Using Mobile Text Messages to Educate People about HIV/AIDS in Uganda

Technology can be a great enabler and catalyst for social change. Let’s take a look at one way that resourceful people are using technology to help educate people in Uganda about critical health issues.

Prevalence of HIV/AIDS remains high in sub-Saharan Africa. There is an average of one doctor for every 20,000 people, compared to the 1:1000 ratio recommended by the World Health Organization. This is particularly a problem in Uganda where 70% of doctors and 40% of nurses are concentrated in urban areas where 12% of the population lives. This leaves a large number of rural Uganda with a particularly low number of health care professionals. Therefore, educating people about how to prevent HIV/AIDS without face-to-face interaction with a health professional is critical.

At the same time, the number of mobile phone users in Africa soared to 280 million in 2007 and is projected to reach 600 million by 2012. Many Africans do not have access to computers, so mobile phones have become extremely popular. Access to mobile technology has penetrated to the degree that many rural poor now have access to “pay as you go” plans that provide access to the wireless network and technology that would have otherwise been unaffordable.

SMS, or text messages, are available on even the low-end phones that are used by the rural poor and therefore provide a unique way to access such a large part of the African population. The Dutch and Ugandan-based NGO, Text to Change developed an incentive-based quiz application. Questions are sent to the participant’s mobile phone, they reply, and participants with the best quiz scores are entered into drawings for free airtime and other prizes.

Text to Change promoted this quiz to a district in northwest Uganda, as well as three factory sites in Uganda. Since this was an experiment, they were unsure how many people would use this quiz, and how well SMS messaging would work as a user interface. They found that they had better participation rates at the factory sites, most likely because people were made aware of the quiz through their place of employment. In addition, the clinics near the factory sites reported a three-fold increase in HIV testing during the period of the quiz. This suggests that the content of the quiz made people think about their own health.

The study found that there were some formatting challenges with the SMS text message format, but they concluded that it is a viable user interface for this type of application, and that participants learned how to use it fairly quickly.

So, in an era where many of us are fortunate to have access to computers, smartphones and tablets, let’s keep in mind that even simple interfaces such as SMS text messaging can be effective to communicate to the masses. Given the predominance of mobile phones in the developing world, how else can we use this technology to affect social change?

To find out more about Text to Change, visit their website at www.texttochange.org, and read more about their experiment with SMS messaging in Uganda at http://www.mobileactive.org/files/file_uploads/IBM-TTC.pdf.

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