Using Mobile Phones for Action

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Using Mobile Phones for Action

Mobile technology is being used by citizens all over the world as the most affordable and massively adopted piece of technology. How can we harness this technology for advancing human rights and civil society participation? This dialogue is a space to share and discuss many ideas for "Using Mobile Phones for Action."

Table of Contents

The following table of contents was developed to make the dialogue easier to navigate. Important themes and different discussions have been highlighted for archival purposes and for new users.

A list of resources and videos featured in this dialogue can be found here.

[Photo: from the Private Sector Development blog]

Using Mobiles

SMS (Short Message Service)



Mobile technology is being used by citizens all over the world as the most affordable and massively adopted piece of technology. How can we harness this technology for advancing human rights and civil society participation?

Our outstanding resource practitioners for the November-December tactical discussion shared and discussed many ideas for "Using Mobile Phones for Action".

Evans Wafula Ken Banks Ellene Sana



Natasha Dokovska Noel Large Katrin Verclas

Clockwise from top: Evans Wafula (Kenya) Ken Banks (UK), Ellene Sana (Philippines), Natasha Dokovska (Macedonia), Noel Large (Northern Ireland) and Katrin Verclas (United States).

Philippe Duhamel - in his interTactica blog - Harnessing new technology for new tactics provides some great examples to get our creative ideas flowing.

  • Sending out an SMS -- Supporting human rights work and activism with text messaging, or SMS - Short Messaging Service - functionality
  • Organizing demonstrations -- Such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine
  • Coup de text -- Like ousting a president, it happened in the Philippines
  • Protest Ringtones -- Highlighting corruption, it's being used in the Philippines

Links from the dicussion:

Bls: [New Tactics Dialogues: Using Mobile Phones for Action] Nor

Hi Dear All;
I am agree that one of the easiest ways of messaging is sending an SMS. Technology
advancement gives lots of opportunity for a more convenient way of

I hope by using mobile phone the long distance course can be organized to the mutual understanding on the different issue of each organization and group.


Dani (Forsane-Timor Leste)

Careless response

Dear Friends,


Many of you may hear about recent tragedy in Bangladesh that some of the members of Bangladesh Boarder Force killed more than hundred of senior army officers.  The rivals also captured the boarder force headquarter for 36 hours. They snatched away most of the hostages mobile phones. Some of the officers who was badly wounded or hide from the rivals somehow managed to call and send text message to their colleagues and relatives. But we didn’t realize their appeal and take necessary measures timely. Now talk of the town is why government takes so much time to address the issues. So my comment is uses of mobile can be effective tool to prevent any crime but it depends on how we interpret the message and take action accordingly.  

Nation deeply condoles to those valued officers who had been killed in that tragic incidence. But at the end it is true that we didn’t perform our responsibility to save or rescue them.

Rakib, Bangladesh

Hi it's Noel here Good

Hi it's Noel here Good Morning or evening to everyone out there.  Really looking forward to being involved with this link. I hope it is a positive experience for us all.

Noel Large.

Using Mobile Phones for Action



If we understand the mobile phone as a long-range, portable electronic device used for mobile communication, than we
have a right when we talk for the mobile phone as tools in
our communication. In Macedonia the mobile phone is very
wildy used. I can say that we have at least two mobile
phone per citizens. In this way it is easy to send the message to
biggest number of poeple. For this reason we use SMS
message in the frame of our campaign. Than we use the SMS message
as tools in our communication, but we are not always very succesful.
Occasianaly we havant a good message, sometimes we
dont find a good time for sending, sometimes tha citizens react
of recieving this kind of message from somebody who is not
in their contact list...

Than we should learn from the others.

I will stop now here, and I'm waiting for your comment.

Regards, Natasa

Using mobile phone to document human rights abuses

The availability of the General Packet Radio System (GPRS) and the upgraded Edge ((3G) has enabled mobile users to send multimedia messages via the mobile phone and hence expanding the people's participation in national debate.

Through the Africa Interactive's voice of Africa project, citizen media has become a reality in holding government accountable on issues of governance, human rights and the very furture of a peaceful transition in Kenya and Africa in general.

With the opening of bureaues in Kenya, Mozambique, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa is evident of the commitment to uphold interactive participation by citizens in building democratic institutions that respect human rights and uphold the rule of law.

The capturing on phone video of mob that assaulted a suspected criminal suspect in full view of the police along the streets of Nairobi for allegedly attempting to steal a side mirror from a motor vehicle, exposed the ineptness of the police to uphold the rule of law and provide security.

However, this efforts are often hindered by the low GPRS connectivity  where mobilephone networks have not been installed. At least a huge population of the rural inhabitants are excluded in the full enjoyment of this service.

Another issue that makes this exercise difficult is the government policy on  service providers who then makes its difficult for mobile users.

Despite this obstacles, and insensitivity by governments on citizen media the use of mobile phones as a tool of championing advocacy journalism and community mobilization in Kenya and Africa in general has succeded.

In the case of Zimbabwe where we have a mobilephone reporter, we have succeded in documenting human rights violations perpetuated by the police aganist the opposition and human rights activists.

In Kenya, we are also working with a group of mobile mobile repoters and community communicators to monitor the upcoming general elections. This helps minimize incidents of violence aganist women voters and holds perpetrators of electoral miscounduct accountable.

It also helps to prevents rigging as vote results can be send by SMS from the polling stations immidiately after the counting and hence promting free and fair democratic elections.

Using mobile phones to end impunity

Mobile phones have revolutionised communication in Africa. They provide tools for citizens to participate in governance, connect families separated by long distances and can even be used to mobilize communities. This year’s Kenyan elections will be a milestone in the role of mobiles in promoting democracy.Kenya is one of four countries involved in a pilot programme, Voices of Africa, which aims to use new mobile technology to better equip struggling young journalists and community volunters to use mobile phones to enhance advocacy.

