Link Lab

Link Lab


Using SMS to improve communication between UNHCR, partner NGOs, and urban refugees.

1. Define challenges

Finding the right SMS solution without a huge investment

In any situation, refugees must call on incredible strength and resourcefulness to succeed in new and ambiguous environments. But in an unfamiliar city especially, refugees often struggle to survive in a context they are not used to, and where finding a job is paramount.

Communicating with refugees in urban settings can be one of the greatest challenges. Local organizations that want to help are often stymied by how to contact people with information and assistance. Refugees change locations and phone numbers often, making it hard to stay in touch. For their part, refugees are often unaware of how to contact UNHCR or other organizations that want to help.

In San Jose, Costa Rica for example, a local organization had trouble notifying refugees about opportunities like computer training and language classes that could help them integrate into the community and boost their livelihoods.

And an organization that gives out microcredit loans needed to stay in touch with refugee entrepreneurs but wasn’t always able to contact them to see if they needed more assistance or funding.

We thought we could find a way for refugees and organizations to stay connected. SMS messaging would allow organizations to send texts and refugees could respond.

But no one wanted to invest time and resources in developing and disseminating an SMS solution that might not be the right fit for urban refugees.


The mobile phone is a “lifeline” for displaced communities; keeping them connected to loved ones.

2. Identify solutions

Failing fast with an "off-the-shelf" solution

Instead of spending a lot of time developing a new prototype, we took a different approach. We decided to “fail fast.” We would amplify a solution that was already available and then test it to see if it worked in the context it was needed for.

With collaboration from UNHCR, Stanford University created a class called “Rethinking Refugee Communities,” and students taking the class created an initiative named Ascend to find better ways to communicate with refugees in urban settings.

What they found was FrontlineCloud, an “off-the-shelf” solution that would easily let the team answer important questions about how to use text messages to reach refugees—without investing vast amounts of time and resources into building a unique system.

FrontlineCloud is an inexpensive online platform that allows organizations to send mass messages and surveys and retain a digital record of refugee responses in both emergency and protracted refugee situations, anywhere in the world.

Using an SMS system to assess refugees’ needs, provide targeted assistance and also maintain two-way communication would save time, money and manpower. And it would give refugees timely information that could help them find opportunities.

3. Test solutions

Understanding local needs for SMS communication

Initial testing in Esmeraldas, Ecuador informed the launch of a more expansive pilot that was rolled out by our Link Lab, this time in San Jose, Costa Rica.  The city was chosen in part because refugees there have high levels of both literacy and mobile phone usage, and because Costa Rica offered a relatively stable environment for refugees. Prioritizing an SMS pilot here would not come at the expense of more urgent needs.

Through a few key interviews and focus group discussions with refugees, local organizations and staff at UNHCR’s Costa Rica operation, our Link Lab got a sense of where an SMS system could really help.

Refugees in San Jose said they wanted more information on activities and opportunities. And some thought SMS would be a good way to ask questions of UNHCR’s Costa Rica operation or local organizations that worked with them.

With a clear vision of how refugees wanted to use SMS, our Link Lab prepared the software and messages for distribution. We trained two local organizations that wanted to reach refugees on what FrontlineCloud could do and how to use it.

Then, we started texting.

And for the next three months, UNHCR monitored several important indicators that would help measure the effectiveness of the FrontlineCloud pilot in San Jose: the number of messages the local organizations sent, the number of refugees who said they wanted to participate and the percentage of them who actively used FrontlineCloud to send messages.


Ben Rudolph, formerly part of the Link Lab, conducts a training with ACAI.

4. Refine solutions

Adding human-led processes

We soon noticed a frustrating reality: the application did not notify senders if they texted an inactive phone number. Upon further investigation, we discovered that a full 40 percent of contacts it sampled during the pilot were out of date.

We responded by working with the local organizations that maintained the databases to update all 670 contacts. The database is now much more complete, and better formatted for future use.

The test phase also revealed a few software glitches. Compatibility across languages and regions posed a problem, and larger databases of phone numbers didn’t work quite as well as the smaller ones originally tested. In some areas, poor Internet connectivity caused FrontlineCloud to get jammed up, sometimes resulting in duplicate messages—or worse—missing ones.

We reported all these challenges to FrontlineCloud so they could build an even better platform for future use.

We also learned that refugees who got text messages from the system’s unknown number were confused, and hesitant to engage. We realized that building trust and awareness was just as important as sharing information.

To build this trust, we began advertising the number so that people would be familiar with it and expect to receive messages. Additionally, we set up boxes where people could drop their contact information, which would then be added to the FrontlineCloud database.

The new approach worked: UNHCR’s weekly messages about asylum facts and related events received many positive responses from the refugees who got the texts.

Follow-up interviews with refugees were overwhelmingly positive. They said the messages they received were useful and important and helped them get exactly what they wanted: information.

