MobileComm Weekly: July 20th, 2015

The week's most compelling mobile communication news in 10 links or less

Free RapidPro Courses

+ The RapidPro community site launched this week. Among the goodies: two free courses aimed at helping you design and deploy your RapidPro mobile-based communication app. RapidPro is the open source platform that powers TextIt (RapidPro).

New TextIt Case Study: Mobile Agriculture in Kenya and Zambia

"It's the farmers on the ground who are the first to know whether there will be a problem with the harvest in a given year."

+ Assessing new methods of understanding and better informing farming decisions in Kenya and Zambia, Indiana University’s Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change (CIPEC) recently completed a year-long SMS-based crop failure early warning system pilot in Zambia using TextIt. We spoke with CIPEC Director Dr. Tom Evans about the project.

Rules of Engagement

“There are three things you can bring to bed with you at night: your dog, your spouse, and your phone.”

+ When a company chooses to engage in customer service via SMS, an appropriate communication strategy must be in place. If done properly, SMS campaigns can build a strong relationship with your customer base. Follow these rules of engagement to get the most out of your mobile communication program.

What Comes in Must Go Out

“It’s a two-way street.”

+ Data has been critical not only to analyze the impact of programs, but also to evaluate the resources that will be required following an emergency. The crux: data shared is every bit as important as data collected.

The Hard truth of Hardware Donation

“There is no hardware Santa Claus.”

+ Wayan Vota, Senior Mobile Advisor at FHI 360, discusses the pitfalls of soliciting hardware donations and presents a more effective strategy for getting phones to your target population.

A Difficult Choice

+ Farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one...and they have made their decision in massive numbers (Technium).

Mobile Birth Registration

“There are many parents living in remote areas who are unaware of the importance of birth registration.”

+ UNICEF, in cooperation with the provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab, along with Telenor Pakistan, is all set to launch a pilot mobile registration project which will facilitate parents who wish to register the births of their newborns with one click. It is estimated that over 60 million children under the age of five are deprived of legal identity in Pakistan.

Paperless Hospitals

“The public health department's SMS-based daily monitoring system ensures instant availability of information on critical health parameters.”

+ Breaking away from the monthly paper-based evaluation system, the state health department of Maharashtra, India has adopted SMS-based reporting to improve timeliness in reporting specific, time-sensitive health metrics to bypass current bottlenecks in the flow of data.

Sign Up

Sign up for a TextIt account today to start building your own SMS application. In keeping with our goal of fostering development, we provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We understand that flexibility is key when deploying an SMS or IVR application, and that’s why we offer a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:

Crop Failure Early Warning Systems Powered by TextIt: A Case Study

Assessing new methods of understanding and better informing farming decisions in Kenya and Zambia, Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop and Princeton University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering recently completed a year-long SMS-based crop failure early warning system pilot in Zambia using TextIt. We spoke with Dr. Tom Evans about the project. 

Context

In Kenya and Zambia, researchers are collecting real-time environmental and farming practice data for the purpose of equipping farmers with knowledge they intend to prevent crop failure and increase yearly yields. Farmers in these regions are rain-fed, meaning their yields are solely dependent on precipitation. They are on the threshold of survival.

Prior to the SMS pilot, Indiana University and Princeton University have been partnering to research household-level food security in Zambia focused on rain-fed agriculturalists. In Kenya, they had been conducting water governance and irrigation management research. These projects were the seed for later work seeking to understand the kinds of decisions farmers are making and how their food security changes within a growing season. "It's the farmers on the ground who are the first to know whether their will be a problem with the harvest in a given year,” says Dr. Evans.

The mobile-based pilot in Zambia developed from a desire to improve overall data quality and utility by communicating with farmers on a more frequent, consistent basis. Prior to designing and deploying their TextIt SMS application, the research team had spent previous years interviewing farmers once per year. “When this is the case, you don't have the same capacity to understand how their (farmers’) context changes within a growing season,” says Dr. Evans.

Methodology

The researchers piloted their TextIt SMS application during the 2013-2014 growing season with a set of 60 farmers. The pilot allowed them to understand the capabilities of each farmer, asking questions about the farmers’ social networks, technical limitations, and common barriers to consistent phone use. The pilot also allowed them to figure out what kind of staff infrastructure was needed to train farmers, make contact with nonrespondents, and develop their data collection approach.

The research team designed and tested a set of short, simple questions that would allow them to capture how farmers were perceiving climate dynamics and how that related to their decisions on what to plant and when. That seed pilot data then fed into a proposal that received funding to support a much larger set of activities including both Kenya as well as Zambia.

