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March 22nd, 2016

UNICEF’s U-Report: using mobile technology for youth participation in policymaking

In May 2011, UNICEF Uganda launched U-Report, a mobile application that enabled young people throughout the country to become “U-Reporters” and text in their opinions and ideas about important topics that mattered to them. The results were then relayed to decision-makers, such as Uganda’s MPs, who used them to inform their policies. The take-up has been rapid and widespread, in the rest of Africa and throughout the world, with over 20 countries and millions of U-Reporters involved in this new form of democratic participation.

The initiative

By 2010, the high level of connectivity and the proliferation of mobile phones in Uganda provided the technological means to give young people a voice. UNICEF Uganda used the available technology to create U-Report, a free SMS social monitoring tool for community participation, designed to address issues that young people care about. The initiative equips mobile phone users with the tools to establish and enforce new standards of transparency and accountability in development programming and services. It was launched in May 2011.

The objectives of U-Report were to:

  • Amplify the voices and views of young people in developing countries.
  • Provide a centralised knowledge platform where information from local TV, community events and radio are aggregated and then disseminated through SMS.
  • To send compiled reports to decision-makers in Parliament and administrative offices.

It works in the following way:

  • UNICEF decides a topic for which solution is required and then sends a question via SMS text to U-reporters, who can respond either with a simple menu-based reply or with personal messages.
  • Local communities from the various countries send UNICEF approximately 10,000 text messages (SMS) every week.
  • The UNICEF team analyses and interprets the responses, sharing the results and often following up with additional questions or suggestions before sending the reports to policymakers.

It is “revolutionising social mobilisation, monitoring and response efforts”. [1] Its purpose is to present the voices and views of young people in developing countries and reached a million active users within its first year.

The challenge

UNICEF was concerned that the voices and views of young people in developing countries were marginalised and their ideas and observations are not sufficiently represented in discussions about the most important development issues of the day. This was the case not just in Africa but throughout the world.

The public impact

In less than a year, the population of U-reporters has grown to over 89,000, with 400 to 500 joining the network daily. U-report has expanded within Uganda and has been extended to other countries - Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, South Sudan, Mexico, and Nigeria. More than 200,000 young people have enrolled, and 200 to 1,000 are reportedly joining each day.

On 31 August 2015, “Nigeria became the first country to reach one million responders on the SMS-based U-Report platform”. [2] The biggest impact U-Report has had thus far is that decision-makers and the associated authorities have begun to listen, take notice and, where possible, act. In Nigeria, this kind of platform is helping UNICEF workers to share critical information about Ebola, polio, and newborn care with families living in remote areas that health workers cannot easily reach.

Stakeholder engagement

U-Report was launched UNICEF Uganda, and grows through partnership with the governments where it is used (see The initiative above). UNICEF's U-report team and a group of nine partner organisations meet regularly to determine which issues to discuss with Uganda's youth, who make up the majority of U-reporters.  Partner organisations include NGOs, youth organisations, faith-based organisations,

Technology companies such as IBM and telecoms companies are involved in the technical aspects of U-Report. IBM recently partnered with UNICEF Uganda to develop an automated system to classify the incoming text messages. Telecom companies have equipped telephone booths with U-report service for those without access to a mobile phone.

The other main stakeholders are the young U-Reporters. “‘U-Report is an entirely new model for engaging young people, empowering communities, and holding governments more accountable,' said Jean Gough, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria.” [3]

Political commitment

U-Report operates in multiple countries, and evidence of political commitment was not always available. However, governments are receptive to receiving updates from U-Report, as shown by the examples below.

In Uganda, political commitment to this UNICEF initiative is strong. “Every Member of Parliament in Uganda has signed up for U-Report to monitor and respond to what young people in their districts are saying about key issues.  Some leaders have used it to strengthen immunization and other health campaigns.” [4]

In Indonesia, U-Report has had a major influence on child protection policies. “Results regarding violence against children have been directly shared through U-Report with the Ministry of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection (KPP-PA). At a recent National Workshop on Violence Against Children in Bogor, Dr. Ir. Pribudiarta Nur Sitepu, Deputy of Child Protection in KPP-PA, highlighted how ‘[U-Report Indonesia] shows that a social media approach is important to engage children and young people.' Key information from the survey was also distributed to 17 other government agencies, including the Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas), the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Culture, along with 19 non-government organisations.” [5]

In Chile, U-Report's Chilean pilot was supported by the Ministry of Health and the National Institute of Youth.

Public confidence

It is difficult to evaluate public confidence as U-Report is active in 23 countries, and confidence in the initiative may well differ from nation to nation. However, UNICEF is generally trusted and well respected throughout the world, and more than two million young people have signed up to be U-Reporters.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives stated at the outset were consistent throughout the policy: making the voices and views of young people in developing countries heard by their governments; and compiling their reports to send them to policymakers in governments and legislatures.

Strength of evidence

U-Report initially launched in Uganda, and the evidence gathered from this programme was used to inform U-Report's expansion into more than 20 other countries.

Before launching in a new country, U-Report conducts a pilot to iron out any region specific issues that may arise (such as the high cost of text messaging in Chile, resolved by using WhatsApp and Twitter) whilst gathering information about an issue that is particularly relevant to that area (such as violence against children in Indonesia). These pilots inform the full roll-out in that country, and can also provoke changes to existing U-Report services elsewhere.


Uganda have one of the youngest populations in the world, with more than 55% of its people aged under 18 years, and access to mobile phones was estimated at 48%. This meant that creating a mobile-based application was an appropriate option, as it is also in countries such as Zambia and Nigeria.

The partnerships with technology companies such as IBM addressed issues of technical feasibility, such as consolidating input from thousands of text messages, while telecom companies provided facilities for those without mobile phones.


The pilot U-Reports project in Uganda and the roll-outs elsewhere have made use of skilled teams from UNICEF, its partners from NGOs and government, and IBM. The Ugandan team was led by “UNICEF Senior Project Manager, James Powell, who leads the U-report initiative”. [6] UNICEF staff have immense experience of managing projects in the developing world.

UNICEF and nine partner team work in coordination with each other to decide the relevant topics for social development. A dedicated team from IBM has developed software to process the results of responses and pass the information to an automated classification system.


There are various parameters that have been used to measure the success of U-Report:

  • The number of U-Reporters per country and the numbers enrolling.
  • The number of messages they send.
  • The number of countries using U-Report.

The responses are processed with advanced computing tools from IBM to create an automated classification system that aggregates incoming messages. Through this system it was easy to produce reports on all aspects of the data.


There has been a strong alignment between UNICEF and the other actors engaged in U-Report:

  • The group of nine partner organisations meet regularly to determine which topics the participants should discuss.
  • The participants themselves, the millions of young people who act as U-Reporters.
  • The technology companies involved in the development and implementation of U-Report.
  • The policymakers who respond to U-Report's output. For example, every Ugandan member of parliament has signed up to U-Report to monitor and respond to what young people in their districts are saying about key issues.

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