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At a glance: United States of America

Columbia University and UNICEF awarded top honour in USAID innovation competition

© UNICEF/2009
The Ushahidi team led by Erik Hersman plans deployment of an SMS system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through which people can send text messages to alert others about where a violent incident is taking place.

WASHINGTON, DC, 8 January 2009 – Columbia University and UNICEF today received the first-place award in the ‘Development 2.0 Challenge’ of the US Agency for International Development. The award was for an innovative system designed to monitor children's health and nutritional status in Malawi.

“This is a perfect example of UNICEF’s vision of convening the world’s experts in acadaemia, private sector and civil society to leverage their knowledge and create solutions which help achieve lasting results for children,” said UNICEF’s Director of Communication, Dr. Sharad Sapra.

Six graduate students from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs will work closely with teams from UNICEF to finalize an open-source, ‘RapidSMS’ system, which uses basic mobile phones and text messages to collect information from health workers and improve the speed and quality of data collection.

This data will empower the Government of Malawi, UNICEF and other partners to map and track child malnutrition trends accurately and in real time. The tool will provide a critical means of intervention into rapidly unfolding food and nutrition crises.

Basic mobile phones for monitoring

The project in Malawi builds on work done by UNICEF during 2008 in East Africa. In particular, development of the RapidSMS system in Ethiopia created a system for monitoring food supplies using the most basic mobile phones.

© UNICEF/2009
A graphic shows how the SMS system, which uses basic mobile phones and text messages to collect information from health workers, will improve the speed and quality of data collection.

A developer in UNICEF’s Division of Communication, Adam McKaig, is in Malawi for the initial testing of the system, along with students from Columbia.

“We met with government officials and UNICEF staff here, and everyone is really excited about the project,” he said. “The reception has been very good so far. The Columbia students are great because they consider the human factors of the project like participation costs, incentives, training and language, while we work out the technical details.”

Scaling up to country level

The initial phases of the Malawi project are expected to run from January through May. After a month of co-creation and user testing at three growth-monitoring centres (GMCs), the system will be scaled up to the country level, covering more than 30 GMCs.

These centres act as sentinel sites, taking regular samples of the weight and health of young people, and feeding that information into centralized systems for nutrition and food security.

RapidSMS is a collaborative effort of UNICEF and partners in the Open Mobile Consortium including Frontline SMS and the Ushahidi project, all of which have used mobile technology to gather data from both local populations and development professionals in emergency situations.

The collaborative and open-source philosophy behind this development process means that anyone can use and adapt RapidSMS for his or her purposes. In addition, when it is time to scale up the system to monitor supplies and health data in the rest of Africa, there are no licensing fees, and local resources can be leveraged to ensure that the system is adapted appropriately.



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