Survey Characteristics

The researchers used TextIt’s Flow Engine to design easy to understand, conversational SMS surveys ranging from 5-10 questions divided among the 3 periods within the agricultural season: planting, growing and harvest.

After multiple trainings and comprehensive field research, they chose to use English as their application’s default language. They found that most prospective users were skilled enough to answer simple, guided questions.

They decided to focus on one crop, maize, to simplify farmers’ expected contribution and stabilize on a central crop to assess the agricultural season.

The researchers chose to supplement the SMS surveys with traditional in-person interviews that provided more extensive information about a subset of farmers than the SMS system would allow. If a participating farmer didn’t respond to the SMS surveys, researchers  would call and/or visit them to assess the barriers to that farmer’s participation.

End-User Onboarding

A key to their success was the time and effort spent understanding and then onboarding their end-users. At TextIt, we’ve found this essential to success.

The researchers  targeted a wide spectrum of farmers.To assist older and lesser-educated farmers, they focused time and resources on training younger members of the household and community to provide technical support.

The training sessions were broken down into groups of 10 farmers led by 2 instructors who demonstrated the SMS application and led the farmers through each Flow, providing support and guidance along the way. They found that questions such as "Did it rain on your field this week? Yes or No?" were easier for farmers to answer than "What do you think your harvest will be at the end of the season?" For the latter question, they focused on explaining the importance of consistent reporting and the relationship between the data being reported each week and expected yield. The concept of tracking and reporting yield is entirely new to most of these farmers.

Compensation

The research team wasn’t able to secure a reverse-billed telephone number, so they had to get creative to ensure the participating farmers had the resources to complete the surveys. To do so, the researchers compensated farmers the cost of SMS messages plus a bonus in the form of an airtime transfer.

Results

60% of the participating agriculturalists completed the study, providing sufficient quality and quantity of data to secure funding from the United States National Science Foundation and justify the expansion of the program both within Zambia and to Kenya, where it continues today. The research team is working with the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya and the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) in Zambia as critical in-country partners in the development and implementation of this research.

Lessons learned

  • The majority of participating farmers are at the threshold of survival, so distributing airtime as compensation was critical to receiving responses.

  • Some of the participating farmers were in considerable airtime debt, meaning that even after receiving an airtime transfer to complete the SMS surveys, they were not able to do so.

  • Another consistent technical impediment was the ability of farmers to keep their phones charged, as they’re spending most of the day without access to a charging port. Though SMS is far and away the cheapest and most convenient method of communication, lack of airtime and access to a charging port are among the most common barriers.

  • End-user onboarding doesn’t end when the project begins. Participating farmers were anxious to receive a return on their time investment, as they might from an aid or impact-first organization, so the researchers devoted time and resources to consistently reiterating and emphasizing the long-term importance of the program.

  • Community sponsors, young and old, were key to the success of the pilot program. These individuals understand and support the implementation of the project and have the ability to assist their peers in participating.

Moving Forward

In the future, the researchers will be deploying  physical instruments to measure a variety of environmental factors that will greatly improve the quality of data submitted in their mission to find the ideal formula for improving yields.

Sign up for a TextIt account today to start building your own SMS application. In keeping with our goal of fostering development, we provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We understand that flexibility is key when deploying an SMS or IVR application, and that’s why we offer a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:


MobileComm Weekly: July 13th, 2015

The week's most compelling mobile communication news in 10 links or less

Substitution Effect

"Sell cheap...and you will grow big"
+ As Africa closes in on 1 billion mobile subscriptions, affordable smartphones are contributing significantly in bringing more people online across the continent. Bye bye feature phones?

A Threat to Mobile Monogamy?

+ The concept of a SIM card being locked to a single TelCo could be a thing of the past when GSMA, together with Apple and Samsung, launches electronic SIM cards (ZDnet).

A Million Voices Heard

"1 million voices cannot be ignored"
+ u-Report, an open source platform that allows people in countries across the world to speak out on issues pertinent to their communities and engage in citizen-led development, has reached 1 million active users. 

Here Comes Haiti

"The loan I took from SOCOLAVIM changed my life"
+ Finally, an aid strategy that's paying-off in Haiti. Haiti HIFIVE, designed to encourage a dynamic Haitian economy by increasing the availability of financial products and services to its people and enterprises, has supported 65 credit unions, microfinance institutions and commercial and development banks to develop sustainable financial products and solutions. 

+ Haiti is a GSMA-designated fast growing market in the Carribean with 2 operators and over 7.9 million mobile connections vs. a population of 10.5 million. Mobile connections in Haiti are growing at an average rate of 9.96% year-on-year, or nearly 30% over the past 3 years combined (GSMA). 

