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FLSMS supporting graduate student research at University of Alberta

Here at the University of Alberta we are using FrontlineSMS to support graduate student research in communication and technology.  Among its range of activities, the Mobile Applications for Research Support (MARS) Lab provides access to FLSMS and mobile phones to allow students and community groups to set up and run pilot projects using text messaging.  

Obtaining FLSMS-compatible phones in Canada can be difficult, so the Lab has a collection of GSM phones and modems that have been tested and are known to work with the latest version of FrontlineSMS.  We provide access and training to FrontlineSMS and offer rapid prototyping and testing for community organizations that are curious about using text messaging to enhance their communication with staff and clients.  The Lab also hosts workshops and guest lectures to talk about the use of text messaging as a research tool for collecting data and for in-situ reporting from research assistants and study participants.

Among our projects, the MARS Lab is providing support for “Get the Word Out” program operated in partnership with Edmonton’s Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE).  CEASE works through partnerships to create and pursue strategies to address sexual exploitation and the harms created by prostitution.  Their work includes public education, client support, bursaries, counselling, trauma recovery and emergency poverty relief for individuals working to heal and rebuild their lives after experiencing exploitation.  “Get the Word Out” is a harm reduction service that uses FrontlineSMS to enable women involved in prostitution to anonymously report incidents or concerns about violence or crime that is affecting them or may affect others.  The program also offers an network for these women to share thoughts or provide peer-based social support using anonymous text messages.  FLSMS is set up to auto-forward incoming text messages to a distribution group that includes frontline support agencies and clients who have chosen to subscribe to the service.  The auto-forwarding process removes the callerID from the text and preserves only the contents, ensuring anonymity of the issuer.  Text messages are also forwarded to a set of email addresses provided by the frontline agencies, as well as a protected Twitter account.

Another program supported by the MARS Lab is with the Pregnancy Care Centre (PCC) in Edmonton.  PCC Edmonton is a not-for-profit agency that works under the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services (CAPPS), a national, non-political, registered Christian charity, committed to pregnancy support services.  PCC Edmonton is a walk-in agency that provides information, material aid, parenting support, peer counselling, and spiritual support to people facing an unwanted pregnancy.  PCC Edmonton working with the MARS Lab has recently launched a project using FLSMS to provide clients with a discrete and familiar method of communication that complements voice telephone and face to face contact.  Using the Contacts tab in FrontlineSMS, PCC Edmonton has set up a folder structure that allows each counsellor to maintain a file of existing clients and a history of their text message exchanges with that client.  New clients can send keyword to receive a response from a counsellor, who will follow up with text message or phone call depending on the clients preference.  PCC Edmonton has developed a detailed protocol for communicating with clients by text message to guide counsellors in their interactions (including a glossary of txt-speak terms) and to ensure the safety and privacy of clientele.

The MARS Lab in collaboration with Simon Fraser University is also pioneering the use of FrontlineSMS in combination with Ushahidi to explore the use of social media in campus health and safety.  This project is using FLSMS to receive text messages from students and staff at both the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University to report health and safety concerns on campus.  The goal of the project is to better understand how text messaging can provide a low cost, low barrier means of reporting to encourage the campus community to help mitigate risks to health and safety on a university campus.

Finally, in early 2012 the MARS Lab will be launching a pilot project in partnership with LIRNEasia and the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture to explore the use of text messaging to support Agricultural Extension Services in the Dambulla and Matale districts.  This pilot will involve deployments of FLSMS at three agricultural information centres and is also expected to include a deployment of FrontlineSMS:Radio (when available) with a local radio station to support audience interaction for one of the live agriculture talk shows.  

For more information about the MARS Lab and its activities please contact Dr. Gordon A. Gow at the University of Alberta.

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