U-Report is a SMS mobile technology tool developed by UNICEF to empower youth voices on the social and economic issues affecting their communities. Uganda was the first country to pilot and scale the innovative tool of democratic accountability, now used extensively globally.
Problems and Purpose
Political, economic, and social challenges make it difficult to implement innovative structural reforms, partly due to citizens’ skepticism. Building inclusive and responsive societies requires engaging the public in policy making through participatory mechanisms. Statements regarding children and youth are frequently used to talk about the legacy governments must leave to future generations. Youth are often thought of as representing the future; thus, governments should provide the necessary services and opportunities for them to grow and succeed. Nevertheless, youth should also be thought of in the present, and as such, be given the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions directly to government and related institutions. This is particularly true in the context of Uganda, where 78% of the total population is under 35 years old.
For this reason, UNICEF supports actions that address youth concerns and empower them through participatory, reflective, and innovative mechanisms. U-Report is envisioned as an innovative participatory tool for youth to have a voice on the issues that matter to them, connecting them with government, and motivating them to work together to build inclusive and responsive societies. Through free SMS, participants, called U-Reporters, are able to respond to weekly polls and report issues, amplifying their voices at the local, regional, and national levels of government. U-Report expands young people’s representation in social and political areas, connects public servants and citizens, and motivates youth to be agents of change in their communities. The purpose of U-Report Uganda is to mobilize youth to respond on issues such as education, health, immunizations, civic engagement, livelihoods, and peace and conflict so that UNICEF Uganda, Ministers of Parliament, and respective government agencies can collect and map regional data and ultimately impact policy creation.
Background History and Context
U-Report was developed by UNICEF as part of their series of innovation projects led by the UNICEF Innovation unit. U-Report runs through the RapidPro framework, another tool developed by UNICEF, that enables the international development community to have an exchange and flow of information through mobile technology. The RapidPro software allows development officers to collect information through SMS, manage contacts, visually map the information, and send messages on multiple languages. U-Report was based on this platform and focused on youth participation to strengthen democratic accountability and enhance citizens’ trust and interest in political activities. UNICEF designed U-Report on equity grounds to reach all people independently of their location and background. Just like U-Report, other tools have emerged from the RapidPro framework, each focusing on a particular set of issues. For example, mTrac covers health services, EduTrac assesses education and, U-Report focuses on youth participation. By responding to and engaging on polls on a variety of issues, U-Reporters help UNICEF and governments collect and map information by district so that services and development programs can be strengthened.
In May 2011, UNICEF launched U-Report in Uganda. Its launching built on partnerships with community organizations, national associations, and other NGOs. The Uganda Scouts Association played an important role in U-Report’s launching and recruitment of participants. Since before the official launching, the Scouts Association recruited and trained scouts as “Pioneer U-Reporters.” Since then, U-Report Uganda has been actively growing and making an impact on community engagement and policy. The success of the tool in Uganda has brought many accolades from the international community and contributed to scaling the tool to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today, U-Report has been scaled to 19 countries worldwide and has a continuously growing number of active U-Reporters, which today stands at 2,093,298.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
U-Report was developed by UNICEF. The team of U-Report Uganda is currently comprised by one project manager and one data analyst, with a steering committee of some 30 partners including faith-based organizations (FBOs), community based organizations (CBOs) and Government. The Uganda Scouts Association was involved in U-Report’s launching and recruitment processes.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
U-Report is an opt-in initiative, so youth decide if they want to join and they can opt out anytime. To become a U-Reporter, they send via SMS the word “JOIN” free of charge to #8500–U-Report’s number in Uganda. Once they have joined, U-Report collects some information on the user, including age, location, and gender. This allows U-Report to understand the demographics of participants, as well as to graphically map information. As of March 2016, U-Report Uganda has a total of 279,646 U-Reporters of which 65% are male and 35% are female. Approximately 41% are aged 20-24 and 31% aged 25-30, with 25 years old being the median age for U-Reporters.
Participant recruitment takes place in two forms: mass communication advertisements and field recruitment. For the first 2.5 years of U-Report, UNICEF Uganda did Radio/TV advertisements; however, this is now done by their country partners. Field recruitment has also been fundamental as it taps into UNICEF and U-Report’s networks to reach out extensively, particularly those in remote areas. Field recruitment is done through U-Report’s partners such as the Scouts Association.
Methods and Tools Used
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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
As of the U-Report website’s last update, U-Report Uganda counts on 279,717 U-Reporters out of the overall Ugandan youth population of 7,310,386.13 U-Report shapes participant’s interactions because they can use the publicly accessible poll results and disseminated information to interact with one another and respond to issues that affect them. U-Report’s partner potential is also increased due to its existence as a UNICEF initiative and the arrangement between U-Report and the Uganda Scouts Association.
Examples of participation from U-Report have included Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) response, Ebola outbreak response, assistance for an emergency situation in the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, improving community disaster preparedness, and the Children Act Amendment.
Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) Response
With BBW response, U-Reporters’ participation enabled real-time mapping of the BBW outbreak and dissemination of methods to contain its spread. Targeted efforts were made towards communities in which the incidence of BBW was reported to be highest, and extension programs were oriented towards these communities.
Ebola Outbreak Response
During the Ebola outbreak, U-Report was able to spread information about the outbreak and refer participants to the Ministry of Health for additional information. They had sessions to solicit feedback about the community Ebola response. Some responses provided expressed desire for the government to utilize U-Report to respond to more viruses aside from Ebola.
