SMS Code of Conduct Profiled on BBC Click

On December 24th, the BBC World Service radio programme Click aired a segment on the concept of an SMS Code of Conduct and how this technology is being used in humanitarian crises. I was invited to join the panel on the programme, along with Patrick Meier (with whom I wrote the GSMA SMS CoC along with Jacob Korenblum from Souktel), Ken Banks and Angela Odour from Ushahidi.

The programme can be accessed here:

It has almost been one year since we published the first edition of “Towards a Code of Conduct: Guidelines for the Use of SMS in Natural Disasters.” The “Towards” in the title was very much intentional – as SMS continues to be used for both one and two way communication in disasters, and new formal and informal actors seek to use it, a fresh set of lessons and best practices will emerge and continue to iterate. The aim of the first version was to build on and aggregate discussions that were happening in the mobile and humanitarian communities and provide a common sense set of principles and guidelines for the respective parties to consider and debate.

Since its publication, the document has been used by organisations like Souktel and UN OCHA, and has been discussed and assessed in humanitarian forums (examples here and here). Typhoon Haiyan again provided a new environment in which to test and apply the guidelines and examine the challenge of SMS service design and implemented in real time. Below are four key reflections of what happened in the Philippines vis-a-vis the recommendations we set out in the code, and that were identified during the panel on BBC Click:

  • More does not necessarily = better. One of the things that the SMS CoC identifies is that shortcodes and content should be coordinated amongst actors to prevent duplication and provide clear and consistent information and expectation management to target audiences in the affected community. In the Philippines, we witnessed an initial wave of enthusiasm as lots (and I mean LOTS) of old and new actors identified potential applications for the technology – some ideas were sound, others were less well thought out. However despite a concept for a service being in an early stage, requests were still being put to us and to MNOs for shortcodes to pilot and deploy them. We were able to help manage this deluge through a referral process where the GSMA Disaster Response team acted as an intermediary between the MNOs and requesting parties, and will continue to develop this capacity in the future to make it more effective and efficient. We will be working with Patrick Meier and others over the next few months to establish a service design and specs template to help organisations better understand what information they need to provide, and the level of coordination that they’ve pursued in order for these services to be progressed. The bottom line is that no matter how great a one or two-way communication SMS service sounds, it sits within a wider information ecosystem as well as an environment faced with resource constraints. The last thing you want is to bombard affected communities with inconsistent information, or have multiple solicitation of needs and feedback without follow up. This brings me to my next point, and one that came out clearly during the BBC programme, in the SMS CoC and in some of the debates that circulated about proposed SMS feedback platforms.
  • The capacity to respond: This issue continues to be a central topic in the debate around two-way communications. Many subscribers to the “do no harm” mantra would argue that if you can’t tangibly improve a person’s situation in a crisis, it is unethical to ask them what they want or need for risk of raising false expectations and causing further distress. Others argue that services that allow affected people to have a voice by articulating their circumstances and priorities via SMS needs assessments are a step in the right direction, regardless of whether there is a direct action taken based on the information submitted. No matter what your stance, further clarity around communicating what a service is/isn’t going to lead to and building accountability, institutional ownership and transparency into the systems require further work.
  • Timing: Many requests we filtered through came in during the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, when the mobile networks were still down in areas being proposed for service deployment. As the SMS CoC stresses, despite the promise of SMS to deliver critical information pre- or post-disaster, it is imperative to consider whether it is the most appropriate and effective means of doing so, and what the real limitations might be in terms of access and coverage and restoration timelines impacting the relevance or appropriateness of the service. 
  • The technology is the easy part: This is by no means a profound revelation, but it remains an important one.  There are a lot of good and well-intentioned ideas to leverage technology post-crisis and we’ve seen many innovative and promising examples of these in the past few years. However, in order to have an effective AND impactful system, you need partnerships and coordination to make it happen.  We’ve seen some good progress in this regard from our work with humanitarian actors and MNOs in the Philippines, and will be providing more detailed information in our upcoming assessment.

We welcome suggestions from the community on ways to take the SMS CoC work forward and any additions/subtractions based on your own experiences in the past year.

Photo: Screenshot taken from the BBC Click website.

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