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!

 

  • I’ve been using rapidpro for over 1.5 year. It’s intuitive. I even recently installed it on my PC using a GSM modem and a simple simcard. It’s smooth.

  • Feiyang Yuan

    I think that SMS not only providing service for people who live in rural areas, but also for aid workers. Especially when aid workers who meet risks and there is no internet data, SMS is more useful for them to contact with other staff. This may save their life.

  • Yuanhao Ding

    When we get to a new place, the first thing is finding WIFI. Our lives rely on internet so I even think sms function is out of date. When I read this article, I realise the advantage of this traditional mobile communication function is useful especially in rural area