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Texts for Africa

The Unicef innovations team came up with an incredible idea to leverage the increased rate of cell phone use in Africa (65% now have access to a cell phone!) to help malnourished children: they built an open source framework for SMS-based systems. In partnership with graduate students at Columbia University’s SIPA school, Unicef designed an information system that enabled health care workers to take malnourishment measurements in children and text them to the government. The government aggregated and mapped the data in real time, which provided information that Unicef could use to help the health care worker deliver appropriate care. Unicef responded to the health care workers via text with appropriate medical information and a message of thanks for their service. Unicef also distributed the information so other humanitarian partners could view it.

This system is now used to track food distribution, AIDS data, and number of other development indicators. The only costs to this program were training the health care workers and the cost of sending the text messages. In other words, it was a very inexpensive, but effective tool.

Should every large humanitarian aid organization have an innovations team that uses open sourcing principles?

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