Can SMS be a surrogate for the internet in the developing world?

Unconvinced as to the power of SMS? Well, in an instant, mobile messaging company Mobile Accord could send a mass text message that could reach people in 205 countries, said president Steve Gutterman — the only exception is North Korea.

In places where there is no fiber or landlines of any sort, no access to internet, PCs or even wireline phones, there are still mobile phones and they’re all capable of sending and receiving the lowly SMS message. That’s a very powerful tool that can be used for research, commerce, banking, even economic development.

Mobile Accord, the Denver-based company behind SMS-charitable giving organization mGive, has launched a new venture called GeoPoll, which aims to use SMS to research the tastes and opinions of billions of people unreachable through other communications channels. GeoPoll performs these surveys for the benefit of non-profits, international organizations like the U.N., and commercial businesses alike. It integrates with the billing systems of global carriers and it compensates its participants with airtime credits (which in many countries in the developing world can be used as a currency).

GeoPoll global reach

GeoPoll also recently raised a $6.6 million Series A funding round from private investors, bringing its total funding to $11.6 million. According to Gutterman, GeoPoll will use those funds to reach out to more survey participants, increasing its reach from 50 million today to 500 million by the end of 2014.

GeoPoll’s surveys don’t require an app, a mobile browser or even an internet connection (though it can do internet polls with participants with more sophisticated phones). Mostly it uses the SMS channel to collect data, and in areas of low literacy it can conduct the surveys via voice prompt. The company has conducted polls ranging from what brand of toothpaste people use to the quality of infrastructure in remote villages to the affects the ravages of war can have on a people.

The company’s first poll surveyed 4 million people in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. This video created for the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report shows the kind of information GeoPoll can collect:


And though GeoPoll pays participants for most surveys, Gutterman has discovered participation levels — generally greater than 50 percent — are just as high on polls with no compensation. “We’ve found giving people a voice where they had none before is really compelling,” he said. “People want to complete our polls.”

That might sound odd to you and me, as we’re digitally barraged by marketers, but Gutterman explained that in the places where his company polls, people don’t often get the chance to participate in broader forums beyond their local communities. It helps that many of GeoPoll’s surveys have been about meaningful issues such as economic development and social justice.

Participating in SMS polls is still a far cry from full access to the internet, but a lot of other companies have taken to SMS to recreate services that would normally be available through a browser. Safaricom and Vodacom have built vast financial networks in Africa with M-Pesa, which uses SMS to process and confirm payments and peer-to-peer transactions.

Connected AfricaA company called Jana explored the idea of using SMS as a means of outsourcing simple projects to the developing world such as the translation of sentences — think of Mechanical Turk but with each assignment divided into hundreds of smaller tasks. Jana eventually dropped that program, and is now focusing on surveys and marketing campaigns much like GeoPoll. But the potential remains for using short messages not only as a means of trafficking in more than just personal communications.

Before we had smartphones, we in the developed world were much more dependent on SMS as a means of accessing and transmitting data. We used it to vote for our favorite reality TV performers, to request show times for movies and to get score updates on our favorite sports teams. We still use SMS today to augment what are primarily online and mobile internet services, such as banking and social networks.

But if you divorce SMS from the internet entirely, it still remains a very powerful informational tool. And a lot of people are figuring out ways to use SMS to bridge the gap between the connected world and the so-called unconnected world.

Africa image courtesy of Shutterstock user Anton Balazh