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‘RapidSMS’ system for monitoring nutrition in Malawi gets top tech award

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© UNICEF/2009/Blaschke
The ‘RapidSMS’ system developed by UNICEF for Malawi allows health workers to enter a child’s data and receive instant alerts on nutritional status. It is a vast improvement on Malawi’s previous nutrition surveillance system, which suffered from slow data transmission and high operating costs.

NEW YORK, USA, 10 September 2009 – UNICEF has won the Gov2.0 Summit Award for an innovative system adapting accessible technology to better monitor the health and nutritional status of children in Malawi.

‘RapidSMS’ is UNICEF's open-source platform for data collection, logistics coordination and communication, allowing any mobile phone to interact with the web. The technology directly responds to one of the biggest challenges facing UNICEF's field operations: access to accurate, timely and actionable information.

‘Best thing I’ve seen’

The technology was presented at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in Washington DC, where an audience of about 600 academics, entrepreneurs, journalists and representatives from non-profit organizations and government agencies voted for their favourite projects.

RapidSMS won in the category of ‘Government as a Provider’ and received high praise from attendees, many of whom posted reactions via Twitter.

As one post from ‘ilabra’ said: "Rapid SMS unicef talk best thing I've seen at Gov2.0. real problems, code production and a floss [free license and open source software] project. A generative pattern. Well done.”

Maximizing data

UNICEF deployed RapidSMS in mid-2009, in partnership with the Government of Malawi and Columbia University. The technology was designed to address constraints within the national Integrated Nutrition and Food Security Surveillance System in Malawi. Among those constraints were slow data transmission and incomplete or poor-quality data.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/2009/Blaschke
A child’s arm circumference is measured to establish one of the indicators that will be transferred by RapidSMS to establish nutritional status.

Traditional nutrition surveillance systems – like the one previously used in Malawi – require health workers to record indicators such as each child’s age, height, weight and upper-arm circumference. Then they have to send the information to the Ministry of Health, where it must be manually entered into a database before analysis can take place.

Using this approach, however, there is no immediate feedback loop, no direct response for children, no dynamic modeling or reaction. Thus, the data gets stale and erodes the value of the analysis.

Real-time information

In the new RapidSMS system, health workers enter the data as a text message/SMS on their cell phones. They send this text message to the local RapidSMS number, and the data set is mapped and graphed, giving the government real-time information that it can immediately use to pinpoint problems and react to them.

The health workers also receive a confirmation text message from RapidSMS, which provides the nutritional diagnosis of each child based on the data sent in. This feedback loop empowers health workers with information to act upon.

In this way, RapidSMS is now identifying children with moderate malnutrition who were previously falling through the cracks of Malawi’s nutrition surveillance system.

A winning model

“Technology is only one element of innovation,” said Merrick Schaefer, the technical project coordinator presenting RapidSMS at the summit. “The question is, can institutional practices keep pace? Now that we have real-time data, how can we change our work methodologies to take advantage of it?”

RapidSMS won the Netsquared 2.0 challenge by USAID in early 2009. UNICEF is using the same software across many different initiatives, including tracking the distribution of food in the Horn of Africa and bed nets in Nigeria; monitoring neonatal health in Zambia; and even as an incentive to teach literacy in Senegal.


 

 

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