However, there are major problems that we face. Lack of a legal regime to protect and promote the use of mobile phones to end impunity have impacted negatively in enhancing democratic goverance.

Lack of a witness protection mechanism have resulted to most people to be afraid in freely sharing their mobilephone videos and photos due to lack of a legal provision that would protect them.

In a human rights system, legislative provisions to promote and protect evidence obtained from mobile phones would enable citizens to effectivelt participate in the administartion of good goverance and democratic decision making.

In Kenya, we are working with major broadcasters and News papers willing to publish and broadcast photos and videos obtained by mobile phones. Like in the case of Burma, without a legal provision that allows the used of visual or photographic evidence in criminal jurispudence, citizen journalism will be erodded and the impact caused by mobile phones for change will be threatened.

What perhaps we need, is the strengthening of legal provisions to encourage the use of mobile phones as tools of providing eye witness account-based evidence for purposes of holding perpetrators accountable.

Mobile phones to end impunity

Hi, Evans,

You bring up extremely important points for consideration. Mobile phones are now the new "video" cameras.. Many ordinary citizens can take pictures and short video clips of what is happening NOW.

It reminds me of an incident that took place in the Los Angelos area of California, USA back in 1991. There was case of a young black man, Rodney King, who was severly beaten by policeman and captured by a citizen who just happened to film what happened on video. The video evidence was not considered by the jury. Hoever, the video was shown widely on the media. When the four officers were acquitted a year after the beating (cases often take this long or much longer to come to trial in the USA), areas of the city erupted
in riots. After four days of
violence in South Central Los Angeles, 55 people had been been killed, 2,383
injured and more than 8,000 arrested, and damage to property estimated at $1

Responsible journalism can now incorporate evidence from a wide variety of sources including cell phone photos and videos. But his also requires laws that respond to both the ability of technology to capture evidence as well as capability of technology to manipulate what we think we see. There are many pitafalls and dangers - most of all - the heart of the issue remains how best to truly represent events that place vulnerable people at rist and how our systems of justice respond to actually provide justice to victims..

What might be the best ways to respond to these demands and issues?

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

Welcome, questions, and mobile phones in election monitoring

Hello, it's great to meet you all!  I am very interested in hearing more aabout how you all use mobiles in yoursocial change and human rights work.

By way of introduction, I coordinate, a global volunteer network of more than 1,000 NGO and social change practitioners using mobile phones in their work. We run a community blog, a resource wiki, and have developed a number of resources (with more to come!) on how mobiles can be used.

Here are a few links:

Our Strategy Guides on Mobiles in Fundraising, Advocacy, and Election Monitoring are here:

We also have a Spanish Strategy Guide about South America/¡Acción Móvil¡ Guía de Móvil Activismo para Latino América at 

So, from me to jumpstart the conversation a few questions:

1. Evans mentioned citizen journalism and election monitoring as two areas where mobiles are increasingly used.  Natasa (hi!) talks about some campaigns where they used mobiles (and some of the challenges!).  What is the kind of work where you think mobiles are most useful?  What are some examples?

2. Election monitoring is a really interesting field.  We here at MobileActive have been working pretty closely with NDI, a US-based NGo that provides technical assistance to NGOs in emerging democracies, and tracked their work closely.  For an article in how they used mobile phones in their work in the recent election in Sierra Leone, see  Has anyone in this community used mobiles in elections, and wht was the experience?  What did you learn?

(Incidentally, NDi will publish a step-by-step guide on how to do this work in the next few weeks in conjunction with MobileActive, so I will keep you posted on when that is finished)

3. Lastly, I would love to hear what you might need in your work. We here at MobileActive are committed to reducing the learning curve for NGOs using mobiles and as a volunteer network, to extract knowledge and peer learning from this rich community to develop resources and materials so that NGOs the world over have an idea how to effectively use mobiles in their work strategically and tactically.   What information or skills would you like to see  so that you can better take advantage of this pervasive communication device? 

Looking forward to the discussion in the next few days! All the best, Katrin at


Mobile Phones.

Hi again, Noel here picking up on Katrin's blog earlier, it's a small world!  I am just back from Indonesia where I spent two weeks working in three seperate three day workshops on "peace and transformation" .  This programme was supported by N.D.I. and although it was hard and intensive work it was very rewarding to know we were making a positive contribution to their peace process.

Now back to our subject.  I was just thinking about mobile phones and the impact they have had since their introduction.  The Prison Service in Northern Ireland had to eventually introduce a pay phone, complete with kiosk, for every wing of the H blocks.  There were 8 H blocks in all, 4 wings per block, after they discovered there were dozens of prisoners in each wing who had smuggled in a mobile phone. So they get about don't they?

Welcome and introduction

Hi all!

It's great to be involved in this evolving discussion, one which started some time ago, which comes to a head this week, and which will continue on into the future. I hope I can help move things along and share my own experiences with you all.

I've been in IT since the 1980's, in mobile specifically for the past five years, and have worked and lived in a number of African countries. My professional qualification is social anthropology, something I find very useful - interesting things happen at the point where people meet technology. I've been involved in a number of mobile initiatives, and am currently working on a new version of my FrontlineSMS system ( which has been used for election monitoring in Nigeria and the Philippines, and more recently in Pakistan to help get news in and out of the country, among others. I'm also running an SMS competition for NGOs at and working with Grameen in Uganda on the future development of their Village Phone scheme. There's a full Bio at if you're interested.

One of the key problems I have noticed out in the field over the past 15 years has been the gulf between technical specialists and fieldworkers. There's more than one digital divide! Techical people don't tend to understand the nature of human rights work, and human rights activists are often too busy dealing with their own pressing conditions to keep abreast with technical developments and emerging mobile technology.

