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With Text Messages, Saving Lives Through Timely Words

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, August 2 2012

Sometimes all it takes to save lives is the right words at the right time.

That's what researchers are finding as they explore two projects to use text messages in an effort to influence people's behavior.

In a study published in late 2011 about "m-health," a system in Kenya to send supportive SMS messages to patients taking a drug regimen to treat HIV, the World Health Organization found that patients receiving weekly text messages stuck to the regimen more closely than any other group — possibly thanks to "supportive factors in the messages."

Similar effects may have aided a drop in gun violence in Chicago, Ill., early intervention specialist Patrick Meier writes. A project called CeaseFire Chicago, he wrote, contributed to a dramatic reduction in the number of shootings in the city's marginalized neighborhoods - as shown in an independent study published by the Department of Justice. Now a Kenyan NGO is employing the same methodology to reduce conflict in the slums of Nairobi.

Meier on CeaseFire Chicago:

Our mobile messaging campaign in Chicago builds on another very successful one in the US: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive.” Inspired by this approach, the PeaceTXT Team is looking to launch a friends-don’t-let-friends-get-killed campaign. Focus groups recently conducted with high-risk individuals have resulted in rich content for several dozen reminder messages (see below) that could be disseminated via SMS. Note that CeaseFire has been directly credited for significantly reducing the number of gun-related killings in Chicago over the past 10 years. In other words, they have a successful and proven methodology; one being applied to several other cities and countries worldwide. PeaceTXT simply seeks to scale this success by introducing SMS.

These messages are user-generated in that the content was developed by high-risk individuals themselves — i.e., those most likely to get involved in gun violence. The messages are not limited to reminders. Some also prompt the community to get engaged by responding to various questions. Indeed, the project seeks to crowdsource community solutions to gun violence and thus greater participation. When high-risk individuals were asked how they’d feel if they were to receive these messages on their phones, they had the following to share: “makes me feel like no one is forgetting about me”; “message me once a day to make a difference.”

The methodology for TXTPeace was discovered by public health workers in sub-Saharan African countries, who experienced remarkable success in getting people with HIV and TB to take their medication by sending a daily reminder via SMS. Studies showed that this led to a significant reduction in AIDS and in TB mortality rates.

Recently, Meier partnered with TEXTPeace and Kenyan NGO Sisi Ni Amanyi (SNA-K) to pilot a project that aims to prevent internecine conflict in the slums of Nairobi using the same methodology — i.e., sourcing relevant messages from community members and sending them out via text messages. The goal is to raise community and civic awareness and prevent violence by pre-empting and correcting rumors, particularly around election time.

A SNA-K blog post describes the success of the pilot — an upgraded, scalable SMS system and volunteer fieldworkers who had fanned out in the slums to sign up 23,000 subscribers in three weeks.

The idea that messages disseminated by SMS can alter human behavior seems almost too simple to be true. But in the lecture below, CeaseFire Chicago's Gary Slutkin presents a cogent, compelling explanation on how the methodology works. The historical context is particularly interesting.

Gary Slutkin: Disrupting Violence from PopTech on Vimeo.

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