Your Georgian Parliament is Texting You

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on May 21, 2011.

Transparency International Georgia is working to make information about Parliament available to more people via SMS messaging. The civil society organization was recently awarded a grant from the Open Society Institute and is several months into a project that sends Twitter-like messages on Parliamentary scheduling information. Derek Dohler, Digital Analyst for TI Georgia, said that information on upcoming meeting agendas and drafts is not readily available to many in Georgia.

The text messages speed up the process of getting information out, Dohler said. Right now, information about what is happening in Parliament is available weekly or semi-weekly, but there is no way for people to get an up-to-the-minute idea of what is really going on, Dohler said. spoke with Dohler to hear how the project is going.

How It Works

TI Georgia began sending out messages from Parliament this month, and the team has been testing internally as well as advertising the service on Facebook. Dohler describes the project as being in the ‘beta test’ stage right now. The group began sending messages to the general public this week, and, at the time of this writing, 16 people have signed up to receive messages.

Messages are sent to anyone who signs up for the service. The only cost to the user is the cost to send an initial text message to sign up, by texting “join” to +99599009966. In Georgia, receiving text messages is free. People can also sign up online at no cost. A Georgia number is required (+995), and messages are available in English or Georgian. A user can also select specific committee updates, such as agrarian, budget, or legal issues, for instance.

TI Georgia sends Parliament scheduling information and summaries of bills on the docket. “The idea is to allow people to follow up on that on their own initiative, both journalists and citizens,” Dohler said. “It’s an information resource for someone who wants to get more involved in the process.”

For example, one recent SMS and Tweet was as follows: TI Georgia English Georgian scientists presented Circassian genocide research findings at today’s Diaspora comm sitting. 1/1

There is no set schedule for content and messages are sent as information becomes available or is breaking. For example, Parliamentary schedules are typically decided on Monday evenings, so on Tuesdays, the team might send more messages on the upcoming plenary sessions. The team sends out several messages a day, picking the items and meetings they think are most interesting.

The messages may also help hold officials accountable. Agendas are sometimes changed only a few hours before a law is passed, so that the second and third readings take place on the same day, Dohler said. “With Parliamentary elections coming in 2012, we think that providing updates like this will be a key way to hold MPs accountable.”

There is another reason to let people know what’s going on. In Georgia, a great deal of the opposition is outside of Parliament. Dohler and his team want to focus attention on legislation before (or while) it is being decided, rather than having the public’s attention focused on discussions outside of Parliament, by the opposition. Often, such discussions do not have much to do with legislation or policy, a TI Georgia team member said.

SMS to Match the Speed of Parliament

Internet penetration in Georgia is not particularly high. Twitter isn’t popular, either, and people don’t blog, at least politically, Dohler said. The goal of the project is to allow updates and messages be visible to anyone in any part of Georgia. Internet penetration is about 25% in the country, whereas mobile penetration is close to 75%, Dohler said.

So, TI Georgia chose to build a system around text messaging. SMS is already a popular mode of communication across the country, and an ideal way to communicate quickly. “Ultimately, we would like to be able to have SMS be able to provide access to people outside of the city in the regions that don’t otherwise have Internet access,” Dohler said.

SMS is also key given the current political landscape in Georgia. Dohler and his team said that because the ruling party has a constitutional majority, it often changes the schedule at the last minute making it difficult to find out what is going on. The advantage of text over say, e-mail, is that SMS messaging can match the “often fast and last minute scheduling that the Parliament uses.”

Challenges: Getting into Parliament, Outdated Documentation

One challenge Dohler and his team faced was establishing a physical office in Parliament. There was a significant delay in the project to gain access. Now, they have one full-time TI staff member in Parliament, as well as one part-time employee. “It makes it easier to get access to the drafts and talk to people,” Dohler said. “It’s very difficult if you don’t have passes to those offices.”

The team recently set up a VPN so texts can now be sent directly from Parliament — before, the staff member in Parliament would e-mail them to Dohler, who would then post them. With the VPN, the team is sending 4 to 5 messages a day. The messages are also automatically posted to Twitter at @TIGeorgiaEng and @TIGeorgiaGeo.

Dohler and his team chose to employ the RapidSMS framework for the project. Other configurations may be better suited for the project as it ramps up, such as using Clickatel’s commercial SMS gateways.

The project was a capacity building exercise for the TI Georgia team, and with RapidSMS, “we can learn what are the most powerful platforms out there that would allow us to do a really customized platform in the future,” Dohler said. The backend can be changed easily, “so in the future, if we wanted to do another project using RapidSMS we could shift it over to a different backend that would interact with the gateways that the mobile providers have.”

For now, TI Georgia is not partnering with local mobile operators. The team had preliminary discussions with the operators and “we found out they were envisioning much bigger volumes than we were looking at,” Dohler said.

Dohler and his team did experience challenges with RapidSMS. For example, documentation was sometimes outdated.  “It can be pretty intimidating when you first start to use it,” Dohler said. “It’s a pretty complex software architecture.”

Transparency International Georgia hopes to continue the project beyond the end of May, when it is scheduled to end. As far as an institutional capability to work with text messaging, “this is certainly the first time we’ve tried to do that,” Dohler said. Another reason for the project is a potential network effect: the more people know and care what is happening in Parliament, they more they care about it as an institution and a conduit for what they care about, Dohler said.

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