Originally published in the NetHope Solutions Center blog on 22 April 2015, by Emma Schwartz, who provides communications support for NetHope.

Listen to the webinar recording here   

During the September 2014 UN General Assembly meetings, UNICEF announced its investment in an open source communication platform called RapidPro to enhance real-time information flow in the field.

In a NetHope Solutions Center webinar last month, the UNICEF Innovation team explained how they’ve adopted RapidPro and how other organizations can use it. Mercy Corps also shared a brief presentation on how they’re utilizing the solution in Liberia as part of their Ebola Community Action Platform (ECAP) program.

RapidPro allows data flows to be visualized easily. © UNICEF
RapidPro allows data flows to be visualized easily.
© UNICEF

Over the past seven years, the UNICEF Innovation team has built various mobile-based services to strengthen systems in ways that add concrete value to fulfill core missions. In 2007, UNICEF developed RapidSMS, a framework used in dozens of country offices and in nearly every program sector; the product is also deployed and used by partners like World Vision, World Bank, Dimagi, and USAID, and is backed by a “vibrant” open source community with contributors from all around the world.

“One of the portfolios that we focus at UNICEF Innovation is Real-time Information – the ability to deliver information faster and more effectively by/to citizens and their leaders so that proactive policy and dynamic service delivery decisions are made.” said Kidus Asfaw, UNICEF Innovation Global Product Manager.

Based on experience with deploying RapidSMS, the team saw the opportunity to invest and develop a communication platform that was more replicable, scalable, interoperable, and user-friendly for the international development community.

“We noticed that we have to find a way to better reuse the technologies we develop on a global scale and make sure that we are able to disseminate our knowledge and lessons learned with our partners. This is what led us to investing in and developing RapidPro,” said Kidus.

RapidPro powers the way governments and development partners connect, engage and collaborate directly with the most important (and often most marginalized) voices in their communities –those who have not been able to seek or voice information and concerns.

Designed for program experts, RapidPro is distinct from similar platforms in that it’s a free and open source software with built-in features tailored to the international development context. The tool is built with the user in mind, designed for scale, and is a result of collaboration between technology firms and development partners working to build solutions that can benefit all.

“Our focus has been on designing a product for programmatic experts so they can directly engage in the design, alteration and scale up of interventions,” said Evan Wheeler, UNICEF Innovation Chief Technology Officer. “It’s important programmatic experts don’t have to filter their thoughts through a software developer, and this direct approach makes for more efficient and impactful design.”

RapidPro empowers program experts to easily collect and manage data; intuitively design and build a context-appropriate mobile service; reach those who matter via SMS, voice, social media and more; integrate and interoperate the application with external systems; and scale the solution with ease, seamlessly integrating the platform with mobile network operators as the service grows.

UNICEF has plans to launch applications in mHealth and education monitoring in the upcoming months, but has already used RapidPro to launch a few successful programs including:

  1. A system for teachers in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe and Uganda to communicate and share lessons learned around critical school-level indicators, informing more dynamic policy-making around education sector programming.
  2. A maternal reminder system, currently used in at least 5 countries, to strengthen the first 1,000 days in the continuum of care for mothers and their children.
  3. A seminal youth engagement platform called U-Report that has currently reached over half a million young people in over 10 countries with news that allows them to engage in national and community level dialogues and address the issues and development priorities that matter most to them.
  4. A system to support the health workforce in the 2014 West Africa Ebola response by delivering real-time information to frontline health workers.

To encourage the adoption of RapidPro by partners, the UNICEF team has developed an iterative toolkit outlining the programmatic and technical elements that must be taken into consideration before deployment.

The toolkit walks users through various exercises to identify and prioritize objectives, define and create maps of current user systems, identify how information moves within that user system, and visualize how the application of RapidPro will change and “ideally render more effective and efficient the information flows and communication channels at hand.”

Key technical questions outlined and explained in the toolkit include:

  • Does your service / initiative require a short code, and if so, what is the process of obtaining and activating one?
  • Is there an aggregator in your country, or will you have to deal directly with the different mobile network operators?
  • What kind of recurrent costs will you face for SMS and or IVR (if using these channels)? Are build pricing structures available?
  • What are the requirements for data protection and storage in your country?

“In the spirit of openness and co-creation, we’re really interested to receive feedback from partners both on what they’re doing with RapidPro and how they’re applying this toolkit,” said Stuart Campo, UNICEF Innovation Deployment Lead.

Download the toolkit here

Before closing, Michael Catalano, Mercy Corps Digital Outreach Advisor, shared his experience using RapidPro for the ECAP program, a social mobilization and behavior change communication initiative in Liberia as part of the USAID-funded Ebola emergency response efforts. NetHope and the Paul G. Allen Familiy Foundation supported the program through a material aid donation of 1,100 smartphones, which were distributed broadly to ECAP “mobilizers.” These communicators were primarily trained on the “list, learn, act” methodology –instructed to listen to individual communities and their issues regarding Ebola, and then to teach them pre-approved messages to promote positive behavior change.

To support this effort, Mercy Corps partnered with UNICEF to implement an expanded mobile ICT channel for SMS communication and outreach. The team quickly trained themselves on the use of RapidPro with help from “quite extensive and very good” documentation, and later enhanced visualization capabilities by adding a web hook API.

“We used RapidPro and the SMS channel to register all of our mobilizers during their initial training,” said Catalano. “Overall the RapidPro tool was extremely valuable, easy and accessible for an average mobile ICT professional.”

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