SMS driving iCows on the Frontlines

iCow, SMS enabled dairy farm management.

In 2011, nearly 8 trillion SMS messages were sent by about 3.7 billion users. These numbers are staggering for a technology that is limited to being able to send 160 characters from one mobile phone to another.

It turns out that there are a few reasons why SMS has become so popular as a communications technology. Firstly, the simplicity of a text message of 160 characters is enough to carry important information and restrictive enough to ensure that people are concise and to-the-point.

Secondly, there is the pervasiveness of SMS-capable phones. There are approximately 6 billion SMS capable subscribers world-wide.

Finally, there is the cost, with SMS messages being affordable and certainly cheaper than a phone call.

All of the characteristics of SMS have led to its use in a range of applications aimed at fostering improved communication in rural and remote regions, especially in the so-called developing world.

One such application, called iCow allows farmers to be prompted about fertility information about their cows, telling them the best time for the cow to be fertilised. The application has extended into an information network amongst dairy farmers, all based on SMS messaging.

Another application, also developed in Kenya, is called FrontlineSMS. This is an open source application that allows organisations or even individuals to customise communication with large numbers of people over SMS. This has been used in a large number of initiatives. Activists in Indonesia have used SMS to coordinate palm oil cooperative farmers in their battle to assert claims over plantations. Also in Indonesia, Ruai TV have used SMS to allow citizen journalists to report news items.

In rural Kenya, SMS is being used to engage with people living with HIV. SMS messages are sent out to patients with health information in order to improve their understanding of the importance of diet and hygiene in their illness.

The use of SMS in health has been extended to a patient record system called PatientView that allows for updates of the patient record via SMS.

With all the attention that Smartphones are getting in the media, especially phones like the iPhone, it is tempting to think that all applications can be built for these platforms and rely on the internet for sophisticated communications. However, Smartphones are still only a relatively small percentage of the overall market for mobile phones (17%) and of course access to the Internet is still extremely limited world-wide. So feature phones and communication strategies that rely only on existing telephone networks are still very important and will be for some time to come.