As part of a four month trial health extensions workers in three districts of Malawi’s central provinces are using mobile phones to improve the speed, quality, and efficiency of data regarding malnutrition through a short message service (SMS)text message system called RapidSMS. Developed by UNICEF’s Innovation and Development team, RapidSMS allows health extension workers to text the height and weight of children to a computer in the capital city of Lilongwe which stores the national nutritional and food-security statistics. In previous years, completing and sending questionnaires via post took about two months to be registered nationally, while aid agencies took another three to four months to respond. This new and more cost effective system, which allows text messages to be captured by the Internet, creates graphs and spreadsheets, and sends alerts within seconds. Faster analysis could mean earlier intervention by governments and NGO’s.
Although still less expensive than the manual collection of data, sending a text in Malawi is not cheap (each text costs about 10 US cents). According to the IRIN, UNICEF says it is in talks with mobile providers for a toll-free service.
UNICEF and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs decided to launch the Malawi Project after UNICEF reported RapidSMS was successful in monitoring and delivering aid to Plumpy’nut, Ethiopia (October 2008). Initial field testing was conducted in Uganda’s Kitgum district (May 2008).
UNICEF is considering using RapidSMS to monitor school attendance rates and hopes organizations and partners will be able to utilize the system free of cost int he near future.