My work tries to address what I consider the three key issues. I try to:


Firstly, provide mobile-related information to those who need it most


Secondly, once you have it, helping you make sense of it


Finally, once you understand it, providing the tools to help you act on it

As well as gaining an understanding of you and your own work, and getting a sense of what you currently do with mobiles (if anything) and, more importantly, what you would like to do with them, I'd be interested in hearing about which of the three areas above provide you with the most difficulty. There are maybe more...

I'm very much looking forward to joining the discussion this week. Mobile can be hugely empowering, but also hugely frustrating!


mobiles in mass organizing white paper

It might be of interest to some to read this white paper that my colleague Corinne Ramey has written for MobileActive.  It focuses on a history and overview of using mobiles in mass organizing, both from a strategic and tactical prespective.  It references a lot of the cases that Philippe mentions in this blogost in greater details.  Here is the information:


Remember the 'coup de text' in the Phillipines in 2001? How about
the text message joke circulating right before Poland's elections last
month that read "Steal your grandmother's ID"?

Anyone following protest movements in the last few years has
witnessed how mobile phones have become an integral part of the mass
organizing of protests and demonstration. In the Philippines, South
Korea, Nepal, Bolivia, China, the Ukraine, the United States, and most
recently Burma and Pakistan, cell phone have connected activists and
ordinary people, giving civic voice to individuals and creating
communication channels for organizing, mobilizing, and reporting.

In this White Paper on Mobile Phones in Mass Organizing,
we describe the tactical uses of mobiles in organizing, security for
activists and NGOs, and address some of the realities and myths that
have surrounded the rise of the mobile phone as a tool in mass

Continue to the White Paper.



Mobiles in mass organizing white paper

This is an excellent resource for activists. I'm particularly struck by the attention given to the positive and negative aspects of mass organizing. Not everyone is committed to nonviolent change - and mobile phones can be a tactical tool working against our nonviolent change campaigns.

It's important to remember that a tactical tool is used to effectivly move your strategy forward. If it's not connected to a strategic goal, it might be an interesting excercise but it's taking your energy and resources away from where you actually want to be.

I really encourage people to read this white paper from,  White Paper on Mobile Phones in Mass Organizing

Thanks Katrin for sharing it with us.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

  Wouldn't it be great


Wouldn't it be great to also find out what doesn't work?

Lessons come from failure just as much as success, if not more. But I doubt that information is out there. Maybe some of the New Tactics community, who may have tried to use mobile in their work, would be willing to share some of their negative - as well as positive - experiences?

Well, not to be negative

Well, not to be negative about such a great resource, but I have heard of some concerns for mobile phones. One in particular being concerns about mobile phones being used to obtain and disseminate private information without any way to halt the process. I know concerns have been raised specifically in using camera phones and their SMS properties to send photos of potentially private events, etc.

Seems like this might be an important thing to keep in mind. Sometimes great tools can be appropriated by not so great people and then used for a poor purpose. Privacy is a big concern in our increasingly digitized world, and SMS can spread information like wildfire. What happens if that information is private or untrue and damaging?

 Regardless of the minority negative effect, the uses we've been talking about in the discussion never cease to amaze me. So much innovation surrounds this topic, and I'm glad to be hearing personal experiences. Thank you all for sharing!

More like "being realistic"


Hi Wendy

You raise a very good point, and all NGOs using mobiles in the human rights field need to be aware of a wide number of security issues. These not only apply to the organisations using the devices, but also to members of civil society that they may encourage to submit information via SMS or video, or whatever. Mobile phones, as traceable devices, can place people in specific places at specific times, and as such put the owners at possible personal risk. Most people don't realise this.

Tactical Tech will soon be releasing information on mobile phone security ( and MobileActive published a Strategy Guide on the subject (see

It will probably come as a surprise how much information mobile phones make available to the networks they're connected to. That information is of great interest to oppressive regimes (among others), so it's worth finding out more before you undertake a mobile phone project of any kind. In some countries, peoples' lives could depend on it.

So, far from being negative, you raise a hugely valuable and interesting point, Wendy, 



Realistic use of mobile phones and other tactics

Ken and Wendy,

You both raise very important and critical points.

The New Tactics project advocates for analyzing three areas to help ensure safe and effective human rights work - 1) Know yourself; 2) Know your adversary; and 3) Know the Terrain (from Sun Tzu in the Art of War - you can read Philippe Duhamels great "Learning by Doing" three part series on strategy and tactics on the interTactica blog). I bring this up here because of that need to have a realistic assessment of your own context (what are the laws governing mobile phone use; the level of security; investment of various government and public entities to control or thwart your efforts, etc. - there are so many variables to consider).

A great example comes from Otpor! the student movement in Serbia organizing to create change. They used mobile phones to create their youth network and discovered create ways to call people to police stations for "Plan B" demonstrations when people had been arrested during the first demonstration. (I suppose this might be considered a different kind of a "flash mob' demonstration. Under the period of high repression in that country, they were careful about using their mobile phones and not identifying people in their phones specifically as those involved in the movement.

Our hope is that as New Tactics community memembers and those visiting our website will gain tactical ideas they think will be of use. It's important to take the time needed to think about the variables impacting the implementation of such a tactic in your own context and with your own issue.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

sms hitches and glitches

hi. i thought i'd mention here some of the hitches/ glitches we
encounter in the more than 1 year of activation of the sos sms

1. delay in auto forwarding the messages to several
recipients -- i asked our IT colleagues about it --they say it could be
a case of the system being "choked" ... because after a while, we get
the messages in "bulk";  

2.  a variation of 1 is
the auto forwarding  NOT  auto forwarding the messages unless
the system is restarted. the IT team is not clear yet on the main cause
of this erratic behavior, but they are saying that the only thing that
has changed since its activation last year is the regular  updates
of the windows system....