Emergency in the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement
U-Report is an especially important tool for refugee camps, as alternative opportunities to shape public decision-making and to increase agency are limited. Aside from providing feedback and participating, in one case, a U-Reporter was able to send an SMS text to alert authorities to a woman with a medical emergency after childbirth.
Community Disaster Preparedness
In this application, U-Report was utilized to map risk-prone zones and improve community disaster preparedness. Communities were provided with training on how to properly identify, report, and respond to emergency signals/signs. 100 volunteers were leveraged to expand the reach of the community disaster preparedness initiative.
The Children Act Amendments
For the creation of the Children Act Amendments, public participation was used to gauge parliamentary approval for the legislation regarding corporal punishment in schools. Members of Parliament that requested more information were subsequently invited to a workshop on the issue. This tool was used to incorporate participation into amendment provisions.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
All 386 Members of Parliament are registered U-Reporters with respective accounts, so they have a direct link to their constituencies. All 112 local government chief administrative officers receive SMS text updates from U-Report, which gives them access to information from U-Reporter’s responses. Moreover, government agencies/public administrators have utilized U-Report to make more informed decisions based on participant responses and communicate more directly with the public, namely in Uganda’s Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit, Ministry of Finance, and Ministry of Health.
The more general effects of U-Report, such as an easily scalable, free, and direct link to participate are evident based on the case outcomes. However, due to the fairly recent release of the tool, additional research and study are needed to assess longer-term effects. Moreover, given the collaborative nature of U-Report, it is difficult to isolate the effects of the U-Report tool from the effects of the initiatives it partners with (i.e., Scouts Association).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
One of the benefits of U-Report is that it provides a direct link between Ugandan youth and decision makers and services for free. Polling through SMS is also a feasible programmatic option, because the majority of the population has cell phones. Also, it is a method for the public to solicit consistent and pertinent information and potentially have requests referred to other government agencies in a rapid manner. The polls’ availability in different languages, such as Luo and Karimojong, translate to increased agency for participants, as they are able to receive information and contribute in languages other than Uganda’s official languages. Choosing to make the RapidPro platform open source rather than restricting it to only UNICEF makes it a truly public resource, because others can add to the existing foundation.
A concerning issue for participation in a community-based platform is that polls are done at the country level. While polling at the country-based level better allows for better measurement and can still result in targeted community outreach for service provision, it may not necessarily reflect local community priorities in public participation, or issues that may occur in one community, but not another.
Another issue lies in self-selection bias—by giving direct access and information to participants, the agency of non-participants could be affected. A way to mitigate this would be to increase the number of participants to a level where the majority of Ugandans could participate.
While U-Reporters have different preferred ways of using the tool (some might participate primarily to receive information, while others might more actively engage and submit information), the low response rate to U-Report polls—currently listed at 7.844%—is concerning, and identified as a primary challenge. Low response rates inhibit the tool’s utility and are concerning because significant resources are used to send the polls to individuals via SMS.
In addition, topics for polls are decided based on the UNICEF Priority Information Requirements (PIR), which are a reflection of UNICEF’s programs. While the tool is housed under UNICEF, because it identifies itself as “designed to address the issues people care about,” individuals could be more closely consulted about the issues they would like to see addressed. It should be noted, however, that U-Report’s current platform allows for individuals to provide general feedback or commentary outside of poll/alert responses, which creates a mechanism for expressing issues concerning individuals.
U-Report provides an alternative platform for women’s participation. However, 65% of U-Reporter respondents identified themselves as male. U-Report has attempted to increase women’s participation by creating a poll around International Women’s Day, asking participants how women have impacted their respective lives.
U-Report has also facilitated more partnerships between civil society actors, the private sector, and government. Collaborators such as the Intel Corporation, Idibon, and local telecommunications companies have been involved in everything from developing platforms to analytics to ensuring SMS delivery, while partners such as the World Bank and the Ugandan Parliament assist in the dissemination of information. Organizations such as the Scouts serve as resources for how to use the tool. As seen in the emergency situation in the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, local agencies are able to provide services and direct information to participants.
This technology has a capacity for greater information for policy makers but could be prone to several challenges. Because U-Report engages in service provision, and often in emergency situations, it can be “gamed” if reported incidences are higher than actual incidences, which might be done to get more resources directed to a particular community. For certain high-stakes issues, it could lead to response bias if population segments with strong opinions are more likely to provide responses. As it transitions into the application development phase, specific segments of U-Reporters will not be able to access certain features without a smartphone, such as the U-Report chat feature.
In the spirit of its publicly accessible information, U-Report Uganda should set specific and measurable benchmarks for itself to determine if the initiative is performing successfully, which can incorporate its existing published targets for recruitment and participation levels and UNICEF U-Report’s benchmarks. Since it is a mechanism for public participation, it could engage the public by having participants define what would constitute success and subsequently asking the public to assist in reaching those metrics. This would be an excellent supplement to the extensive anecdotal information about U-Report’s positive impact on individual’s lives.
It would also be beneficial for the public to have access to commitments agreed upon by U-Report partners in the Rules of Engagement statute they sign when collaborating with U-Report. This would increase transparency, public awareness, and accountability for this participatory mechanism to ensure administrators translate this information into action.
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Images displayed on this article are screenshots from the U-Report Uganda website. They are used to provide the reader with a visualization of the U-Report tool and the ideas discussed on the text. For more current visualization of weekly polls, statistics and data mapping please visit U-Report Uganda.