Not only that, but refugees who sent messages got an answer. To them, that alone was important. It showed them that someone cared.

Example of the posters we distributed during the pilot.

Example of the posters we distributed during the pilot.


5. Scale solutions

Finding a "champion"

Embedding system knowledge can be the hardest part of piloting a new approach or technology. But in the case of our Link Lab and its test of FrontlineCloud, there was a built-in solution.

We relied throughout on the help of “champions” identified at the start of the initiative. For this enterprise, UNHCR chose a champion within one of the local organizations in San Jose who would enthusiastically support the project, advocate on its behalf and take ownership of its success.

Now, at the pilot’s end, it would be up to this champion, and other staff that received training, to carry on the activities after the Our Link Lab team had left.

UNHCR’s Costa Rica operation now plans to set up FrontlineCloud with two additional refugee organizations in San Jose. In fact, it received direct requests to do so. More importantly, positive feedback from refugees themselves has encouraged UNHCR to make SMS applications a part of more operations.

The test of FrontlineCloud showed that SMS can go a long way toward educating asylum seekers and refugees about their rights and opportunities.  It also showed that it is possible to establish a lasting and sustainable impact on the local organizations that serve them.

Read the full report on how Ascend was prototyped in Costa Rica.


Costa Rica




UNHCR Costa Rica


  • Jayne Cravens

    Love this project! I would love to see examples of messages that were sent. Also, some questions:

    (1) ”We responded by working with the local organizations that maintained the databases to update all 670 contacts.” How did they gather the information to update all these contacts?

    (2) “we began advertising the number” How?

    (3) “UNHCR chose a champion within one of the local organizations in San Jose who would enthusiastically support the project, advocate on its behalf and take ownership of its success.”

    What did that advocating on the projects behalf and ownership really look like?

    (4) Did this project involve volunteers (unpaid staff) in any way?

    • UNHCRInnovation

      Thanks Jayne! There is a full report that answers these questions here:

      Check it out.

      • Jayne Cravens

        Clues on where in the report to find these answers? For instance, I’ve been able to find the statement again of where you advertised – but how? There are copies of posters – where were these hung? Did you do radio? TV? Internet banners? Also, the report never mentions the word “volunteers” – so, no volunteers involved – only paid staff?

        • UNHCRInnovation

          Hi Jayne,

          In the section titled “Trust Building” it says that the number was advertised at UNCHR (the Costa Rica operation) and at the other NGOs (the list of NGOs involved can be found in the section titled “Preparation”). It’s pretty safe to say that if something isn’t mentioned in the report, it wasn’t done. So, no there was no advertising done via TV, radio, or Internet banners; just posters. And, no, we didn’t use any volunteers; just UNHCR staff and staff at partner NGOs.

  • Pingback: Terrific resources you’re missing from Twitter | Jayne Cravens Blog()

  • Richard Dent

    SMS is great. Smart phones with social networking software is even better. Any plans to move to this technology? The Mozilla $30 smart phone is more than capable. Facebook/Google drones provide connectivity.

    • UNHCRInnovation

      Hi Richard, it was important to use SMS, as smart phones may still not be completely accessible for certain populations when taking into account connectivity and cost, for example.

      • Richard Dent

        I fully understand. However, it is very important to develop platforms and solutions for current technology, not just one that is 15 years old. It will only be five years before accessibility issues are solved. You can actually create the demand by innovating in this sector and making smart phones worth the investment. I’m concerned that developing countries and refugees are being left behind with SMS and feature phones when better tech is possible.

        • UNHCRInnovation

          Absolutely agree on that front. But we do make a point of approaching a project with local needs and context at the forefront so that it is truly beneficial to the end-user. In this context, SMS was appropriate. But, that’s not to say we ignore smart phone technology altogether. Check out the work of our iFellows who are making a mobile app for Syrian refugees.

  • Antoinette

    This sounds like such an exciting program! Any plans to utilize the Ascend program (or a comparable program) for Syrian refugees?

  • Pingback: 10 (أكثر) طرق التكنولوجيا هو تقديم الأمل للبشرية | My Blog()

  • Pingback: 10 (more) ways tech is delivering hope for humanity - Multiele()

  • Pingback: 10 (more) ways tech is delivering hope for humanity |

  • Pingback: 10 (more) ways tech is delivering hope for humanity | Tech Reformers()

  • Pingback: 10 (more) ways tech is delivering hope for humanity | Tech Bit()

  • Pingback: 10 (more) ways tech is delivering hope for humanity | Digital Gadget dan Selular()

  • Pingback: Cities are no panacea – But they must be part of the solution | URBAN REFUGEES DEBATE()

  • Pingback: Cities are no panacea – but they must be part of the solution – The Urbanisation of Displacement()

More Lab Projects