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Sharon Reader, Beneficiary Communications Delegate, Haiti Entry 1 – Thursday 14 July 2011

“People need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources. Information bestows power” (The 2005 IFRC World Disasters Report) I really believe in this statement and that’s why when I found out about the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, I knew I had to put in a proposal. I’ve been running a beneficiary communications program in Haiti since June 2010.

The aim of the project is to arm people with useful, practical information they can use, from how to protect yourself against cholera to preparing your home for a hurricane. In a country like Haiti, this kind of information empowers people and saves lives. The program also wants to give people the chance to tell the Red Cross what they think, want and need and then use this feedback to influence how we design and deliver our programs. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, we all get frustrated when we don’t get a say or feel decisions about our lives are being made for us. While I think we’ve done pretty well in Haiti at getting information out – in a recent evaluation 73.8% of those surveyed said they had received information from the Red Cross – it’s been much, much harder to get information back. In the same survey only 10% had actually contacted the Red Cross themselves. Therefore it’s clear we need to find better ways for people to communicate back with us if we really want to have two-way communication. After all, how could any recovery operation be a success if we don’t get the buy-in of the people we’re trying to help recover.

One of the most exciting innovations from the Beneficiary Communications program in Haiti is the use of mobile technology to deliver targeted information through SMS. Developed through a unique partnership between the Red Cross and Trilogy International Partners, the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) allows us to geographically target SMS to the users of an individual mobile cell tower. Despite trying several times to use this system to run surveys and get feedback, a mix of unfamiliarity with SMS, low literacy rates and the cost and time of sending multiple SMS, means we haven’t had much success. A recent two question survey using SMS only generated a 4% response rate. Which is why the Humanitarian Innovation Fund provides such a golden opportunity.

The funding we need to improve TERA and introduce new technology that will make it much simpler and faster to get feedback from our beneficiaries. Finding out our proposal had been selected was an amazing moment. Writing a proposal is a lot of work and you can’t do it without putting your heart into so it was a massive relief and hugely exciting to get the email saying we had been selected.

Thanks to this funding, the Red Cross in Haiti can introduce an Interactive Voice Response line or IVR. An IVR is trusted technology and most commonly used in banking – for example when you phone and type in your pin number in to find out how much money you have in your account. While not new technology, IVR has not commonly been used in a humanitarian setting and certainly not as a means of increasing beneficiary feedback and accountability – not to mention getting life-saving information straight to the people who need it most. Practically the IVR will allow the Red Cross to upload recorded information, which people can phone and listen to free of charge. The system will then connect callers through to other numbers, such as manned help lines or medical facilities. Uniquely the system can also ask people to answer questions by pressing numbers or speaking. Working closely with local institutions, such as the Ministry of Health and the Department for Civil Protection, this system will provide critical information, to a maximum number of people, during a crisis. For example, if there was a health outbreak in a town, information would immediately be recorded in Creole and uploaded to the phone line. The Red Cross SMS system would advertise the service to the population that day and people could call for information and even take part in a survey, answering questions about how many people are affected and in which areas. This information will then be used to inform the response of agencies and callers will be connected through to local health facilities. What’s even better is that once the system is set up and functioning, its running costs are minimal, meaning the IVR can continue to play a big part in providing public information and a feedback mechanism in Haiti, through the Haitian Red Cross, long after the international organizations have finished their earthquake operations. So after the excitement of winning the funding, the real work began. The first step was to hire the additional help we’re going to need to get this massive project set up; a local project manager and a short-term international delegate with knowledge of IVR. Both will have started by the end of July.

The next step was to outline to Trilogy all the developments we would like to make to TERA – after a year working with the SMS system on a daily basis, this wasn’t too hard and already the software development team in Bolivia have begun working on TERA 2.0. Our next steps will be to scope out exactly what the Red Cross operational teams such as shelter and health will need from the IVR and to speak to Haitians to find out what will make an easy and attractive system for them to use. Once we’ve gathered all our research it will be time to find the company who will build our new beneficiary communication and feedback machine, which we hope to launch by November. Looks like the excitement of winning will continue for a few months yet!

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