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Ascend Introduction Need

For a refugee, information is vital, helping them access food, legal help, and other assistance programs. But aid workers use labor-intensive methods to communicate, making it hard to provide accurate, timely, and personalized information to refugees in disparate areas. It is even more difficult and time intensive for aid workers to assess the needs of refugee populations and provide targeted assistance.

Value Proposition Ascend helps aid organizations better communicate with refugees. Currently, we use FrontlineSMS, a free online platform that allows aid workers to: communicate important messages to refugees in both emergency and protracted situations, regardless of location

send targeted and mass messages and surveys

save time, money, and manpower

retain a digital record of refugee responses


Questions? Ideas? Interested in using SMS in your work? Want to learn about our pilot in Ecuador? Contact us:

Team We are a team of four people passionate about making a difference for vulnerable communities. We have backgrounds in computer science, international policy studies, and environmental Sciences. Ben Rudolph is a coterminal bachelor’s and master’s student at Stanford University, but currently working as an Innovation Specialist with UNHCR Innovation in Geneva, Switzerland; Jessica Dittmar is a Sustainability Consultant for the Hull Family Foundation in Nicaragua; Micaela HellmanTincher and Anna Xu are Problem Solvers in Tipping Point Community’s T Lab in San Francisco, California, USA.

Ascend Ecuador Executive Summary In Ecuador, our goal was to prove our concept and see if using FrontlineSMS would be able to help aid workers better communicate with refugees. Based in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, we tested both oneway and two-way messaging to help UNHCR and two of its implementing partners, HIAS and Asylum Access, send mass messages to refugees about classes, workshops, food distributions, and brigades.

Esmeraldas, Ecuador high cell phone penetration

80% of interviewed refugees had personal cell phones and 20% had access through family members, friends or neighbors

resourceintensive communication

low cell phone credit

50% of interviewed refugees had cell phone credit, of which 80% had ~$1-2/month of credit and used their phones only in urgent situations

most aid agencies spend a lot of time and money individually calling refugees to remind them of appointments

preference for calls rather than SMS

low SIM card swapping among refugees in Esmeraldas, though high in Quito

although interviewed refugees all desired appointment reminders via SMS

Scope 492

refugees participated in the pilot (conservative estimate)


or, 74 of 75 refugees were interested in using SMS to communicate with UNHCR


or, 72 of 75 interviewed refugees found the information sent via SMS useful


messages broadcasted with a 95% success rate, and 76% of refugees receiving the SMS

These numbers are from a more detailed data analysis in our mission brief. To request a copy of our mission brief, contact us:

Impact Refugees were grateful when they did not miss an important event because they had received an SMS reminder.

“I had almost forgotten, but now I’m here!” - PoC, at the food distribution

“It used to take an afternoon to notify all asylum seekers of their appointments. With Ascend, we were able to do it in minutes.” - Asylum Access (Esmerladas)

“We had double the people in class than before!” - Asylum Access (Quito)

HIAS and Asylum Access both had higher turnout for services, such as English classes, focus groups, women’s workshops, food distributions, and interview appointments using SMS reminders.

Challenges Low response rates

Use a toll-free number

Computer literacy

Build capacity

Uploading contacts to FrontlineSMS

Create tools to upload contacts

Refugees did not widely respond to our test poll, potentially due to the cost of SMS messages. Staff had varying computer literacy, and it was sometimes difficult to develop a level of comfort with the software.

Refugee names and phone numbers were not always uniformly organized within the databases of the organizations, making it difficult to upload the data to FrontlineSMS.

Higher response rates might occur with the possibility of sending toll-free responses.

GSM modems can sometimes require troubleshooting, and it would be helpful for one staff member to become an expert on the system so they can assist others with problems.

We created this website to help streamline data uploads, but further streamlining of the upload on FrontlineSMS would be helpful:

Moving Forward We aim to test Ascend further in more regions with other offices of UNHCR and their implementing partners in Ecuador and to follow-up with the offices we previously worked with to implement a robust solution that is used often and widely. Ascend is also preparing for a second pilot in Costa Rica in April 2014.

Contact Interested in reading our mission brief or monitoring and evaluation plan? Questions? Ideas? Contact Us:

Ascend Implementation Using Ascend

Do you need to communicate with or collect data on large numbers of refugees? Ascend allows for one-way and two-way communication with refugees. In the past, Ascend has been used to: advertise workshops, brigades, etc. send information about legal status, jobs, etc. facilitate food distribution survey refugees

Resources Needed 1

staff member,

who wants to save time and reach more people




GSM modem,

costs between $25100 depending on the country


SMS data plan,

costs ~$50/month but depends on the country

Maximizing Success 1) Read about our experiences in Ecuador.

Ask us for a copy of our mission brief on our pilot in Ecuador: Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have!

2) Spend some time learning the FrontlineSMS software.

It is easy to learn, though you will need to be familiar with a few important functions. Get started here: To get up to speed even faster, ask us for the user guide we developed. Email!

3) Clean up your data on refugees before importing it. Here is a handy tool to help you:

4) Advertise your efforts to refugees via flyers or posters.

On the flyers or posters, provide a number that they can text with a subscription keyword - it’s easy to set up in FrontlineSMS. That way, if they change their SIM card, they can still sign up to get texts from you.

Contact Questions? Ideas? Contact us:


Ascend is a project aimed to enhance communication between refugees and UNHCR staff by leveraging innovative uses of SMS technology.


Ascend is a project aimed to enhance communication between refugees and UNHCR staff by leveraging innovative uses of SMS technology.