Project Background

The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in Costa Rica live in urban settings. Because urban refugees are dispersed and mobile (compared to refugees who live in camps or settlements), communicating with them can be challenging for organizations that provide assistance and protection. It makes it more difficult for organizations to disseminate vital information, and, in turn, receive messages from refugees and asylum seekers that are crucial to understanding their needs and concerns.

In an attempt to leverage existing technology to overcome these challenges – without reinventing the wheel – UNHCR Costa Rica and Ecuador tested Ascend, an SMS-based system that uses FrontlineCloud – a free and open source software. Ascend allows an organization to send short text messages to refugees and asylum seekers on their cellphones. The first tests were conducted on April 2014 with UNHCR’s local office in Costa Rica and two of its main implementing partners (ACAI and APRODE).

What did we plan?

The original plan was to use Ascend on a per-week basis. Back then, a test was conducted by sending some basic messages to the 670 contacts in UNHCR’s database. But, some of the recipients did not know where the messages were coming from, and some were even slightly scared to know that someone obtained their cellphone number. The tests were quantified and documented in a mini-survey format.  From 100 refugees surveyed, 76% of refugees confirmed they received the text message. The implementing agencies (UNHCR Costa Rica, ACAI, and APRODE) even designed a poster to be distributed during the initial piloting phase in order to avoid messages mistrust.

What actually happened?

By October 2015, APRODE – a microcredit non-profit – was no longer an implementing partner to UNHCR. ACAI increased its user contact list (492 cellphones) and UNHCR Costa Rica made a depuration exercise to clean outdated contact information (currently 582 individuals on their database). Both UNHCR Costa Rica and ACAI use Ascend based on cloud-system. From May  to October, 2014 Valentina Duque [link to Valentina’s profile] – former innovation fellow and main innovation champion at UNHCR Costa Rica-  personally trained ACAI staff to continue using the system.

The frequency of messages varies depending on the purpose. ACAI mainly uses it to remind asylum seekers and refugees about livelihood opportunities: basic training courses, job fairs or recruitment events. Based on their logs, they used it at least twice a month (on average 4 times a month). In June 2014, ACAI sent personalized messages to invite them to join one of UNHCR-ACAI projects:

Mrs. XXX, ACAI have thought about you to become part of a new project” (Modelo de Graduación).

During July 2014, ACAI conducted an SMS to evaluate the usefulness of SMS communication. In their logs we can see positive feedback “Yes SMS” as requested by the survey.

On October 29th, 2014 ACAI sent a message to all Modelo de Graduación participants to register for the Financial Education course – a requisite for the project participants. Here is a 2-way communication exchange responding to the invitation message, sent by a participant:

“Hi, Yes the information arrived, thank you very much.”

From November 2014 to mid-September 2015, ACAI stopped using the system given heavy infrastructure issues (intermittent Wi-Fi connection). When we asked about the main challenge using the system, ACAI front desk personnel stated that there were 2 main issues with the system: the current broadband connection and the time it takes to send one SMS message.

For example, after drafting and programming the SMS to be sent, if the connection is lost at that very moment, the message automatically goes to “SMS failed” inbox. This means that the messages are not sent and the person has to re-send it again. This is an endless cycle of battling against the connection.

In addition to sending a single message via cloud, the system takes approximately 1-2 minutes to send 1 single SMS with a slow broadband connectivity. We know this because on September 28th, 2015 we conducted an onsite test about this with their current broadband. Calculating almost 500 recipients, this would mean that we need at least 16 hours (1000 minutes) of non-intermittent broadband connection to successfully send all the 492 SMS messages via cloud.

What and how can Ascend be improved?

Conclusion: the cloud-based system is not a good solution for slow broadband connections, like the one at ACAI. The project implementation stopped for almost a year given these troubleshooting issues and the lack of monitoring and response. Nevertheless, the tests were positive back in 2014, but the system needs adaptation to the local needs. For this reason, we can conclude ACAI is in solution refinement phase.

Recommendations to refine the solution:

  1. Change the broadband connection type – meaning connect the computer to a LAN network to avoid intermittent Wi-Fi or;
  2. Buy a new Wi-Fi router – in case the distance to the server is the cause of the intermittent connection or;
  3. Use FrontlineSMS instead of FrontlineCloud with the same connectivity conditions.

Changes in Project Design

Some of the original indicators to measure success changed (e.g. % of refugees who respond to a poll sent by UNHCR staff, or % of refugees who actively send messages to UNHCR staff) given that these indicators make the assumption the refugees have credit/cellphone time to send an SMS. It is more appropriate to measure the # of messages sent by month, rather than per week because there are not many activities happening every week (maybe just one or 2 per month) that are directly of interest to refugees. When designing indicators we need to always take into consideration the needs of the population and compare it towards the system.

Besides these testing results, the project has met the needs for refugees to communicate with the main local humanitarian agencies, like UNHCR, and for implementing partners and UNHCR staff to communicate with urban refugees. For example, UNHCR Costa Rica office does not experience the same connectivity issues because they enjoy a good broadband connection. They keep using the system to spread the word on information sessions or other relevant information to refugees (e.g. interview process). We’ll keep documenting UNHCR Costa Rica’s experience for those offices who are interested in testing Ascend in the future.



*Link Lab Diaries Series is a reflection on management of the innovation process. It is intended to document the process and the journey of managing the Link Lab, in a qualitative way.

We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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