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The Transformative 120: Text Messages Prove a South African HIV Lifeline
Nancy Scola, 25 Nov 08

Pop!Tech 2008 - Project Masiluleke - Gustav Praekelt on Flickr - Photo Sharing!Taken together, a handful of numbers are adding up to a powerful HIV/AIDS lifeline along South Africa's northeastern coast. Of the six million South Africans infected with the disease, just one in ten are currently in treatment. The HIV infection rate in KwaZulu-Natal province (KZN) stands at a breathtakingly 39 percent. Meanwhile, a whopping four-fifths of all South Africans have access to a cell phone.

But a new program called Project Masiluleke -- Zulu for "wise council" -- is using the 120 characters commonly left over in cell phone text messages to connect South Africans who desperately need testing and treatment with the nation's HIV/AIDS resources.

But let's back up a bit. The cost of making a cell phone call in southern Africa can be, as it is in many spots on the globe, prohibitively expensive. But text messages are, by comparison, cheap. Resourceful mobile owners in South Africa have figured out a workaround to the air time problem by texting friends and family the simple message of "Please Call Me" -- a tactic similar to how American teenagers once avoided collect-call charges by using names like "Brian PickMeUpAtSchool."

PCM messages, as they're known, are enormously popular. South Africans send an amazing 30 million of them a day, which is about one daily ping for every one and a half citizens. Phone carriers like Vodacom, finding their networks swamped with PCMs, made a decision. They'd let customers send a handful of them each day, for free. But they'd use the space left over by the short messages to subsidize the service through advertising.

And that clever marketing use of the white space left on the table by PCMs has, in turned, inspired a life-saving application in KwaZulu-Natal. During a trial run of Project Masiluleke this fall, mobile customers found that advertising given over to texts pointing them to the National AIDS Helpline (0800-012-322) and HIV911 (0860-448-911).

The results of the demonstration were promising. During the six week run, some 20 million Please Call Me messages went out with the HIV/AIDS hotline information. (Of course, that 20 million represents just a small slice of the PCMs sent during that period. It would be interesting to know who was selected to get the special messaging -- keeping in mind that targeting recipients for HIV info carries its own baggage.) Calls to the national hotline in Johannesburg jumped a remarkable 350 percent.

HIV and AIDS carry a nearly debilitating social stigma in South Africa, with even government officials at the highest level of government in Pretoria holding on to some warped views of the disease. That social reprobation means that many potential carriers of either HIV or TB (diseases that are closely twined in South Africa) resist getting tested.

Intimate and discrete, text messaging can be a powerful solution: at once both more immediate than an email and less invasive than a phone call. In a place like KwaZulu-Natal, where a Motorola RAZR might be someone's primary way of communicating with the world, texting can be a powerful lifeline that sits comfortably in nearly everyone's pocket.

Project Masiluleke grew out of the Pop!Tech conference held each year in Camden, Maine. In 2006, South African HIV and TB advocate Zinny Thabethe spoke about the disconnect between HIV carriers and treatment. The Pop!Tech Accelerator project teamed with the South African Praekelt Foundation's SocialTxt program, frog design, and others to launch Project Masiluleke.

The Please Call Me announcements are just the first step in Project Masiluleke's mobile response to HIV/AIDS. Once the PCM texts are relaunched as a full-fledged program at the start of 2009, they will be followed by texts geared toward reminding patients of scheduled anti-retroviral therapy and other medical treatments, "virtual call centers" staffed by HIV carriers, and at-home HIV testing augmented will mobile-phone based support.

(Credit for original photo: Pop!Tech)

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.

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This is a great idea. Glad to see it has had such a good impact too. But, do you think that Vodacom would only allow social causes to leverage the extra space in PCM messages or do you think this will be opened up to allow any business that could afford to, to advertise?

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