Publication Date
November 1, 2013

"For a mobile engagement project to create real impact, affordable and scalable technology is a necessary starting point, but elements of culture, psychology and human design must be considered."

This paper identifies four prevailing barriers to mobile for development (M4D) projects based on VOTO Mobile's experience providing technical and human support to social organisations in health, education, agriculture, project monitoring, governance, and other sectors. VOTO Mobile is a Ghana-based tech startup and social enterprise using mobile to reach across distance, language, and literacy barriers. Their mission to increase participation and accountability in the services delivered to citizens, and to empower communities to collect and share information to drive positive social change.

The barriers include:

  1. Literacy, accessibility, and technology limitations - In recent years, the expansion of mobile access throughout the developing world has created new possibilities for development programmes to gather broad-based feedback from dispersed populations. Mobile also provides a channel for sharing health and educational information. Most M4D initiatives have focused on text-based methods (e.g., short message service, or SMS). Yet illiteracy means that these initiatives exclude many citizens from the potential to participate in feedback loops or access information. VOTO has found that interactive voice (IVR) is key to hearing from an inclusive audience, and produces significantly higher response rates. In national surveys comparing SMS and voice, they found that SMS produced a response rate of 1.7% with an overwhelming urban bias. By comparison, voice surveys have a participation rate of over 20%, with 37% of respondents from rural areas and 38% female respondents. While IVR has the potential to offer improved accessibility and engagement, most organisations lack the technical capacity to start using it. To address this barrier, VOTO offers an integrated, ready-to-use software platform that enables organisations to start sending interactive content through voice or SMS, based on whichever channel is best for each subscriber.
  2. Challenges with mobile network operator (MNO) connections - VOTO has observed that it takes 1-2 years for organisations to achieve the MNO integration they require, and many are never successful. The paper outlines several structural factors that make MNOs unwilling to prioritise time and resources to enable integration of M4D services. For example, some MNOs have a preference to run voice services within their own technology environment, charging consulting fees for setting up messages and polls, but not being able to provide a "self-service" interface that would allow social organisations to quickly iterate and adjust their content. VOTO describes methods that bring interactive voice and two-way SMS within the financial and technical capacity of social organisations.
  3. Unreliable delivery and connectivity - Considering that an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity, improving delivery over limited connectivity requires a shift in thinking about scheduling: from timing decided by the sending organisation, to timing that works for the end-user. This means giving end-users the ability to access information or provide feedback on-demand, on their own schedule (e.g., to reach those people who only charge and switch on their phones sporadically - for example, using a central charging station when visiting town). To engage users like these, VOTO modified their system to automatically route incoming calls to the last content users were intended to receive via outgoing messages, effectively letting them access their missed calls. As part of the Savana Signatures voice-based maternal health service, expectant mothers can call back to any missed calls; a menu lets them listen to past messages, connect to a live midwife for additional questions, register a friend, or de-register from the service. Furthermore, VOTO Mobile has learned that, when monitoring engagement in an M4D project, incoming calls (versus calls or texts from the organisation) provide the most genuine indicator of end-user value.
  4. Lack of human design knowledge and best practices - "Whether the goal is to influence health behaviours, incentivize citizens to report violations, or minimize bias in a national survey, the final challenge involves designing effective content based on cultural and human factors. Organizations should consider how they will collect contact information, who they are hearing from and excluding, how they will incentivize participation, and how to design content for understanding and accuracy." When sending one-way SMS, it is impossible to know if the message has been read, considered, and understood. However, for example, in Savana Signatures' maternal health service, VOTO uses interactive questions to ask women about their trust in the messages and to self-report their behaviour; they use this to compare the effectiveness of different strategies (e.g., recordings voiced by male doctors vs. a female community health worker). In national surveys, they track the increase in participation that comes from using celebrity radio hosts to voice the survey. In behaviour change projects, they test the credibility of messages voiced by famous athletes, traditional leaders, and respected community members.

By addressing and working through these barriers, VOTO Mobile seeks to make it possible for a local sector expert to launch her own mHealth, mGovernment, mAgriculture, etc. service in less than a week, without needing any technical capacity and without needing to deal with MNOs, and making that service accessible to as many constituents as possible through the most basic phones (e.g., voice in local languages or interactive SMS).


VOTO Mobile website, September 14 2017. Image credit: UNEP DTU Partnership