"Everyone is reliant on mobile technology for communication ... Even a grandmother in Syria might now be using applications such as WhatsApp ... these tools have become central." (Field researcher interviewee)
This report presents the findings from a qualitative research study commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK)'s Department for International Development (DFID) about the current and potential use of mobile technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian programming in Syria. The evidence review and interviews with technology developers highlight lessons for adopters of mobile technology in Syria, drawn from successful case studies and project failures.
The research was carried out by the Syria Independent Monitoring (SIM) team (Transtec, Aktis, RMTeam, ONA, Garda World), which performs field monitoring of DFID humanitarian assistance projects in Syria and assessments of DFID's humanitarian assistance implementing partners' monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems and occasionally carries out research studies such as this report. The research involved 2 elements: (i) a desk-based review of existing evidence of mobile technology use; and (ii) findings from 58 interviews conducted in the fourth quarter of 2016, including with 48 Syria-based respondents and 10 key informant interviewees outside Syria. Interviewees in Syria included Local Administrative Council (LAC) representatives, non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, technology providers and community respondents in Syrian Opposition, Kurdish, Government and Daesh-controlled areas. Syria-based respondents were asked about their personal use of mobile technology and how their community typically used it. Among them, respondents who worked for a humanitarian organisation were also asked about their organisation's experience with mobile technology. As such, the respondent sample was skewed towards mobile technology users so as to explore the scope for further employment of such technology in humanitarian programming. Therefore, statistical data presented in this report cannot be taken as representative of Syrians' overall mobile technology use.
Excerpted from the Executive Summary ware key findings in the area of internet and phone connectivity (for more detail, see section 5):
- Mobile device ownership is evenly spread across the country, with 81% of Syrians owning a cell phone and two-thirds or more having access to an internet-capable mobile device;
- Smartphones, with an Apple iOS or Android operating system, are prevalent in all areas of Syria and are the devices most commonly used to connect to the internet;
- Respondents connected daily or weekly to the internet. These connections were made through local Wi-Fi or internet cafés and with cellular 2G/3G networks, the latter being a more costly secondary option. Satellite connections were purchased by Wi-Fi network operators and some humanitarian organisations;
- Internet speeds are sufficient in most places for voice communications, access to social media and news, text-based messaging, and limited data transfers. The weakest internet is found in areas besieged by Government forces and Daesh-controlled areas. Nonetheless, access is often interrupted in all parts of the country;
- Government phone networks – namely MTN and SyriaTel – are widely available but are limited in Idleb, and especially in Daesh-controlled areas;
- Censoring and internet monitoring are common in Government-controlled areas, and Daesh often operates content control on internet café users. In other areas, censoring or monitoring was not reported.
With regard to mobile technology use (for more detail, see section 6), it was found that, in all areas except in Daesh-controlled locations, humanitarian organisations use mobile technology: in Amuda, Dar'a, and Idleb, all of them do; in Azaz, Aleppo, and Damascus, more than half of them are users. Media activists, journalists, and field researchers are also significant users, including in Daesh-controlled areas. Individuals in all areas, including women, children, and the elderly, use smartphones for communication, as internet-based calls are cheaper than using cellular networks. The ranking of applications used is: (1) WhatsApp, (2) Facebook and Facebook Messenger, (3) Gmail, (4) Skype, and (5) Kobo Collect. Use by organisations mirrored that of individual respondents but also reflected specific organisational priorities such as software for telemedicine, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and logistics tracking.
There were found to be challenges to the adoption of mobile technology (for more detail, see section 7) - first and foremost, inconsistent internet availability and unreliable electricity supply. Over-reliance by humanitarian decision-makers on mobile technology information collection or service provision may lead to data blind spots, with the needs of vulnerable groups in such areas remaining under-serviced. The fear of electronic surveillance and eavesdropping was found to be a concern to humanitarian providers and technical professionals. However, it is less of a concern to ordinary users and local project staff inside Syria, who have a low awareness of information security risks. The report finds that, as decisions are increasingly being informed by big data analytics, more attention needs to be paid to the validity of data collection methodologies and the veracity of input data.
The report explores the topic of the value for money of mobile technology (for more detail, see section 8). It is noted that thorough needs assessment and field testing of the potential need for and use of a mobile technology product – with proposed users and beneficiaries – are essential to reduce the risk that the product will be under-used. The use of open-source, off-the-shelf products and product sharing by humanitarian organisations are among the strategies suggested for reducing costs.
Key conclusions and recommendations (for more detail, see sections 9 and 10) include:
- Continue to invest in mobile technology irrespective of the evolution of the conflict; mobile technology is a critical tool for communication for all Syrians and for the effective work of humanitarian organisations.
- Adapt applications to meet the needs on the ground: Mobile technology applications used by humanitarian organisations should be designed for use with both Google Android and Apple iOS smartphones, and applications should allow offline use.
- Ensure testing and provide incentives to share information: Products should not be funded without a needs assessment and robust testing, and technology duplication should be avoided by providing organisations with an incentive to share technology and by mandating them to use off-the-shelf or open-source products.
- Provide training on information security: Additional training and information are recommended for LAC representatives and other civilians working with sensitive data; only mobile technology with a robust level of information security should be used.
- Pilot and adapt existing applications to the Syria context: Donors should engage with humanitarian stakeholders to prepare a shortlist of mobile technology applications, with estimated pilot development costs that would benefit populations affected by the Syrian conflict.
- Reduce costs through equipment and subsidies.
- Encourage regulatory bodies: LACs and administrative bodies should be encouraged to establish a regulatory capability to maintain effective local internet service provision in Kurdish and Opposition-controlled areas.
- Commission and update a comprehensive internet and telephony communication coverage map in Syria.
- Conduct further analysis: Impact evaluations of projects and initiatives funded for humanitarian programming should be undertaken.
Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) website, April 10 2017. Image credit: ReliefWeb