How Text Messaging Became a Great Humanitarian Technology

An open source text messaging platform developed by Unicef is coordinating humanitarian projects in several African nations, helping to distribute food aid and treat HIV more effectively. 

What's the Latest Development?

The ability of text messaging to coordinate humanitarian projects goes far beyond donating small sums with your mobile phone. An open source system called RapidSMS harnesses the power of text messages for data collection and group communication. Developed by Unicef, the technology has been implemented in Ethiopia to track food aid distribution during a drought which occurred in the Sahel region. "People were filling out paper forms," said Unicef's innovation officer Erica Kochi, "but those wouldn't get to the supply people in the capital in time. Some places would have too much food, and other places would go without for weeks."

What's the Big Idea?

After RapidSMS was shown to be successful at distributing food aid more effectively, it was only natural for officials in other countries to ask if the technology could be used for other projects. In Ghana, the technology is used to track the sale of cook stoves. In Malawi, it has come to tackle the AIDS epidemic, in which "more than 11% of Malawi's adults are living with HIV and around 120,000 children are thought to have the disease." The RapidSMS texting infrastructure improves the diagnosis and treatment of HIV by cutting the lag time between lab tests and delivering results to patients. It has also reduced lost results by 20%. 

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