160 Characters to Change the World

Before Twitter, there was SMS, which was truly the first revolution in the way we communicated using mobile phones. Compressing entire thoughts and conversations into 160 characters was unprecedented in the world then, which was almost exclusively reliant on voice communications. Longer tracts of text should be sent via letters, and occasionally telegram (emails weren’t popular in 1992, when the first SMS was sent). And now, here is a tool that allows you to communicate text instantly, cheaply, without being as intrusive as a phone call, and can be read at the leisure of the recipient; in 2010, 6.1 trillion SMS were sent at a rate of 193,000/second. It has become the default mode of communication, replacing phone calls!

Although smartphone and mobile data use is on the rise, and Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are becoming more common, large numbers of the world’s population are either using a simple phone, or not using a phone at all. Only 1.2 billion people worldwide own a smartphone, which leaves 5.8 billion people without a smartphone, and reliant on SMS. In addition, not every location in every country has 3G or 4G, but nearly all inhabited areas in the world receives basis GSM services (which supports SMS). Finally, the reliability of SMS over the newer forms of communication means that it will continue to be used (even by Kenyan farmers who use it to check market prices for their produce).

So, if the humble SMS remains a potent tool that can reach many people widely, cheaply and easily, why are we not paying as much attention to it as much as we pay attention to smartphones and apps?

I’ll argue for revisiting the use of SMS in resource-limited settings, and potentially in times of disasters. The inherent advantages of SMS are precisely what will make it a suitable tool: using small amounts of electricity, on the GSM network, with basic (read: old) telecoms towers, sent to large numbers of recipients (due to a mature system) who are using basic phones (because these phones are cheap), and not dependent on the vagaries of internet bandwidth (also, harder to hack).

I’ve created a sample SMS campaign for earthquake alerts in Nepal, and also provided some thoughts on how this could work, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1EZyHzwwYT02Lcvivr6xXIS0O4Zol0bYGAfDgvC7VkJw/edit?usp=sharing

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