3 . a case of difference between
telcoms? --a third observation was the  "selective" auto
forwarding of the messages, excluding a  certain recipient number
from receiving the sms.. our suspicion is that this is a problem
between the telcoms since we use two different telcoms in the sos sms
system -- one to send the SMS to; and the second one --to auto forward
the sms to select recipients...

4. delays in the system -- when there is interruption in internet connectivity and/or power supply... 

of course, the auto forwarding functionality will stop if we run out of
bulk sms! fortunately,  the system is such that the sms is first
automatically logged in the system so we can still check on the
messages in the central database.... 

  the sos sms system is definitely still a work in progress....



Message delivery issues


Hi again, Ellene

I also experienced these kinds of problems while I was developing FrontlineSMS, and had to build extra code and an entirely dedicated module into the software to handle it. The heart of SMS is the message Centre (SMSC), which handles all incoming and outgoing messages. The SMSC sits with the network operator, and each has their own. There are people out there who are experts in SMSC's, and it can be quite a detailed and complex subject.

I have found that if messages are sent, and the recipient is either out of range or their phone is switched off, the message can be delayed for hours, even when their phone becomes active again. Usually turning a phone on and off can 'hurry' the messages up, but at the end of the day you are totally dependant on the network operator and the efficiency of their systems, message volumes, network coverage, traffic and so on.

These are the kinds of problems Sanjana raised in his posting earlier, and one of the key barriers to developing efficient and reliable early warning alert systems. See his posting at


Election monitoring and circumventing government restrictions


For anyone interested in two specific examples of mobile phone use in citizen election monitoring (Nigeria, 2007) and bloggers circumventing government restrictions using SMS (Pakistan, 2007), feel free to check out these two documents. Both, written by the activists themselves, give a good sense of what they were looking to do, and how they did it. They were distributed through (they used, or are using, FrontlineSMS).



Anyone interested in the application itself can


Election monitoring with mobile phones

The report from the Nigeria election monitoring this past April 2007 shares very concrete information for those who might be considering using mobile phones for this purpose. It would be great to hear from others who have had experience in this area to share your insights as well.

One very interesting aspect of the Nigeria experience was reported as follows:
"The use of ordinary Nigerians to observe and report on the election we believe encourages participation by people that would be apathetic as well as provide timely, accurate and impartial information on the conduct of the elections. It is worth noting that it is ultimately the same ordinary citizens who validate the credibility and legitimacy of the eventual electoral outcome. Our monitoring is peculiar because people knew that if they try to rig the election there could be someone behind them that may send a text message reporting the incident."

This aspect of ordinary citizens taking responsibility to to report an incident is especially noteworthy for discussion. I have a couple of questions about that:

1) Is it the relative anonymity of sending text messages that provide those who report incidents with a level of security to make such a report?

2) Given that a person could be using his or her cell phone for a variety of reasons, was the SMS election monitoring campaign widely publicized so people felt they may indeed be watched and reported for trying to cheat on the election?

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

Nigerian election monitoring - response



The very concept of citizens helping monitor an election is an interesting one. Of course, it was done alongside 'official' monitoring by the international community and was seen by NMEM as a way of getting a Nigerian voice into the process. As NMEM put it, and many people who have worked in Nigeria will know, Nigerians are generally frustrated by the view of their country and there are many organisations working very hard, often against this prejudice, to get people to take them seriously and to help make their country a better place. The very fact that a loose coalition of NGOs in the country were able to use mobiles to carry out monitoring is significant, in my view. It is believed this is the first time citizens have been involved in monitoring an election in Africa.

Since then, of course, Sierra Leone has had an election monitored by mobiles (by official monitors, not citizens) - covered by Katrin at - and Kenya is about to go to the polls next month. The Kenyan elections, I believe, will see by far the most mobile-based activity, and I've heard from many people and NGOs planning to engage in the process in one way or another. FrontlineSMS is being looked at as a solution in two further national elections, one inside and one outside Africa.

In answer to your questions more specifically, NMEM did register many of the monitors (who were required to send in information before the polls opened), although from my understanding they received many messages from people who only heard about it after the event (and therefore didn't have details for everyone). Therefore, some people may have been comforted by a sense of anonymity. Secondly, NMEM did everything they could to publicise their SMS hotline, and get word out on their activities. Without doubt the BBC picking up on their story was a massive boost (it was reported on the BBC News website and the BBC World Service), without which they may not have received such a response (10,000+ messages). This number might not seem that impressive for a country with over 120 million citizens, but news only broke on their efforts a couple of days before election day, and the project was run on a shoestring. As a proof of concept I think they did a great job.

Interestingly, NMEM are now seeking funding to engage the Nigerian population in the day-to-day politics of their country. They touch on this in their report. If anyone knows anyone who may be interested in funding something like this, please let me know and I'll happily make the introductions.


citizens' election audit through mobile phones

in the last mid-term elections in the Philippines last may 2007, a network of citizens --
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for Honest Elections and Truthful
Statistics or No Cheats, tried to do an election audit by organizing
individual volunteers around the country to immediately report the
number of votes counted right at the precinct level using mobile phone
and sms technology.

transparency, the reports will be made available on the internet and
may be accessed by the more than 8 million internet users around the


the group was not accredited by the commission on
elections in 2007 but hopefully, they will still be around for the 2010
national presidential elections. cma is in close contact with them to
explore possibilities for the inclusion of overseas absentee voting in
the election monitoring. 

for more information, you may visit their site,

Philippine monitoring



It's nice to hear a little more about the Philippine example. From a personal perspective, I'm interested in what happened, and who did what, because of FrontlineSMS's ( involvement in helping co-ordinate some of the monitors. However, unlike the Nigerian example (discussed in this forum) this wasn't picked up by the mainstream press so is less known. Also, the Nigerian NGO were very quick to produce a comprehensive report about their experience, something which has proved very useful to fellow NGOs thinking about doing something similar (three different NGOs in different countries are currently talking to me about monitoring their national elections).


philippine election monitoring via ict

hi ken.

sorry, i could not recall what happened to  the
citizens' audit of the elections project. i will just mention your
interest to the people in charge of the project.




