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Rapid SMS – how Unicef is saving lives by text

Text messages are useful in so many ways.  They allow us to communicate in a few short lines, getting a message across, arranging a meeting, sending a reminder or just saying hi. As a quick and relatively cheap method of communication it is definitely an effective tool that many of us could not live without.  Aid organisation Unicef knows this too well and is utilising text messaging to literally save lives.


Providing food and healthcare aid for the most impoverished nations in the world requires a lot of data sending and storage, so in that way it’s surprising that an organisation of this size would use a system that limits them to a hundred or so characters at a time.  But with a little tweaking, Unicef developed it’s own SMS platform, an open source system called RapidSMS.  First used to tackle HIV/Aids issues in Malawi, the system allows aid workers to send test results, instructions for treatment and track supplies, while decreasing the time lag that existed with traditional methods like courier services and reducing the need for paper forms and physical databases.  Dr Aye Aye Mon, HIV/Aids chief for the United Nations agency Unicef Malawi, told the BBC, “The delivery speed of lab results was increased significantly, and the number of results lost was also reduced by up to 20 %.”  In a country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world and 11% of the population living with the disease, innovations such as this are key to problem-solving and improving the efficiency of healthcare services.  David Banda, a healthcare worker in Malawi, uses the system to record and pass on information on the malnourished children he monitors.  “I have no other means of sending the information,” he said. “We have no fax machine in this remote village.”  According to the Unicef website, he used to have to cycle thirty kilometres every month to deliver reports and completed questionnaires.  Now the open source SMS technology connects the healthcare workers to a national system that is ‘programmed to undertake basic data analysis and graphing, and is capable of sending responses on the nutritional status of each child via SMS’.

David Banda

David Banda – Unicef.org

Training healthcare workers has not been a problem as the technology is not completely new to them and they appreciate the ease and efficiency, with a major reduction in errors.  What has posed an obstacle is the poor network services in the region, something Unicef are working with mobile service providers to address.  But even with patchy coverage the technology has helped thousands and made the jobs of those helping out a whole lot easier.

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