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How RapidPro Makes It Easy to Design Apps for Social Good

A new software product developed by UNICEF helps development practitioners design custom mobile applications and scale them up fast.

What do social mobilizers in Pakistan and citizen reporters in Nigeria have in common?

A technology called RapidPro.

Developed by UNICEF in collaboration with the software development firm Nyaruka, RapidPro allows development workers to create mobile applications for collecting, sharing and analyzing real-time data, from birth registrations to education outcomes. To create RapidPro, UNICEF’s Innovation team drew on eight years of experience using SMS-based technologies in places where development indicators are low but the penetration of mobile phones is high. RapidPro is currently being developed as a tool to inform and protect frontline polio workers in Pakistan and is being scaled up in Nigeria as a tool for participatory development.

“RapidPro is essentially an app store for good,” says Dr. Sharad Sapra, Director of UNICEF’s Global Innovation Center in Nairobi. Building on its predecessor RapidSMS, RapidPro emphasizes accessibility and ease of use, offering an intuitive web-based interface that makes the technology simple to configure for specific program interventions. It allows programmatic experts—in nutrition, health or education—to design mobile interactions without needing to hire a programmer or engage a software development firm.

Targeting bottlenecks to implementation and scale

UNICEF developed RapidSMS in 2007 as an open-source framework to help governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs and development practitioners work effectively in spite of the geographical remoteness of their beneficiaries, limited road or power infrastructure, and cumbersome mechanisms for data collection (such as paper-based records). RapidSMS allows virtually anyone with a mobile phone to send data via SMS to a central database that can then be analyzed in real-time. RapidSMS has been used in a wide range of settings, including remote health diagnostics, nutrition surveillance, supply chain tracking and registering children in public health campaigns.

RapidPro was deliberately designed to address the challenges faced by RapidSMS, particularly bottlenecks to implementation, scale and replication from one country context to another. Here’s how:

Demystifying the technology. RapidPro gives development practitioners a simple interface through which to create “workflows” — frameworks for collecting and organizing data received by mobile phone. Built in collaboration with Nyaruka, the software development firm behind TextIt, RapidPro provides all the functionality required to implement most interventions without any development by software engineers. “Someone that is reasonably proficient with something like Excel or PowerPoint will be able to make sense of the user interface and actually design some pretty complex mobile services,” says Evan Wheeler, UNICEF Innovation’s Chief Technology Officer, based in Kampala, Uganda.

Using local knowledge. “We have essentially a 100 percent fail rate for things we have built in New York, which has taught us not to build stuff here,” said Christopher Fabian, co-lead of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, in an interview in April last year. UNICEF collaborated with Nyaruka, a team of software developers based in Rwanda, to create RapidPro. “There’s a lot of talent [in Africa] that really brings more than just less cost but deep knowledge of the local context,” explains Wheeler. Plus, “knowledge of local SMS slang always helps.”

"We have a 100 percent fail rate for things we have built in New York, which has taught us not to build stuff here."

Keeping data safe and accessible in the cloud. By relying on physical servers, RapidSMS was at higher risk for infrastructural contingencies. “We often ran into problems like losing internet connectivity and no one was able to access the data analysis dashboards, or the power would go out and the messages wouldn’t be received,” says Wheeler. “Those are problems that really disrupt the program.” RapidPro is a cloud-hosted platform, removing the need to procure physical servers, and reducing the time, resources and technical expertise necessary to set up the technology. “By hosting it on the cloud, we’re able to amortize investment on the hardware and have the service running in a world-class data center that has several backups,” he says.

Linking up with government data. RapidPro is designed for interoperability so that an external data system, such as a hospital’s medical records, can be unlocked and integrated with RapidPro using APIs—tools that allow two databases to talk to each other. For example, in a disease outbreak, the technology could allow a ministry of health to link its human resources database—which contains health workers' mobile phone numbers—to the RapidPro messaging system, enabling faster, more efficient communication with staff on the front lines.

Negotiating with mobile network operators. Setting up contracts and license agreements was historically a cumbersome process for country offices, creating a significant bottleneck in activating RapidSMS quickly. “One of the differences now is that we have relationships with a number of vendors that are able to provide support to country offices to do those negotiations and get those licenses quickly,” Wheeler says. The UNICEF Global Innovation Center is taking the lead in negotiating long-term agreements with vendors, allowing country offices to quickly bring the technology to life.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0901/Dormino

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