Wait, you have 4 phones?! Tailor-made solutions for Somalia

As previous blog posts on Somalia have shown, implementation of mobile surveys in Somalia has been a challenge. Somalia’s cell phone scene is uniquely tricky: instead of a single national network, the mobile network is a patchwork of local carriers.  Carriers tend to have regional coverage and many do not allow their subscribers to call ‘rival’ networks. People carry two or three SIM cards!

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This presents an interesting puzzle to solve as we try to scale up food security data collection activities through voice and SMS surveys with a grant from the Cisco Foundation.

The 2-channel modem we use for interactive voice response calls can’t handle more than 2 SIM cards at a time. We’re also trying to deal with implementing 2-way SMS traffic across 4 carriers that are not fully interconnected.  So it’s a challenge to figure out a system that lets people call or text us back from 4 different networks.

Creative Solutions for Somalia’s Rival-Carrier Network

  • For IVR, we are using a 2 channel modem. The technical team from InSTEDD helped configure our modem so that it ‘intelligently’ detects what network a number belongs to and routes the call through the correct SIM card. This also works for incoming calls, so that if a beneficiary calls the helpline/info system, the machine will detect the mobile network carrier he/she is using. Having the ability to call the ‘right’ network allows us to spend less on airtime and cut down on possible frustration of both operators and respondents.
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    mVAM Hardware

    Because our modem can only handle two SIM cards at a time, we’re placing outgoing calls on food security in batches. First, we call Hormud and Golis numbers. Then, we manually switch the SIMs in the modem to Nationlink and Somtel, and place a second batch of calls to those operators. It’s messy, but for now it works.

  • For SMS, we use Pollit and Local Gateway, an Android app that turns a smartphone into an SMS gateway. We are using 4 smartphones, each device is dedicated to a single carrier. In total we now have a herd of devices: 4 smartphones and 8 SIMs. We’ve taken a page from local cell phone user’s playbook: carry as many phones as networks you need to call!

Making 2-way communication convenient for beneficiaries

Beneficiaries can’t just stop what they are doing in the middle of the day to call us during our business hours. Thus, WFP Somalia will use the IVR for helpline calls when the operators are not in the office. When beneficiaries call in after 5pm or on the weekends when they have more time, they have the option to record their feedback. When beneficiaries first call in, the IVR machine automatically hangs up and calls back so there is no cost for the beneficiaries. When beneficiaries pick up the free call, they’re directed to recorded voice flow and can choose to record their feedback by pressing the number pads on the phone. At the end, the beneficiary/caller will hear “Please press one if you have finished recording your message. When operators are back, they will listen to your message and get back to you.”

The operators can download the recordings and listen to them. If the recording has enough info, the operators put it directly into the beneficiary feedback management system. Otherwise, they call the beneficiary back for more details.

Somalia Scale-Up

WFP Somalia began using voice calls for short food security surveys in May 2014. We got started with a modest pilot that involved calling 300 IDP households a month in central Somalia. Now, we’re also sending simple food price questionnaires to key informants via SMS. The advantage of collecting prices through SMS is that key informants can submit price information at time of their choosing in a simple format.

We are also ramping up to reach more households: we’re completing about 1,000 calls a month and aim to cover the entire country (10 hotspot locations and internally displaced settlements in Dollow and Galkayo). Our calls will help WFP monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of our programs.

This extended version of mVAM is known as ‘mKormeer’. “Kormeer” is Somali and means ‘Monitoring’.

2 thoughts on “Wait, you have 4 phones?! Tailor-made solutions for Somalia

  1. I had never imagined that your phone would be physically unable to call certain numbers until I worked in Iraq where three separate, un-interconnectable networks–largely affiliated with an ethnic/sectarian group–had emerged. This, in a country where we were trying to encourage sectarian reconciliation, but the different communities literally could not talk to each other by phone! When I got to Somalia, I was saddened but not surprised to see the same phenomenon of rival, unconnected networks, though for different reasons. Can you tell me whether this situation is technologically avoidable/preventable, whether any other countries have the same problem, and whether any have been able to resolve it thru legislation or policy? It seems like a basic prerequisite for conflict resolution that warring communities would need the ability to communicate with each other.

    • Thanks Heather for your insightful comment and sharing your experiences in both Iraq and Somalia. With respect to our mVAM data collection we haven’t had this difficulty in Somalia. We have experienced high costs calling between different networks but as of yet we have not heard of instances where connecting from one network to another is impossible.

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