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Delivering an extra message

13 June 2009

Marcha Neethling

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Specially developed open source software enables a South African project to send millions of targeted health messages to mobile phones users across the country.

Mobile phones have rapidly penetrated Africa like no other technology, resulting in over 300 million subscribers on the continent today. As many as 95% of these users cannot afford a long-term contract and use their phone on pay-as-you-go terms, buying vouchers for as little as 50 US cents – when they can afford them. When they can’t afford airtime credit vouchers, millions of Africans use Please Call Me (PCM) messages to communicate.

Delivering an extra message
Image credits: ICT Update / Delivering an extra message

PCM is a messaging service where someone who doesn’t have enough credit to make a call can send a free text message to someone else, asking them to call back. To send a Please Call Me, the sender types a unique short code and the mobile number of the receiver into a text message. The message is sent like a normal text message and, when received, the words ‘Please Call’ and the sender’s mobile number appear in the receiver’s inbox.

PCMs are free to both sender and receiver, making them hugely popular. Over 30 million PCMs are sent in South Africa alone per day, and the service has since spread to several other African countries.

PCMs use 40 of the 160 characters normally allowed in a text message, leaving 120 unused characters. Praekelt Foundation, a South African technology company, developed SocialTxt, where these 120 unused characters in a PCM are then utilized to spread social messages to audiences who don’t usually interact with traditional media as they don’t have a television or internet access.

SocialTxt is open source software that allows an NGO or other campaigning organization to insert any social message into Please Call Me messages, and thus reach a large target audience at a low cost. Any organization can therefore work with mobile phone operators and use the software to insert a message into PCMs.


SocialTxt can be adapted to work in a variety of ways but there are three main applications.

Firstly, it can insert the number of a call centre into a Please Call Me message where callers can access information and services. The receiver of the message can then dial that number to connect to the call centre which could, for instance, be an HIV/Aids helpline.

Secondly, the software can be used to share information with a particular target audience by providing a WAP (wireless application protocol) link in a PCM. The link leads anyone with a WAP-enabled phone to a site with further details on the topic.

Thirdly, organizations can also use SocialText to send USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) menus via PCMs to their target audience. Almost all mobile phone handsets can access USSD and gives the user a variety of options and allows more detailed interaction between the campaign team and the recipients of their message. Typing ‘*101#’, for example, and selecting your village / location, can trigger the system to send back information on the nearest vaccination station or even market prices for a specific commodity.

Until now, SocialTxt has been used mainly in the health sector, and more specifically in HIV awareness campaigns.

Praekelt Foundation, in cooperation with their national and international partners, currently uses the software in a South African HIV/Aids project called Project Masiluleke. The project, running from October 2008 until September 2009, uses SocialTxt to tag approximately one million PCM messages every day for one year. The country’s leading mobile operator, MTN, donated the message space to the project, giving them one out of every 20 PCMs sent per day.

When someone receives the SocialTxt message from Project Masiluleke they are linked to the South African National Aids Helpline where they can access HIV-information and services. One previous message, for example, read: ‘Want to fall pregnant and worried about transmitting HIV to your unborn baby? For info call AIDS Helpline 0800012322’. Over a four month period, SocialTxt consistently doubled the daily number of calls to the helpline.

Organizations using the software can also get detailed information on how their campaign is performing. Praekelt Foundation provides statistics, updated in real-time, for each individual campaign. This allows organizations to track the performance of their messages. The types of indicators, depending on the type of application used – a call centre, WAP or USSD – include: the number of messages dispatched, how many people actually called the number (in the case of call centre campaigns), which languages attracted the most callers and a rough geographic position of where the calls came from.

SocialTxt could be useful for any organization trying to get information to a large group of people at low cost. But it can be particularly useful to get short, targeted messages across to farmers, and people living in rural communities generally, who often use their mobile phones on a pre-paid basis and who are already familiar with sending and receiving Please Call Me messages.

An organization could, for example, insert a number into a PCM message which would link the receiver to a call centre providing weather reports, pest control alerts and advice on planting or crop irrigation. Although it has not been tested in the agricultural sector, the software offers a wide variety of opportunities for organizations to interact with and deliver information to small-scale farmers in ACP countries.

Marcha Neethling is project manager at Praekelt Foundation.

Source : ICT Update

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