Voices of Youth

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Jun 17, 2010

A recently launched campaign at a popular youth radio program in Nepal focuses on the voices of youth – or at least, text messages of youth. Regardless, the SMS campaign seems to be making strides.

UNICEF in Nepal has teamed up with the popular Nepali radio program Saathi Sanga Man Ka Kura, which means “chatting with my best friend.” The program, also called SSMK, is run by the non-governmental organization Equal Access Nepal. SSMK has been on the air for 10 years and reaches millions of youth listeners (primarily ages 13 to 26) throughout Nepal. In April, UNICEF and SSMK launched a campaign that allows young listeners to take an active role in a conversation, all via SMS.

Rupa Joshi, a communications specialist with UNICEF, explains the origins of the campaign.

“When UNICEF Nepal launched its website in November 2009, we developed a special meta-site just for young people called the “Voices of Youth” designed and managed by the SSMK team.  The idea was to maximise the participation of young people and reflect their voices on issues that affect their lives. During the discussions a point was raised about the reach of the internet in a geographically and economically strapped country like ours, and how we could reach children and young people out of e-connection.  This was when SSMK’s increasing number of responses from listeners via mobile phones, even from remote regions of the country, came up as a solution.  The number of youngsters using mobile phones is increasing exponentially in the country, and it was agreed that we could get their responses much more if the service could be toll-free.”

Now, every week on the program, the radio team frames a topic or a question and invites the listeners to respond via a free text message to an established short code, 4400. (The campaign is also referred to as the “4400 initiative.”) The responses are then posted on a forum on the UNICEF Voices of Youth (VOY) meta-site, or the “Freedom Express” debate platform.

Altogether, the station has received over 33,000 messages since the launch, which comes from approximately 4,000 listeners.

Through the campaign, SMS not only provides young listeners with a platform from which to speak about important issues, but also connects the listeners to an online discussion forum (if they have Internet access) to read what others are saying about a particular topic. A viewer can also text “VOYQ” to 4400 to receive a text message with that week’s topic, in English. In this way, even if an individual misses the broadcast, he or she can still participate in the conversation via SMS or on the web.

“The toll free initiative is a pyramid-like linkage that connects the website, mobile and the radio network therefore, the radio plays a vital role in disseminating the discussion topics to the rich and varied radio listeners,” said Binita Shrestha, Program Director at Equal Access Nepal. UNICEF partners with Equal Access Nepal to help run the campaign, which is nearly self-sufficient at this point.

“We don’t need to advertise. A chunk of the program is now dedicated to this SMS campaign,” said John Brittain, chief of communication for UNICEF Nepal. “It is a looked-forward-to segment by the public.”

The group began planning for the SMS campaign in January and the cost to launch was minimal. UNICEF relied on their existing staff members and worked with the SSMK staff with whom they have an operational contract. Approximately $2,000 USD were allocated to an intermediary company to help set up the system. The 4400 short code is free to listeners, and UNICEF incurs a cost of 2 Nepalese rupees per SMS sent. This works out to about $1000 USD/month to support the initiative.

The group also stressed the importance of working with a flexible, knowledgeable intermediary company.  They worked with FOCUSONE in Nepal, a company that provides creative mobile services, to devise a way to receive multiple-part SMS messages as a single, readable message. Before this, the group was receiving incomplete messages when listeners sent in messages that went over the 160-character limit. With these multi-part messages, they are charged four rupees instead of two. FOCUSONE also created a way for the group to receive messages in Nepali characters.

The messages, however, are not submitted in real-time. SMS responses come in to a database and are scanned and monitored before being sent to the VOY forum. The group stressed the importance of letting listeners express themselves and explained the reasons why SMS messages do get filtered, which include: general spam; messages that are abusive, offensive or especially provocative; messages that are blank; texts that are unusable because of special characters or “smileys”; and messages that are personal or off-topic (for instance, they have received texts that declare love for a girlfriend). Because the system is free to the listeners, some listeners send multiple messages or messages that don’t mean anything, which also must be monitored. “We are still streamlining the process, to reduce the number of invalid responses, including ways in which respondents do not misuse the ‘free’ aspect of the SMS service,” Joshi said.

So, what are people writing about? Not surprisingly, responses have not been limited to the queries posed in the SSMK program. Messages run the gamut from proper sanitation to the ongoing peace process and from family problems to current events.

Interestingly, one of the most commented-upon threads on the VOY forum (with 829 posted replies as of June 17) is in response to the question, “What’s your take on the newly introduced toll free sms service?” One text said, “Thank U VOY, I believe this beginning will be new change n milestone 4 unshared, unattained n unsolved problem of youths.” Responses are in both English and Nepali. Another question (with 166 posted replies) asks, “How can we stop teenage pregnancy?” Users can also submit a response from the forum site using open fields that allow for more than 160 characters. The website has had about 1,500 unique visitors but many may be accessing the site from cyber cafes or shared computers, the group explained, so the actual number of visits may be higher.

Still in its pilot stage, UNICEF plans to complete an analysis of the VOY SMS campaign to determine what kind of messages should be handled by SSMK and what sort of queries can be directed to other service providers. For instance, Shrestha said that some responses have had to do with technical SMS issues. The group is currently analyzing the responses to better understand the implications and options.

For example, “the voices of the young people can also be collated into various publications, or youth meets be organised for sharing these with relevant policy makers,” Joshi said.

The responses may also shape future programs. The texts reflect ground-based realities and function as a “dictionary” that can be used to update the radio producers on changing trends and thinking patterns of youth today, Shrestha said. Also interesting is that many SMS responses have been queries about various UNICEF programs in Nepal. This unsolicited feedback may be a value-add with positive future implications.

This was the plan from inception: to launch the service and analyze the nature and volume of responses before charting the future course. UNICEF has also just commissioned a nationwide survey in Nepal that will investigate ways to maximize the potential of the campaign.

“UNICEF has recognized that something big is going on here,” Brittain said.

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