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Mobile's role in bridging the digital divide

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, GOV.UK, Technology

This is a guest post from the GDS mobile team:

The GDS mobile team made a trip to Chiswick last week to OpenMarket, providers of our SMS delivery platform and shortcode number, to find out a bit more about how we could be making better use of SMS technology.

Whilst you might assume that the role of SMS in the digital world is dwindling, it’s important to remember that only 74% of adults have access to broadband at home, compared to 91% of adults who have a mobile phone. In the UK, 129 billion text messages were sent last year, that’s risen by 2000% over the past decade. You can read the full report on the Ofcom website.

Directgov has already been using SMS for several years to supplement campaigns on mobile, but we’re really only scratching the surface of what this tool can achieve.

So far we’ve largely been using what we call ‘auto-responses’, which means users text a keyword, i.e. TRAVEL to 83377, and we then send them a link to the Directgov mobile travel tool. They send us a message, we send one back - pretty straightforward.

For last year's 'Health in Pregnancy Grant' campaign, we took it to the next level. Users text a keyword and their due date to subscribe to a reminder in the 28th week of their pregnancy, when it’s time to apply for their grant. Take up for this campaign was very encouraging, racking up over 10,000 subscriptions in the first 7 months.

The potential for these reminder services is pretty big. It’s easy to think of a number of uses for simple reminder services such as self-assessment deadlines, car tax, etc. The delivery platform can also integrate with 3rd party back-end systems to supplement an existing service. So for example, it could send out reminder messages for jobseeker interviews and hospital appointments.

Other uses include:

  • Bulk messaging - to distribute information to segmented groups. e.g. the system can send out instant reminders to all subscribed users with information about  flood warnings, Jobcentre closures, Foreign Office travel advice, etc.
  • Decision tree style ‘dialogues’ - question and answer style messages to deliver specific, relevant answers based on a customer’s individual circumstances.
  • e-petitions, polls, surveys and quizzes
  • location based services to find your nearest facilities. NHS Choices already offer a service to find your nearest health facilities, i.e. text PHARMACY to 64746 to receive a list of pharmacies based on your current location.

So we think SMS could have an important role to play in bridging the digital divide - a stepping stone to help bring traditionally non-digital people into the digital world using a device that they already know and trust.

This week GDS helped launch the Tech City app to coincide with David Cameron’s speech in East London. Read more about that in Alice’s post.

We’re also looking forward to getting involved in the single domain project very shortly - we’ve seen phenomenal growth on the Directgov mobile site recently (now receiving over 1.7 million visits per month) so mobile is clearly going to be a key part of our offer to the citizen, now and in the future.

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  1. Comment by mikerapide posted on

    Nice to see this post and to be able to provide a follow up - the suggestions were clearly listened to and acted on as SMS is playing an increasingly important role in governmentcitizen communications. From your "list" of recommendations, Rapide supplies SMS services to:

    - DWP/Jobcentre+
    - Environment Agency
    - Foreign Office

    These services (to quote the DWP):

    "benefit...our customers. By keeping them better informed of progress or reminding them interviews or payments, we can improve the level of customer service and reduce the need for them to contact the Department to chase action etc."

    The benefits to the DWP are clear - reduced "chase" calls!

    And a DWP assessment of SMS included a customer survey which showed:

    • 94% say a text message is a good way to be kept informed about the progress of their claim
    • 80% said getting a text stopped them getting in touch

    The lesson - don't discount a technology just because it isn't the "latest thing". SMS is simple, fast, cost effective, reliable and highly effective for both the organisation AND the customers!

  2. Comment by Justin Bowser posted on

    You're right about the potential for reminder services and notifications; often an SMS will be preferred to an email or phone call because of the personal nature and immediacy of the comms.

    SMS can also be a great cost (ie call) avoidance measure, by proactively notifying people of updates etc that they would otherwise enquire about. I have some good figures on this in a UK gov't department.

    Very important with SMS though is the ability to very tightly segment and target the message recipients; it's a very personal medium and people will quickly unsubscribe from services if they feel they're being spammed.

    Take a look at what Birmingham City Council and Norfolk Constabulary are doing with geographically-targeted SMS and multi-channel messaging:

    NI Direct is also picking up use of SMS on the 66101 shortcode as a pan-gov't service, which is a step in the right direction!

    PS: Very happy to talk more about any of these examples or put you in touch 🙂

  3. Comment by Fraser posted on

    I agree that SMS is under-achieving. One of the best examples of SMS engagement I have seen is Eurostar / Fizzback who push out SMS surveys based on customer intelligence (e.g. you get your survey while you are on the train ride). Moreover, responses are analysed immediately using natural language processing, prioritised and sent for action.

    So, you could be sat on your train - get a survey via SMS - fill it in and complain about the temperature of the carriage - and get a visit from the train guard within minutes to resolve your problems without even having to disclose your name in the original communiqué.

    • Replies to Fraser>

      Comment by GDS mobile team posted on

      Thanks for that comment Fraser - I agree that's a great use of SMS. If you're looking to reach your customer immediately, SMS is obviously an ideal channel, considering that mobiles are something that people carry around with them all day and check constantly (as opposed to periodically checking emails, as and when you have access).

      It's also worth considering that mobile is a much more personal device. We've often had feedback from our customers that they prefer to conduct private correspondance on their mobiles, rather than a shared family or work computer.

      It's great too that in your example that there's such a clear link between the feedback and the action taken by Eurostar. Very impressive!

  4. Comment by dmossesq posted on

    Back in the 90s, securities were dematerialised. Out went share certificates. In came entries on the registrars' computerised ledgers.

    Eight years ago, I came up with the idea of dematerialised ID. Material vouchers like passports and club membership cards and tickets to concerts could be replaced with digital certificates and stored on mobile phones. That way you can process them. Mobile phones alert you when the battery is running out. They could just as easily alert you when your visa is running out – in the language of your choice.

    No interest from the government or the banks or the mobile phone companies. There again, I am the world's worst salesman. Even if I had been the world's best, though, I was warned, it would take about 12 years for the government to have the idea themselves and for the wheels to start turning.

    Best of luck with the SMS idea, GDS mobile team. But pace yourselves, don't peak too early, probably about another four years to go.

    • Replies to dmossesq>

      Comment by PJ posted on

      I think this is the time for this now! The infrastructure's there or at least developing in a way it wasn't before.