For the largest civil society media platform in Tanzania, back talk is good. 



In fact, talking back is the objective of a new service at Femina HIP called Speak Up! The service aims to increase access of marginalized youth and rural communities and promote a participatory, user-driven media scene in Tanzania.



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Femina HIP is the largest civil society media platform in the country, outside of commercial mainstream media. Products include print magazines, television shows, a radio program, and an interactive website. Fema magazine, for example, has a print run of over 170,000 copies and is distributed to every rural region in the country.



Over the last few years, Femina HIP has encouraged its audience to connect and comment by sending letters, email, and SMS messages — and comment people did. Dr. Minou Fuglesang, executive director of Femina HIP, said the platform was nearly drowning in messages.

It became clear to the team that SMS needed to be handled more systematically. Speak Up! is a service that offers a more automated, organized way to receive and respond to incoming SMS messages. With the Speak Up! service, the message flow is more systematic and organized. Femina HIP is better equipped to respond to comments and queries. A more automated system also helps Femina HIP embrace the young community — one that feels a growing need to organize and participate, Fuglesang said.



How It Works

Femina HIP uses an application built by Starfish Mobile, a wireless application service provider. All SMS messages are sent to the same shortcode (15665) and the Starfish application sorts messages according to key word. (Senders have to begin the message with the key word of the product they wish to address, be it Fema magazine or the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show.) 



Femina HIP staff members access the application from a web-based dashboard, where they can view all incoming messages across products. Virtually all messages received are in Swahili. “It is very rare to get a message in English, let alone other languages,” said Diana Nyakyi of Femina HIP. “Though if we do receive something in English, it is considered just as much as any other SMS in Swahili in terms of feedback value.“



The Speak Up! service works in collaboration with local mobile providers, because the shortcode is “bound” to the providers, Nyakyi said. “However, we are keen on having a more engaging and beneficial relationship with them [the mobile operators] as partners, and some have shown interest.“



Two-Way Communications

Femina HIP wants to talk back to its audience, too.

When an individual sends an SMS to the Femina HIP shortcode, he or she receives an automatic confirmation. Senders’ phone numbers are automatically entered in a database, which allows Femina HIP staff to further respond to individuals. Often, this is to simply say thank you for the message. But staff can also access and respond to urgent or serious messages, including questions on issues of health, sex, suicide, or requests for advice. Currently, Femina HIP has a list of about 30,000 active mobile numbers.



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Scrolling feedback via SMS on Femina HIP website, Chezasalama

The Speak Up! database can also be sorted by categories such as key word, time submitted (date, week, month), or by phone network. Statistics are available, including which phone numbers have had the most interactions with the system, and whether the interactions were via SMS vote or SMS comment. The ability to sort allows the staff to group SMS messages around content themes and inform people about relevant, upcoming programs. 



Speak Up! wants the audience to become agenda setters, and claims to achieve “a more inclusive public debate and a more investigative reporting that mirrors everyday life in Tanzania.” 


Challenges and Lessons

Femina HIP and the Speak Up! service have faced a learning curve. For example, it’s been challenging to help the audience understand how to send an SMS to an automated service. “It’s not as easy as it sounds because people have to understand how to use the shortcode and our key words,” Fuglesang said. 



If someone misses a space or spells the key word incorrectly, for example, the SMS is marked “invalid” and ends up in the trash box. 



Similarly, if people send a message that’s over the 160-character limit of a text message, the second half of it is also marked invalid. Currently, Starfish Mobile does not support these so-called concatenated SMS messages. “This is causing a problem, even though we ask our listeners to send us short messages,” Fuglesang said. “People write long messages.” 



For example, Speak Up! had 900 responses to a recent question, but nearly 500 ended up in the trash bin because of error or length. While the messages can be retrieved, and the team is trying to do just that, “it does pose a bit of a headache,” Fuglesang said.



Another issue may be cost. While there is a cost to send a text message, sending an SMS to a shortcode actually carries a slightly higher cost, Fuglesang said. “We are trying to monitor this to see if it affects the flow.“



A version of this article was cross-posted on MobileActive.org.