An aficionado's guide for RapidPro (and other life lessons)

March 7, 2016

Written by Elliot McBride, Innovation Lead, UNICEF Pakistan

The 2016 International Development Design Summit in Lahore, showcased some of the brightest young minds in innovation whilst testing them against the world’s toughest development problems. As this was a summit both in and for Pakistan, the participants were tasked with finding innovative solutions to problems in Pakistan concerning livestock and agriculture, health, education, arts and culture.

It was quickly discovered that new, real time solutions to problems are only solvable through a medium which is common enough to the average Pakistani, even in the hardest to reach regions of the country. Many groups solving these problems found Pakistan’s phone density appropriate to allow SMS based solutions. As I was attending to share ideas about how UNICEF Pakistan is solving its problems through SMS innovations – I was able to impart our experiences and also learn how to apply this tech in different ways.

While not all of the summits groups were able to use RapidPro to solve the problems, an afternoon was spent introducing RapidPro to the Summit participants. While RapidPro is a simple and approachable platform for professionals of any background to learn, many flows are needed to be made before anyone can truly call themselves a (Rapid) pro. During the afternoon many similar questions arose between the different groups. This post is designed as a first stop for any new UNICEF innovator using RapidPro.

Here is: An aficionado's guide to RapidPro (and other life lessons).

RapidPro is a funny beast. I liken it to the smart and mysterious fellow student we have all met during our school days. They are cool to be around and know things that have never crossed your mind before. When things are working well, you can’t understand how you went without them in your life/program monitoring. You want to spend all of your time with them, maybe even settle down? It’s a beautiful thing.

However when things are bad, you are pulling your hair out trying to figure out what it (they) need, you keep asking it for things it doesn’t understand, it keeps coming to you with nonsensical language, error messages or worse….nothing at all. While all of this drama is happening and you are caught up in the whirlwind of “who said what”, you realize that other people are constantly texting them and it dawns on you that one of you is definitely not exclusive. Communication breaks down, you take some time away. Neither of you contact the other, it gets awkward.


I’ve been there, tearing your hair out because your SMS project is about to go live and you haven’t finalized the flow or guaranteed to yourself that your data will come out looking the way it needs to. But it doesn’t need to be this way, we can learn from each other’s sorrow. This is a quick hitter on tips designed to get you and RapidPro on the same page as soon as possible.

7 tips for RP (and life):

1. Get tested

Test your flows. There are a lot of moving parts in a flow, this means that there are endless possibilities with where your SMS crazy idol will shut down and stop working. Allow your program time to be run through many times. It is not enough to simply use the onboard simulator. Get colleagues, friends and partners all to run through your flow on their handsets and be ruthless with their criticism. Broken messages, spelling errors, technical errors, repeated messages and even phrasing things in better ways will make your project more effective. There has never been a flow in history that worked perfectly the first time. The key is to get it through as many phones (and brains) as you can before launch.  While we are on the subject of testing. A further piece of advice is:

2. Read between the lines

The onboard simulator shows more info than just how the SMS will appear at the other end. In between the text messages, the simulator shows a fine-print of the logic used to produce the next SMS as well as the labels, groups and locations of the saved information. This is the information that you may be lacking within your flow if something is not working. Keep an eye on it as you go along testing.

3. Learn new moves

Don’t let your flow building become stale. You gotta keep things interesting. Learn new ways of doing things and get creative. Take some time every day to make new flows that do different things.  This is not simply a tool for youth empowerment using multiple choice answers. To quote RapidPro overlord James Powell “it [RapidPro] is an information highway, its uses can be endless”. Innovation begets innovation. I’d love to see a competition of the most random (legal) uses for Rapidpro.

4. Make a deep and meaningful connection with your flow

There is complexity to this program – all outputs are recorded, there are twitter SMS, website feeds. There are 2 different scripts that can be used to send text (Unicode and GSM7) get on top of both of them – you need to be aware of all of the MNO’s that you are working with and how far you are along the line of contracts you are, and how this will affect your yearly budget. Look outward to the UNICEF projects happening around you and ask colleagues in every section if they simply have access to communicate with their beneficiaries. Start your projects here. 

5.  Join the discussion

Like any real world problem, you are not alone out there and the best cure to most problems is to join a conversation about them. UNICEF innovations is a family that is growing in size and quickly becoming a well-oiled machine. The first stop for any issue should be the RP forum here. Outside of this there are intro’s and guides written by the stars at GIC here. Keeping a journal of successes and failures will allow your pain be another’s chance to avoid disappointment. If you have had experience with a flow action that you cannot get to work, put it on the forum. Responses are usually extremely quick.

I hope this is a good insight into what to expect before starting as a RapidPro professional. I’d love to hear about others tips for RP beginners. Feel free to email me at

Peace and love