Talking RapidPro at New York University with World Food Programme

Aug. 5, 2015

By Pilar Lagos

“How many of you have cellphones?” asked RapidPro Global Product Manager, Kidus Asfaw, to a group of New York University master students and World Food Programme (WFP) professional staff at the Systems Approach to Food Access mash-up course. All raised their hand. “Ok, everyone text the word “HUNGRY” to 917-720-2007.” Engaged students grabbed their phones and began texting “HUNGRY” to which they received the following message:

Print screen of the text message. Don't mind the typo, Kidus set this up 5 minutes before giving his presentation to surprise everyone.

Don’t mind the typo. Kidus set this up 5 minutes before giving his presentation to surprise everyone. (c) UNICEF/Lagos

Through this simple demonstration, Kidus explained how fast and easy it is to deliver real-time information using RapidPro, a free, open source communication platform that allows anyone to design scalable mobile services to reach users through multiple languages and channels (SMS, voice, social media), and – most importantly – collect data in the most informed way.

Kidus explaining our 9 innovation principles

Kidus explains UNICEF Innovation’s 9 innovation principles that UNICEF Innovation applies to all its work. (c) UNICEF/Lagos

The session, held at New York University Washington Square Campus on 13 July 2015, revolved around data and technology.

(c) UNICEF/Lagos

Students and WFP professionals were eager to learn more about RapidPro and how it’s applied in different contexts. (c) UNICEF/Lagos

With RapidPro, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi and other countries are advancing nutrition programmes. After the presentation, participants discussed with Kidus how the WFP can use RapidPro. Questions were primarily around user-centred design, data accuracy and costs.

(c) UNICEF/LagosEngaged students took the conversation offline. (c) UNICEF/Lagos

Participant: How do you deal with data accuracy? How many questions can you ask using RapidPro?
Kidus: Information can come in from anywhere. What we do is deliver a set of questions that will allow us to gather the information that we want to know. We are not trying to survey people; instead, we want to promote a 2-way conversation over a period of time. In order to engage with people, we will have between 2-3 exchanges. Keep it short and simple.

Participant: How do you deal with language in a context where people are not educated?
Kidus: E-literacy is a big issue. However, RapidPro is multilingual and allows you to build on the language of your preference, which allows you to use informal language as well. RapidPro also supports voice, so instead of using SMS, you can receive a call to answer questions.

Participant: What are the incentives to motivate people to use RapidPro? How do you keep them interested?
Kidus: There are two ways to do this. The first one is through gamification. You can create personalised ways in which to talk to people to keep them engaged. The second one is airtime: we give you one minute of airtime if you provide information.

At the close of the discussion, Kidus advised participants to collaborate with others in new ways to achieve results. “Take your government counterpart, partner with others with similar problems and use negotiation tactics to utilise these services which help improve society.”

About RapidPro

RapidPro, also coined “the app store for good” has become UNICEF’s common platform for developing and sharing mobile services that can be adapted for different contexts:

  • U-Report, UNICEF’s groundbreaking, text-message based innovation that amplifies the voices and views of young people in developing countries reached 1 million active users in July 2015.
  • EduTrac facilitates communication and reporting among teachers. UNICEF Afghanistan used RapidPro to pilot two key functions: education monitoring systems and group chat. During the design process, trainings were conducted to improve technological literacy and usability. In the upcoming months, EduTrac will be implemented in other regions, including in a few Latin American countries.
  • mTrac, a mobile phone-based health information systems strengthening tool facilitates the flow of relevant and timely data into Uganda’s national health management information system (HMIS) using SMS. mTrac facilitated the quick response, isolation, and treatment of symptoms to contain the Ebola outbreak in Kibaale District (July 2012); Cholera in Ntoroko (October 2012) and Marburg Virus, centred around Kabale (November 2012)

Want to learn how you can use RapidPro for your communication needs — remember it’s open source! Contact Kidus at

Originally posted 5 Aug 2015 on unicefstories.

Posted here with permission from Pilar Lagos.