FrontlineSMS in the Philippines


Hi Ellene

Speaking with the Computer Union team, FrontlineSMS was used to send messages out to up to a 1,000 monitors working around the country, so just in a co-ordinating role. If there are any reports on the experience overall then I'd be happy to make it available via my website, if anything was produced. If it's publicy available then I'm sure some members of New Tactics might also be interested.




Current SMS Speak Out campaign

Here's an example of a current SMS campaign being conducted in conjunction with the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence - Speak out! Stand out! Commit to preventing Violence against Women (25 November, the International Day against Violence against Women, to 10 December, International Human Rights Day.

The organizations involved  - The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Womensnet South Africa, and Association for Progressive Communications (APC) -Africa-Women, are conducting an SMS-based campaign.

You can contribute a message or slogan on the theme of the campaign and if
your slogan is chosen, it will be sent out via SMS with you/your
organisation credited as the source of the message.

The idea is to send out an SMS on each of the 16 Days of Activism to allow individuals and organisations to Speak Out against violence against women.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

sms to move people to action

i just would like to share briefly that in the philippines, a big
factor for the success of people power 2 in 2001 was the sms
techonology when people simply passed on sms to go to edsa (this is a
national road, epifanio de los santos avenu) and join the call for
president estrada to step down on charges of corruption and plunder [of
course post edsa development is something else...] ..i think more than
in any country, it is in the philippines that we have (also) used the
sms tecnology to advance our causes, advocacies and in mobilising the
population for a common good.



Variation on flash mobs?


Hi Ellene

I'm not sure if flash mobbing - where people spread news on a place to congregate - was around before this now famous 2001 event, but if it wasn't this is a very nice example of a political 'kind' of flash mob (see the Wiki entry for more details on flash mobbing at Flash mobs usually end with people quickly dispersing, and this may not have happened here, which is why I put inverted commas around the word 'kind'.

Mobile phones and SMS are clearly a very effective way of mobilising the masses, and to inform them of places to congregate and/or demonstrate. I wonder if there are any other examples from the New Tactics community? Maybe they've been (flash) mobbing without realising it...  =)


using mobile phones for action

We developed a worldwide system for redistributing free items -- sending text message alerts to subscribers everytime their keyword free item becomes available. We think mobile text alerts are one of the best ways to help people all over the world get first alerts when their items become available in the first world.

Connecting people and needs

This looks like an interesting way to connect people who have a need with those who have a surplus. All too often, people with a surplus simply throw away these goods. Recently, here in Minnesota, the well known "Mall of America" -- where a visitor from Latin America once told me, "I've never seen so many things you don't need" -- held an electronics recycling drive. The drive was planned for three days but 50 truck loads were filled with throw away electronics in just one day. They had to announce that they couldn't take anymore.

This reminded me that electonic repair stores for TVs and other electronic goods used to be plentiful but not anymore. Instead, people just throw away a product that doesn't work quite right and buy a new one.

I did see cell phone repair signs in West Africa in February of this year. With the explosion of cell phone users around the world and the rapid improvements and constant upgrades with better and more quality features - will others adopt this "throw away" mentality?

I had the great opportunity to visit Robben Island in South Africa, the guide - himself a former political prisoner held on Robben Island - said they survived with the philosophy of "learn from one, teach one". Each had skills to share and needs to learn. That's really at the heart of the New Tactics project - share your tactics and learn new tactic ideas from others.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

help is just a text away for overseas filipinos in distress

hi all.

i am happy to be part of this online discussion on
the use of mobile phones. we are a migrants rights ngo in manila that
focuses on policy advocacy to promote the rights and well being of
overseas filipino workers (OFWs) and their families. to complement our
policy advocacy program is our program to assist OFWs and other
overseas filipinos in distress. last year, we activated an sms based
system to enable the OFWs in distress to promptly report their
distressed cases and facilitate assistanc by concerned government
agencies and partner migrant rights groups in the philippines and
abroad. the sms projest was initiated in 2005  by a team of
IT-expert-OFws in saudi arabia. later, they were joined in IT-expert
colleagues in Manila and Australia until its online launch last
february 14, 2006. since then, our case load has increased by more than
500% with most of the texters originating from west asia.  

cma facilitates the prompt response of government and partner-groups alike for the resolution of the cases.  

you may have heard, there are some 8.2 million filipinos overseas in
more than 192 countries and destinations. more than 3 million of them
are OFWs mostly in asia --in west asia, south east and east asia.

all for now. i'll be happy to share more.

thank you.


Great project - Africa similarities


Hi Ellene

I've read and heard a lot about your project, and have been in regular contact with some of the techie guys behind it for a while now. A great example of how SMS is being used by Filipino workers overseas to maintain a connection back home. In a similar way, this is what mobiles are allowing rural workers to do in places such as Africa, since many are 'forced' to go and seek work elsewhere in the cities.


SOS SMS Helpline


Hi Ellene,

Thanks so much sharing this in the discussion. Please share more about how both the mechanics of
the SOS SMS system works but why the use of mobile phones for this purpose has
been important for Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs). I think it's especially this connection that might spark ideas for other to consider
ways that such such a helpline could be used. I was thinking especially about how this tactic might be used
for women and children in domestic violence situations.

Do you know the OCWs that connect with you or do these
people just learn about your SOS SMS helpline through other kinds of
promotions? If so, how do you get the word out to people?

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager



Hi Ellene/Nancy

I share Nancy's thoughts on finding out more about how this SMS system specifically works. It would be a valuable model to try and replicate, if that were possible (this is often an issue), should someone in another country seek such a service.

