Int'l Research Board Seeks Way for SMS Technology
Fatoumata N. Fofana & Victoria G. Wesseh
The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) has said it is seeking ways to create a space for citizens to participate more fully in the national dialogue by developing a two-way flow of information between the governed and their leaders.
SMS (text) messaging or mobile phone-based information distribution has been identified by IREX as the simplest, most affordable and interactive medium through which locals can have a say in the governing process of their communities.
Toward this end, a two-day Mobile Phone Innovation Conference was held last week, bringing together over 50 participants from across Liberia, Africa, and the U.S. to explore and deliberate on the possibility of establishing such a mobile phone-based information distribution system, especially in advance of the upcoming 2011 presidential and general elections.
The initiative had two main objectives: to help with election monitoring and reporting during the pending 2011 poll and to serve as a tool for improving communication between the people and their leaders, at the local and national levels.
The Conference, which was held under the theme "Strengthening Dialogue and Citizens' Participition via SMS Technology," opened last Thursday and ended Friday in Monrovia. Thought-provoking deliberations were made on the following topics: Elections Monitoring: Ensuring Transparent Elections; Mobile Application in Development: Case Study of the African Elections Project; Frontline SMS for Development and Sustainable ICTs with Integrated SMS for Communication Hubs.
According to IREX, a major expected outcome of the conference was the establishment of an Application Lab where technical advisors will work with a team of Liberian community radio managers, civil society organizations and mobile phone companies to develop projects for field testing.
The Application Lab is expected to incubate the development of SMS-based applications specifically targeted at the up-coming elections as its most immediate goal.
Speakers at the conference included USAID Mission Director, Patricia Rader. Ms. Rader said the initiative would be well placed to afford citizens the opportunity to report potential threats of conflict during this year's elections while the government, on the other hand, would have the opportunity to communicate with citizens on policy issues affecting their lives.
Also addressing the Conference was Liberia's Posts and Telecommunications Minister, Dr. Frederick B. Norkeh.
He told the conference that given the growth and coverage of mobile technology services, mobile telephony could be used as an important tool for citizens to engage the government.
"Mobile phones can be utilized to collect and broadcast written, audio and video [information] to the internet and to other mobile devices. The government is committed to cooperating with stakeholders in developing locally relevant content which meets the needs of our citizens," he asserted.
For her part, the Deputy Information Minister for Technical Services, Madam Elizabeth Hoff, said: "While the Ministry of Information welcomes such an innovation due to the fact we live in a global village and in an age of technology, let us also be mindful that ideas, information and knowledge can also be effectively transmitted using traditional forms of communication."
She expressed concerns about the gap that still exists between the information-rich and the information-poor, which in her view seem to be getting wider, despite the global expansion of communication through the mass media.
Minister Hoff therefore stressed the need to blend modern technology with traditional folk media that are already an integral part of rural life [in the Liberian context] and the use of visual and oral expressions that are most often understood by locals.
The conference ended with four group deliberations on the possible uses of SMS technology in four main stages of the elections process, namely: pre-elections, elections, post-elections, as well as governance of the SMS system that will be designed to monitor such information.