to send text messages in more than one alphabet
  • Must be able to send text messages to at least 40 countries
  • The platform must be a self-managed solution, i.e. program staff can send and receive messages and surveys themselves, without having to go through a service provider
  • No software development skills or similarly advanced IT skills are necessary to use/install the platform.

With the exception of TERA, which I have seen in the field, a colleague of mine and I were able to test each platform. Each provider received a copy of his/her chapter before the report was published for review to ensure accuracy.

For the sake of comparability, we only looked at the systems out of the box. This might be a little unfair for systems that allow a lot of customization, but my point of view is that most SMS programs are run by non-IT program managers who need something that they can use quickly and who do not have the resources to invest a lot into implementation.

Have you used SMS platforms to inform people or receive feedback? Please share your experience in the comments!