Interestingly, the UmNyango Project in South Africa is using text messaging to allow women and children to report violence - there are a couple of hundred people using this at the moment. More information is available via Pambazuka News at


sos sms mechanics

hi ken, nancy:

thanks for your postings. perhaps, one of the
novelties of the sos sms system for distressed migrants is its
forwarding functionality to pre-selected recipients. what does
this mean?

1. first, the cell phone number we use is an
ordinary cell phone number -- its +63 9209 OFW SOS (+63 9209 639 767).
the sms fee or charge  is the normal regular charge.

2. to send a text for
help, simply start the message with the letters SOS and then the
message for help. part of our information campaign is to make sure the
texter does not forget her/his name on the first text message he/she
will send us. then send the message to the sos sms number above.


the message goes through the sos sms system --which is in a computer
with a modem, and is connected online 24 hours/ 7 days a week where the
message is automatically
logged. the texter gets an auto-reply assuring the texter that the
has been received and that the matter will be attended to as soon as


4. the message then is autoforwarded
simultaneously to pre-selected recipients (cma chooses the
receipients) -- current recipients include the following: cma, the
department of foreign affairs office of the undersecretary for migrant
workers affairs, focal person/ IT-manage in saudi arabia, the
IT-manager in Manila. we inluded a focal person in saudi arabia
because more than 60% of the text messages come/ originate from saudi


5. as soon as we receive the text message,
we text back the texter to verify the report, get more details about
the person and the case;  in cma--we have a case documentation system and
a case form where we document the case, log all actions taken until
its resolutions. for saudi messages, the focal person in saudi will
automatically respond to the case --in terms of verification and
subsequent course of action. cma has a network of OFW partners
scattered in the kingdom --from riyadh to jeddah to the eastern
province....the network is mobliised accordingly...


for cases outside saudi, cma is primarily in charge. again, the key is
to have a network of committed OFWs in the other countries and
destinations whom we can mobilise and serve as back up as we start to
negotiate with concerned agencies of our government (i.e.
embassies, consulates and labor offices) -- in the main, our
communications with these offices will be either by email or text
messages too -- cma has funds limitations --we can only email and send
text messages overseas...we are pleased to note that the various
government posts overseas reply to our emails and text messages too --
in many cases, they call us too. 


7. for the
autoforwarding of messages to selected recipients, cma purchases bulk
sms credits. we also purchase bulk sms credits to send our replies for
overseas messages. although we also use chikka and ym....
unfortunately, we purchase the bulk sms from another company (not the
company of the cellphone number because it does not have bulk sms yet)

how do the migrants learn of the sos sms? last february 14, 2006, we
had an online-launch. we also solicited the help of our media friends
in the philippines and overseas to support it and they advertise it free of charge.
we managed to get OFW sponsors to produce posters and flyers.

saatchi, an advertising agency, volunteered to do the poster designs
for the sos sms, free of charge. the posters were distributed to
concerned agencies of government, partners in the country and overseas
for promotion. we have been requesting the aiport authorities to allow
us to display the posters at the airports, we are not successful yet.

present, we are working out some arrangements that will boost the
promotion of the sos sms helpline. we will update you on this later on
as we do not want to pre empt the negotiations just as yet. :)) 

the sos sms system is also accessed by
families of migrants especially from those outside metro manila --the
other islands of the archipelago to request help for their loved ones
in distress overseas. those who access the sos sms system
eventually pass on the information to others. this is another way of
promoting the sos sms.

the system works because filipinos are a
texting people. the system works because of the broad network of
committed partners of cma in the country and overseas plus the good
working professional relationships we have established with our various
embassies, consulates and labor offices. the circle of media friends
also help a lot from time to time.

it is also becoming SOP for OFWs to bring a cellphone when they
go overseas. in selected countries, there is prohibition for migrants
to possess a cellphone...  

the sos sms system is
being sustained by our network of volunteer individuals and
organisation who believe in the cause....

all for now. i hope this is useful. thanks.



SOS SMS Mechanics


Thanks so much for providing such a great step -by-step process of how you've been able to implement the SOS SMS Helpline. I hope this will give others ideas about how they might implement a similar system for other populations that might find themselves in dire situations.

It would really be great if the Manila International Airport would make it possible for the posters to visible both as people leave the country but also as they re-enter as so many OCWs leave the country many times over the course of their working lives. They may have a good experience one time and very bad experience the next. But people who go to work abroad have always heard the terrible stories - they just don't believe it will happen to them. Providing a number they can call, still allows people to hang on to the dream but most of us are interested in having a bit of security along with us. Your SOS SMS Helpline can certainly be a lifesaver.

Great work - thanks for sharing this.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager



There's already been talk about Twitter in this discussion, and in a sense this is an SOS emergency version of that. Rather than - as Twitter generally does - being used to update friends and "followers" about your mood, where you are or what you're eating, the SOS version allows friends and family to, similarly, keep a virtual eye on you and be comfortable knowing they'll get an SMS if you get into any kind of trouble.

There's been talk before about this, including here on New Tactics (see For organisations interested in the Philippines example, but without the time, expertise or funds to replicate it, Twitter is a useful option.


Building relationships across the divide.

Hi Noel again, I would like to share with you all some of my work experiences that have helped to change and shape my attitude to peace building /building relationships here at Interaction Belfast.  At Interaction the foundation of all our work is on three core issues.  Process.Results.Relationships.  Think of them as a triangle.  In any order.  But the basis for your Process and the Results you hope to achieve must allways have Relationship Building at its core.  We work with community activists from both the Loyalist/Unionist community and the Republican/Nationalist community.  Many of of our most committed members are former sworn enemies.  The success of our Mobile Phone Network did not happen overnight and we are still working to strengthen relationships.  I can easily remember our first meeting with activists from both communities at the Belfast City Hall.  It was not an easy meeting to facilitate, both sides sat so far apart we needed microphones, it was a long table! ha ha.  Both sides came with a long list of grieviances.  Both sides were intent on blaming each other for most of the violence on the Interface.  But at the end of the day the most important thing to come out of the meeting was that both sides agreed "it was good to talk".  So we got a comitment from them all that they would meet again soon.  We met again and made some progress and soon were meeting every Friday.  That has grown into what is now the Springfield InterCommunity Forum (S.I.F.) We have had politicians from all over the world visiting S.I.F. including a visit a few years ago from the President of East Timor!  There are many reasons for our success, not least of all the committment of our members, all voluntary, but the main reason is good solid relationships.   The Mobile Phone Network on its own would not work, it would help reduce tension and incidents of violence, but committed activists working for the benefit of their communities is the real reason we have had success and those relationships built over the past ten years are the mainstay of Interaction Belfast.

