In Georgia, text messages help create community safety network

man sending text message
Gela Mindiashvili, a local coordinator from Ditsi, sends a security report to the text message centre. A text-messaging network helps report security incidents along Georgia's administrative boundary line with South Ossetia. (Photo: David Khizanishvili/UNDP Georgia)

The SMS: anketa#a#non00b#wed1c#7d#pol24ngo2 may seem a bit cryptic, but when staff at an information centre in Gori, Georgia receive this text message from the village of Ditsi in the Shida Kartli region, they understand completely.

The message means: no security incidents have happened in the last week; there was a crossing into South Ossetia for a wedding party; the community sense of security is rated at seven on a scale of 1-10; the police patrolled 24 times, and NGOs patrolled two times.

Highlights

  • A text-messaging network helps report security incidents along Georgia's administrative boundary line with South Ossetia, with 650 incidents reported by community volunteers since January 2012
  • The network includes 18 villages
  • Within 30 minutes of an incident, information is relayed to relevant security providers, which allows for a prompt response by the police, other authorities and even international observers

Over the last two years, basic technology like this has become the central focus of a simple but vital community safety network that is helping authorities respond quickly to potential crises and reduce the risk of conflict getting out of control in the troubled region, where ethnic violence is still fresh in everyone’s memory.

The system, called Elva, which means "lightning" in Georgian, is comprised of volunteer community representatives in each of the 18 villages along the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia, who have been trained and given phones. They send weekly information to a text messaging service and information centre, and report on security incidents as they happen. Information is then relayed by the system to security providers within 30 minutes of an event occurring, which allows for a prompt response by the police, other authorities and even international observers.

The system, which was developed in 2011 by a Georgian NGO Caucasus Research Resource Centers and a British NGO Saferworld, with assistance from UNDP, is helping to overcome a lingering sense of insecurity left by the August 2008 conflict that saw full scale war between Georgia and Russia over the South Ossetia region, and has left persistent ethnic tension. In many cases, text messages sent out immediately after an incident have enabled a quick resolution of the security issue and this is helping to restore the overall sense of safety in these communities.

In Shida Kartli, while the security situation has begun to improve in recent months, more than 650 incidents, including shootings, movement by armed groups, detentions near the Administrative Boundary Line and injuries from landmines and other explosive remnants of war left over from the conflict, were reported in 2012. Elva now offers some level of help and protection from these incidents.

“We are too close to the boundary line. Sometimes people cross it without even knowing; especially when they need to clean irrigation channels or find a wandering cow. A lot of farmers were detained by border guards just for collecting firewood in a nearby forest,” says Gela Mindiashvili, a local coordinator from Ditsi.

"It took days before to let everyone know, find those detained and negotiate their return. But now we simply send an Elva text message and it immediately goes to the police and international observers.”

"Rapid access to information can save lives and property, protect development investment and livelihoods. This new technology can be part of preventive platforms as it helps to organize and share information, connect citizens with their government, as well as citizens to each other,” says the Head of UNDP in Georgia, Jamie McGoldrick.

The Elva project manager Jonne Catshoek explains that the system maps information received from the villages in weekly reports. This makes it possible to monitor developments over time and see the changes of different indicators.

"We can see seasonal trends in security incidents, for example, and point out when something varies from that trend."

Along with security alerts, Elva can also circulate weather forecasts, agriculture news and announcements.

"We had a stroke of bad weather a couple of weeks ago. But farmers in my village had enough time to get ready because I received an early notice about frosts,” says Zaal Akhalkatsi, a local farmer from Dvani.

Through the Elva project, UNDP says it has found a cheap and effective way to strengthen human security in conflict-affected Georgian communities.

“UNDP’s support of Elva has given these communities a low-cost, user-friendly interface that is providing thousands of people living in vulnerable and conflict-prone conditions, with added security, confidence and well-being,” says McGoldrick.