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Cell Phone Project Bolsters Election Coverage

  • (Photo: IWPR)
    (Photo: IWPR)

IWPR implemented a wide-ranging news and information delivery system for the September 18 parliamentary poll that employed the use of cell phone technologies such as text messaging and voice-based user response to provide election news and information to millions of Afghan voters.

The project involved nearly 40 civil society organisations and provincial news media outlets around Afghanistan, and directly contacted 2.8 million cell phone users, as part of a “Get Out the Vote” programme endorsed by the Afghan government.

The Cell Phone Voter Project also expanded the technical skills of civil society organisations, and delivered targeted messages and independent election news to thousands of cell phone users. The project included a security news alert system for more than 1,000 journalists and civil society workers across Afghanistan, keeping them informed and safe during the election season.

“Delivery of news over cell phones at little or no cost to the user has enormous potential in many countries around the world with significant populations in remote and troubled regions.”
Peter Eichstaedt, IWPR Afghanistan Country Director

One of the key aspects of the programme was the delivery of 5.6 million text messages about the election to 2.8 million cell phone users. The text messages were selected from a list of ten messages that were considered key facts that the government of Afghanistan wanted to deliver to voters across Afghanistan.

The project employed the services of Afghan Wireless Communications Company which sent a mix of election related text messages to 2.8 million of its customers. Each user was sent two different messages.

Another component of the programme involved the training of 38 civil society and news media organisations to deliver bulk text messages to their members and affiliates. The project provided the organisations with laptops equipped with Frontline software, which allows users to send a limited amount of bulk text messages to a prescribed list of telephone numbers.

Text messages were in the form of election quiz questions intended to stimulate curiosity about the election rules and voter obligations. The quiz questions were delivered to thousands of members of civil society organisations.

Yet another aspect of the programme was the delivery of more than 122,000 security updates, also in the form of text messages, to more than 1,600 journalists, news media and civil society organisations before and during the election. An average of 18 messages per day were sent to each of the people on a pre-prepared list.

While civil society organisations made use of the new technology and training, IWPR also launched the innovative delivery of news via cell phones.

The project required a team of two reporters and two editors working in Kabul, all experienced journalists who gathered election related stories each day. The news team also drew on IWPR’s extended network of journalist in Afghanistan who work with IWPR news media centres in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Lashkar-Gah in the southern province of Helmand, and Herat on Afghanistan’s western border with Iran.

The stories were prepared and edited in three languages: Dari, Pashtu and English, then recorded in each language. The stories were then uploaded to a computer interface with telephone dialing ability that was linked to an Afghan cellular phone company.

The system called nearly 2,000 mobile phone users, who could either accept or reject the calls. In addition, IWPR advertised a number that could be called for free to access the system.

Once connected to the system, callers could select news in English, Dari or Pashtu, and then select stories by using their cell phone keypad.

A total of 10,206 calls were received from callers or were made by the pre-programmed service over four days of broadcasting from 17 to 20 September. Some 3,078 cell phone users responded to the system and listened to at least one story, with the average user staying on the line about 1.5 minutes. Some users remained on the line up to 20 minutes, indicating that they likely listened to all the stories.

“Delivery of news over cell phones at little or no cost to the user has enormous potential in many countries around the world with significant populations in remote and troubled regions,” said Peter Eichstaedt, IWPR Country Director in Afghanistan.

“This new cellular phone news delivery is clearly a new direction for news and information delivery. It is exciting that IWPR continues to be on the cutting edge of news technology and training.”