Mobile as a tool


Hi Noel 

"It is important to emphasise that mobile phones
and other ICTs are only tools, and not a solution
in themselves to the problems encountered in the
conservation and development arenas. In this
respect, ICTs should be seen as tools of wider
strategies and programmes..."

This quote is from a report written back in 2003/2004 (, when people were seeing the mobile as a potential solution to all sorts of world problems. But of course, it's not. It's a tool, and as a tool it can be used to support and build on wider initiatives. I think the importance you stress on relationship building and awareness-raising are important ones. Mobiles are not a panacea to all our problems, but they can play a very valuable communication and support role in the work we all do.


it's the people..

...not the tools.  We had a convergence two years ago on mobiles in advocacy where the participants drafted a declaration that stated, among other things: Without people, the tech is nothing.  It's is so true and some of the techno-centric conversations that we tend to have forget that all tech implementations, mobile or otherwise, start with the people, and the goals that these people have. It is good to keep in mind, so thank you, Noel, for this reminder and real-life example of how important it is to build trusted relationships for a network to work.


Building relationships with mobile phones

Hi Noel, this great emphasis on relationships is so key to our human rights work and to who we are as advocates. Our abillity to make change is rooted in our ability to reach people in new and different ways.

The New Tactics project has a great resource that was developed by Callie Persic about Interaction Belfast's work on our website that I'd like to let people know about. Callie presented your mobile phone network at our New Tactics International Symposium in Ankara, Turkey in 2004. The link to the workshop materials where her PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the "peacewall", the community divistions and so many other photos that provide the context you have and continue to work in. In addition, two other examples of how mobile phones have been used in the Netherlands and in Palestine can be found at the WK 214: Mobile Phones: Communicating for Action.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

The limits of mobile phones in emergencies

Hi everyone, 

Those on the august panel of experts here who know me would recognise that I am and have been for a very long time a proponent of mobile technologies to strengthen peacebuilding and democracy. Since much is already written on the ways through which mobiles can play a meaningful and significant role in social transformation, I was going to write something here yesterday that raised  note of caution - that mobiles are fickle, generally less reliable than fixed line phones and that mobile networks are ill suited for sudden surges in network demand.

Then the bomb went off down the road. I had just come home and sat down in front of my PC when I heard the sound. It was the second bomb in Colombo in a single day. The first, a suicide attack, killed one or two and was aimed at a politician. This one, walking distance away from home, killed over 18 many of whom were school children we suspect and injured over 30. I won't go into details as it's on the web.

What is important to this discuss is what I have blogged at greater length here - The problem with mobiles in emergencies… 

In short, my mobile was comprehensively useless as a communications device in the aftermath of the incident. For over two hours, I couldn't get any messages out or any calls out. Some messages came in, but that ironically made the situation worse since most of them were from loved ones, friends and close colleagues attempting to get in touch with me to find out whether everything was ok with me and my family, but I had no way of contacting in return. It seemed to be the case that on my network, all mobiles in Colombo just froze for around an hour, though in my area, it took much longer for services to come back to normal. 

This isn't the first time this has happened and my blog also has a post on experiences in mobile based communications during a tsunami alert earlier this year. It's honestly been my experience that mobiles are very unreliable as a means of communications in the immediate aftermath of a disaster in Sri Lanka and that early warning and emergency response mechanisms that are reliant on them are bound to fail.

As I note in my post on the bomb blast yesterday, there was a another dimension in the manner in which mobiles were used. Many of the first news stories and images that captured the incident in visceral and sometimes gory detail were exclusively from camera phones. Long before the news media came to the scene, many who were around to see the carnage and some who were victims themselves, were shooting images and video using their phones. 

So while mobiles are as yet dicey at best for emergency response, they seem to be used as a device that captures life in violent conflict in a manner that traditional media did before the advent of the camera phone. This is an aspect that I believe holds great promise and I've written on extensively over the past number of years and is the inspiration behind simple work that documents citizen's voices Nokia N93i and Citizen Journalism in Sri Lanka

I aplogise if I've added a note of doom and gloom to these discussion. Make no mistake, I am convinced of the potential of mobiles - but feel that we also need to be acutely aware of the limitations of mobile networks at present, lest we conjure up emergency response scenarios using mobiles that bear no relation whatsoever to the very real limitations of mobile networks today.

Warm regards to all,

Sanjana Hattotuwa 

Reliability of mobiles


Hi Sanjana

I'm really glad you came in and posted that - I was going to mention something after your email yesterday, but it's always best coming from the horse's mouth! I'll post up my response posted to your own blog for the benefit of this discussion.

A couple of years ago, during the UK London bombings, the same thing
happened. The networks got totally hammered, not just by people trying
to call and SMS out from the vacinity of the bombings, but by worried
friends and family frantically trying to call loved ones to check they
were safe. Because of the cell nature of GSM networks, only a limited
number of lines are available at any one time. Your assertion that
we’re still some way off from a robust, reliable emergency response
system is correct.

Interestingly, mobile networks have a built-in broadcast system
which very few seem to use. It’s called “cell broadcast”, and it’s not
available to subscribers but does allow operators to send messages to
mobiles registered with certain towers, i.e. in a certain area. In
theory, in the event of an emergency they could temporarily shut down
access to those towers and blast a message.

