Across the globe, tech-based opportunities to gather and leverage information have led many organisations to change how they make decisions; they rely less on speculation and intuition and far more on data. In East Africa, a small start-up called Trac FM - based in Kampala, Uganda - is collaborating with East African broadcasters to tap into real-time citizen data that helps identify socio-economic and political trends, in a region where radio is by far the largest and most significant information medium. In turn, Trac FM is furthering transparency and accountability through high quality public debate.

With over 600,000 responses in Uganda alone since 2011, Trac FM works with local radio stations and communities to identify their most pressing concerns. Using TracFM’s software, radio hosts and presenters can ask questions of their audience during live shows, and listeners can share their answers via a free SMS sent to the Trac FM system. Incoming replies are automatically recognized, categorised and visualised in clear graphics and maps. Radio hosts can then discuss poll results in real-time with their guests and audience, as they are coming in. The full data set is also later aggregated in a range of comprehensive graphs and maps for any further analysis by the radio station by and Trac FM’s NGO or government partners.

Some of Trac FM’s recent projects include:

  • Polling to find out why more men in Uganda start businesses than women. Trac FM’s poll question saw over 3000 responses from 7 radio stations in a week's time.

  • Polling to document Ugandans’ views on the police. 59% of 2937 respondents said the police is unreliable, corrupt and cannot be trusted

  • Polling to find out the main reason for girls dropping out of primary school in Uganda. 43% of over 2500 responses attributed the drop outs to early marriages and pregnancies.

  • Polling to find what Ugandans think should be done about Uganda’s large refugee population. 40% of respondents said "we have a moral obligation to shelter refugees".

  • Polling to ask Ugandans whether sex education should be taught in schools. Responses from all regions responded positively, except for eastern Uganda (where 57% voted ‘no’) which has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the country.

  • Projects in Somalia to discuss critical issues such as security, employment, refugees, donor aid and local river flooding, which have generated +300,000 SMSs by +8,000 Somali citizens

  • Investigating the shortage of contraceptives in Uganda’s public health care system, despite a new commitment for the Ugandan government to promote family planning and supply chain policy changes

Wouter Dijkstra, Director of Trac FM, explains that their mission is to give excluded or passive voices the ability to participate in the public sphere: "We facilitate informed and real-time debate. Through close collaboration with radio and TV broadcasters, we want to create a more responsive dialogue between policy makers, civil society organisations and local populations about community needs, perceptions and solutions.  We also want to drive greater transparency and accountability on the part of government and NGOs”.

“In the process of our work, we sometimes uncover surprising statistics. For example, we have found women’s participation in radio SMS polling is 28% higher when there is a female presenter.”

To date since 2011, Trac FM has worked with 13 partners in 4 countries (Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania), with over 1 million SMS responses from more than 394,000 users. Stats include over 300,000 SMS responses in Somalia, and over 100,000 responses combined in Kenya and Tanzania, since 2011.

Trac FM’s latest initiative is a program called Common Matters, supported by Making All Voices Count (MAVC).  Trac FM will work with 5 Ugandan civil society organisations (CSOs) on an elaborate advocacy campaign plan, working with civil society partners to set up a well-designed and data-driven advocacy campaign that is based on 3 interactive Trac FM radio polls, aired on 9 radio stations throughout the country. It is expected that over 13.000 radio listeners will participate per campaign, by sending in a free SMS message, and that millions of Ugandan citizens are reached by listening to the radio debates. Gender equality is an important topic within the Common Matters program. On average, only 18% of the Trac FM poll participants are female. TracFM want to increase this number and learn more about the causes of this imbalance.