LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When mobile phone users receive a text message, they might expect a suggestion of a drink after work, a reminder to do the shopping, or an apology from a friend running late.
In Sierra Leone, people are more likely to receive a message telling them to use soap when washing their hands than an invitation to a social gathering.
Since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa began in March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has sent about 2 million messages a month to people in Sierra Leone, advising them how to avoid getting infected, and to seek immediate treatment if they do.
Working with local mobile networks and authorities, the charities plan to extend the service to seven other West African countries, according to Robin Burton, IRFC mobile operator relations consultant.
"The service has been brilliant in Sierra Leone, and other countries want to follow suit because Ebola is a clear and present danger," Burton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
The Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) system is set to be introduced in Benin, Togo, Ghana, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Burkina Faso.
"While the fight against Ebola is the present focus, whether it's disease, drought or an earthquake, we'll be in place to send out messages, helping communities to prepare and protect themselves," Burton said.
The TERA system, developed after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and rolled out in Sierra Leone last year following a cholera outbreak, allows blanket SMS alerts to be sent to people in precise geographical areas.
It is designed to send texts only during off-peak periods to prevent networks from being bogged down, and is cost-free for the telephone companies once the initial equipment is installed.
TRUST IN THE SYSTEM
The ability to opt out of the service and the fact that TERA operators cannot see telephone numbers or identify those who receive messages led people to trust the system, Burton said.
"People also receive information via newspapers, radio and posters, but receiving a message directly to your phone is much more personal, can be saved for future reference, and allows community leaders to share updates with those around them."
As the system is geographically selective, it provides people with information relevant to their communities, such as local clinic opening hours, rather than useless spam, he added.
An evaluation of the TERA system in Haiti last year found 96 percent of people thought the texts were useful and most said they acted on the information they received.
"One woman in an annex camp in Haiti couldn't find food for her family and was struggling to get by, but said that getting texts about the situation made her feel like someone was looking out for her, and raised her spirits," Burton said.
The World Health Organization says some 5,000 people have died during the current Ebola outbreak, the deadliest on record, with most of the deaths in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)