In terms of mobiles being used in citizen reporting, the BBC reported (in relation to the London bombings) that "2005 was arguably the year citizens really started to do it [in the UK] for themselves. Raising mobiles aloft, they did not just talk and text - they snapped, shared and reported to the world around them". Further details available at

But, as with all technologies, we need to be aware of any dependency we create, and consider options should that very technology fail.

Stay safe.



Reliability of mobiles

This is a very interesting thread of the discussion. In August of this year when our 35W freeway bridge over the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota collapsed people using cell phones experienced that same frustration. In fact, there were announcements on TV and radio asking cell phone users to NOT use their mobiles. The emergency network was in need of using the towers to contact first responders to the scene.

Just as Sanjana reported, family members and friends were trying desperately to contact their loved ones to see if they were OK. When service wasn't working, this certainly added to people's anxiety.

I'm curious to learn more about the communication "blasts" that Ken is talking about. In the past couple of years, we receive messages sent "by mass" on our land lines as public service announcement.. In terms of emergency messages, many people were saved from the fires in the San Diego area recently when they received phones messages that told them "evaculate now" and they did.

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager

The blast that wasn't


One event more than any which perhaps highlighted the need for, and weaknesses in, emergency alert procedures was undoubtedly the Asian tsunami. Sanjana no doubt has much more knowledge about this than I do, but had a "cell broadcast" - or similar - been used to notify all mobiles in the coastal range of the tsunami, then perhaps more people would have been able to make it to higher ground.

These kinds of alert are quite obviously most useful in cases of natural disaster, where a specific geographic area is the one effected (fires, earthquakes, tsunami, etc), but could also be useful during riots, terrorist attacks, military coups and so on.


Emergency Alerts

My University just initiated an emergency text messaging system for the campus. I think the idea was in light of the shootings at Virginia Tech last Spring, and the lives that could have potentially been saved with some sort of fast notification for students at that school. I think it has great potential, as long as the University never "rents" that service to any sort of advertisers.

Has anyone heard of city or district-wide emergency text messaging services? I'm thinking mainly of the situations that occur with natural disasters. Would it have made a difference during Hurrican Katrina if there had been an emergency text messaging system? Maybe getting the information on the severity of the storm would have been mroe effective via SMS because it feels more personal? Just a thought, please share your opinions on it.

Also, in the case of riots, text messaging would be helpful on a district wide basis. So many people accidentally get swept up into riots by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and their sheer physical presence makes the problem worse inadvertenly. A text alert could advise people to clear out the area. It could also serve to make people who are tempted to participate in rioting think twice when the get a message detailing the potential repercussions. Or, on the other hand, maybe people would hear about a riot and want to see it for themselves. That theory could go both ways I guess. What do you think?

Mobile phones in emergencies - pubic and personal

I remember that one of our New Tactics members made a post about the use of "twitter" (see post). He shared an example of an Egyptian activist who has been imprisoned a number of times and uses twitter to keep in contact with his network so they know if they need to mobilize to get him out of jail again.

I was also looking at the website: Patronus Analytical: A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to Security and the entry on Social Networking Tools for NGO Security - Part 1 and Social Networking Tools Part 2 - Twitter and Tsunamis that shared very relevant information for this discussion. On the same website had a great video showing how to use twitter for emergencies . (You can check out for more information) It made me think that this tool could be especially useful for situations of campaigns and demonstrations where there might be danger of repression, arrests, etc. Organizations could set up their twitter database network and people can check in quickly and the information is compiled for everyone. New "Plan B" instructions can be provided quickly to everyone on the twitter network. I can see many great uses for this tool. The video shared how the International Red Cross has set up such a system for emergencies.

Ken - is this one of the features of your Frontline SMS software as well?

Nancy Pearson, New Tactics Program Manager



The new version of FrontlineSMS, which is going to be packed with new features (it's been out in the field for 2 years, so there's been some very useful feedback) will allow for Twitter-like functionality. It's not being built specifically, but the software will flexible enough for incoming messages to be distributed to wider networks, yes.

There will also be a new website built around the software, allowing users to share experiences. Running a Twitter-esque service from it is something I never thought of, so good thinking! 

Watch this space! 

The Economist on mobile activism

In follow-up to our conference in Brazil recently, the Economist who had a reporter at the event reports on mobile actvism and the many ways actaivists are using mobiles:

It's a good read :-) 


using sms message as tool in campaign in Macedonia


Toay I want topresen how Jouranlists for children and women rights and protection of environemnt in Macedonia use the SMS message as tools in campaign.

For teh first time we use SMS message in the presidential campaign in Macedonia. It was in the time when our  actual president death in plane crash and in the country the question of new election of president was very emotional. We didnt think about this and we send the message to all abonment of mobile phone trough one of mobile operator in the country.

What's happend?

Lot of the citizens react that was agitate, that was wake up a cause this message and they faind that the message was promotion of one of teh candidat.

After the campaign we percieve that we make some mistake: maybe the message was enough clear, maybe the time of sending message wasn't adequate and wath was very important the period was very senzitive.

After this campaign we make one other. It was for local election when we want topromoto the womes in the elctional process. We want to involve more women in the local communities. We send the two messages in the interval of one hours on the day of election when we want to motivate the citizens to vote for women. With this campaign we havan't any problem, we have succes and lot of citizen say that in last minute they change thier opinion and that they vore for women.

But, before few days when we start the campaing 16 days against women violence we have few reaction in the media.

Firs of onbe was that we haven right to send the message to everyione because in this way we crush the right of privacy of the citizens because the mobile phone is private things. Second they react that this message was recived by minors which is also the crush of childrens rights...

Thisis our experiiance, but we try to solve all the difficulities and to continued to work on this way.




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