Mobile Communications

RapidSMS: Social Development via Texts

A casual look at RapidSMS reveals nothing special. It is just a web framework built on the Django web frame to extend the platform’s ability to handle SMS messages. The extension involves creating a python library [pygsm] to interact with GSM modems and mobile phones.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. RapidSMS was developed by UNICEF’s innovation unit, spearheaded by Matt Berg, Erica Koch and Christopher Fabian. And today the trio has been feted internationally for a system which has touched millions of people 160 characters at a time.

A typical application is the UNICEF sponsored Integrated Nutritional and Food Security Surveillance System (INFSS) that allows real time reporting and monitoring of patients nutritional status. This was deployed in Malawi to alleviate the ongoing issues associated with slow data transmission, incomplete and inaccurate data and high costs.

In practice, the RapidSMS-based system enables field workers to enter a child details, so that the back-end instantly shows the child’s nutritional status. This means it automates basic diagnostics tests on nutritional status.

The real genius of the system, however, lies in its extensibility and open source development. This makes it easy for developers to access code, modify it for use in their applications then share that code with the wider developer community.

What motivated the developers?

The founder trio has a passion for ICT4D (ICT for Development) and understanding of technology while being aware of its pitfalls. This is well illustrated by Japan-born Erica Kochi who said: “The two most dangerous challenges were and continue to be complete naysayers and those that believe technology will be a ‘silver bullet’ for social development. One shuts out change and the other rushes in with no regard for the consequences.”

Kochi’s co-head of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit and RapidSMS co-founder Christopher Fabian also has an international background and is a passionate about the role of open source in social development. While the final co-founder is the real African driver behind the project.

Cameroon-born Matt Berg has is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya where he is working on an innovative information gathering platform www.ona.com. Berg is also responsible for the development of ChildCount+, a mobile phone system that is helping reduce incidents of preventable diseases in the poorest villages of Africa by providing continuous, real time monitoring and support information for community health workers.

Is RapidSMS actually changing lives?

RapidSMS is not an end system, it is a platform that allows developers to rapidly develop SMS-based apps. Yet there have been some notable social developments based on this simple system.

In Uganda, there was mTrac, a disease incidence monitoring and legitimate drug tracking system developed by UNICEF and WHO. This has significantly reduced drug stealing from government hospitals. And also Ureport, which enables ordinary citizens to contribute to the wider political debate through a government platform.

In Nigeria, the Birth Registration has enabled registration of more three million children who would not otherwise never have been formally registered. In Zambia and Malawi, Project Mwana has helped improve early infant diagnosis of HIV and post-natal care. While in Rwanda, RapidSMS MCH has been in use for monitoring pregnancy and helping reduce maternal and infant death.

RapidSMS has proved that technology and simple open source technology can help change the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.


Mugambi Kirimi is a software architect at Ujuzi Code


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