Gather info in hard-to-reach places: another option is USSD (if SMS or mobile apps are not working for you)

Gather info in hard-to-reach places: another option is USSD (if SMS or mobile apps are not working for you)


You may have tried SMS surveys using basic e.g. Nokia phones, you may have brought in smartphones and used apps to record data (as we did for FieldTask and ODK). I’ve just heard about USSD from my colleague Deepali who was working with an NGO in Uganda recently.

What is USSD?

This is something I ripped off this lovely site:

“USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is a Global System for Mobile(GSM) communication technology that is used to send text between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. Applications may include prepaid roaming or mobile chatting.


“USSD is similar to Short Messaging Service (SMS), but,unlike SMS, USSD transactions occur during the session only. With SMS, message scan be sent to a mobile phone and stored for several days if the phone is not activated or within range.”

Why is it useful to you as an NGO M&E person?

If you need to survey a rural community and you are/work with local staff with basic phones (i.e.non-smart) but no mobile reception, then USSD will enable you to record survey answers on the phones. When the staff can move to an area with reception then they can upload the data to your web-based platform* (don’t worry about that for now stay with me). And then the data is in a form that is already electronic – no need for form filling, data is exported to spreadsheet and analysed – you can do this whilst still near to the context.

If you can afford some smartphones then I do still like FieldTask

Web-based platform – so that’s the bit that you either custom build to suit your need – or … is there an open source platform that anyone can use like FrontlineSMS but for USSD? Anyone?

Here’s what UNICEF did with their USSD: Child birth registration and death registration: Video, Stats site, Case study

Caveat: I don’t have field experience of this – so this isn’t a recommendation – it’s just a new option in the area of data collection in remote areas which I’m interested in learning about. 


4 responses to “Gather info in hard-to-reach places: another option is USSD (if SMS or mobile apps are not working for you)

    • Thanks Neil. What an excellent organisation Medic Mobile is, bridging the gap between tech and NGO/communities in not just technology but also design and relevance! Phew. Sanity lives…

      Love that they look at all options too: USSD, SMS, apps, etc. to apply the best technology to the situation and not try to ram a square peg in every shape of hole.

      I will pass on to my Seattle-workshop buddies.

      Hope all is going well. I’m a fully converted member of the agile cult now 😉 Oh yes. But it’s only as good as the stories you write…. learning, learning. learning. I’m nearly in 7th week of 8 to deliver an application – doing Business Analyst and Iteration Manager roles – very exciting and fun. Peeling off the last of my old waterfall skin, euw. Fresh!

  1. FrontlineSMS hint at the need to move into USSD here ..

    A bit more about how USSD works:
    including simple silent video:
    and that article also says that smartphone apps don’t scale well due to need for electricity … hmm … interesting … But are there other inherent problems with USSD, such as needing to produce parallel sims?

    I’m really glad opening up this debate and it’s very interesting. I don’t think it says that any of our work on smartphone apps was in vain because all the learnings and process and behaviour is all still relevant. If technology changes, as we all hope it will, the main thing is that it gets better and better for what is needed.

    Let’s keep learning and adapting useful tech to important situations!

    • Ah predicting the future, its a good thing to do on a quiet Sunday morning. “smartphones don’t scale well due to electricity”, that seems logical to me. In a few years the measure of a low end phone might be its power consumptions hence slower CPU, slower memory and a smaller, slower screen.

      However the technology platform will probably be similar across all phones, in particular I think all phones will use data (the internet protocol) at the communications layer.

      This doesn’t mean that USSD and SMS applications will be obsolete, quite the opposite. One of the problems with USSD today is getting the app onto the phone. With a data connection that is no longer a problem. What you are left with is an application, that interacts with the user via simple menus and messages and can be deployed anywhere quickly at zero cost.

      We all love texting on our smart phones so message oriented applications should be popular in all countries. Maybe another example of where innovation from Africa will find global applicability.

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