Study Up: Learn from our Latest Case Study

+ ProGobernabilidad, a Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development initiative to empower the women and children of Northern Peru through various ICT4D approaches, recently completed a study measuring the effectiveness of a 2-year maternity health program pilot they conducted using TextIt. We spoke with e-government specialist Réjean Roy about the project (TextIt).

India's SMS Infatuation

+ Bangladeshi mobile operator Robi has launched an SMS-based quiz contest to more effectively engage their subscribers. Learn how they're doing it (Robi).

+ Kozhikode is planning to introduce a system that will send SMS alerts to those who submit death, birth and marriage applications online for registration (Times of India).

+ India Post has announced that, beginning this September, customers will receive messages on their mobile phones regarding the status of their mail, parcels, money orders and other deliveries (Post & Parcel). 

Proceed with Caution

+ The Nigerian Communication Commission wants to monitor citizen's private calls and SMS. The draft "Lawful Interception" aims to provide a legal and regulatory framework for the lawful interception of communications in Nigeria as well as the collection and disclosure of intercepted communications" (Entertainment Express Nigeria).

State of the Art: Mobile Disaster Response

+ Watch Olly Parsons of the GSMA discuss Disaster Response at the CDAC Humanitarian Connectivity Member's Forum (CDACnetwork).


Delivering Maternity Health Support with TextIt: A Case Study

ProGobernabilidad, a Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development initiative to empower the women and children of Northern Peru through various ICT4D approaches, recently completed a study measuring the effectiveness of a 2-year maternity health program pilot they conducted using TextIt. We spoke with e-government specialist Réjean Roy about the project.

Parameters

In 2012, the ProGobernabilidad project was developed around 3 vital facts:

  • In 2012, less than 18% of the people of Lambayeque, the region in which the 6 participating medical clinics are located, had home internet access.

  • That percentage was close to 0% in the rural areas of Lambayeque. While community members can visit cabinas to access the internet, they’re largely inaccessible. Price and lack of technical expertise are barriers to internet access in the region. As a result, less than 30% of all Peruvians living outside Lima and only 10% of Peruvians living in rural areas used the Internet in 2012.

  • A large portion of the Peruvian population has access to basic feature phones. In Lambayeque, for example, over 85% of people live in a house where at least one person owns a mobile phone.

It became clear to Réjean and his colleagues that mobile phones are the most suitable channel to deliver services electronically to the community of Lambayeque.

Strategy

Determined to reduce the child mortality rate and strengthen the first 1,000 days in the continuum of care for mothers and their children, the e-government team set out to pilot a maternity reminder system modeled after the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Health (MAMA) program, which has been deployed in 70 countries worldwide.  

Following a comprehensive search for the right mobile-based communication platform, Réjean chose TextIt, which he discovered through a course offered by TechChange. “I had looked at other tools when I started this process, but what really impressed me is that yours is a lot easier to use than the others.”

TextIt’s instinctual Flow Engine enabled Réjean to swiftly build a sample Campaign to demonstrate to the IT team in Peru. His colleagues then harnessed TextIt’s API to integrate their medical records software, allowing TextIt to submit information to and request information from their external medical records application.  

In November 2013, ProGobernabilidad launched its pilot program with 250 women across 6 Lambayeque clinics. “The demand is very, very strong…the mothers and their families really love it,” says Réjean.

End-User Onboarding

ProGobernabilidad provided a series of trainings for nurse-midwives and pregnant women and their companions on the functionality of the SMS system they built with TextIt. In addition, they extended recruiting responsibilities to nurse-midwives and doctors. At TextIt, we refer to this as end-user onboarding. This is important. If end-users don’t understand how to interact with your application, or how and why interacting with your application benefits them, they’re less likely to respond correctly and complete your Flows.

End-user onboarding can be time-intensive and require patience. It took ProGobernabilidad nearly a year to sensitize and capacitate pregnant women to use their TextIt SMS system.

Flow Methodology

ProGobernabilidad took advantage of TextIt’s Campaigns feature to schedule a series of Flows comprised of maternity reminder messages. Watch the video below for a short, visual explanation of this process:

Results

ProGobernabilidad conducted a pilot study to assess the effectiveness of the program.

Some highlights from the study include:

  • Pregnant women who participated in the program attended a greater number of prenatal checkups at the end of the 16th week of receiving the messages.

  • Pregnant women who participated in the program had higher chances of having an institutional delivery at the end of the program.

  • Mothers who participated in the program reported more consistent breastfeeding at the end of the 16th week.

  • Nurse-midwives revealed that the program improved their capacity to counsel the pregnant women.

Lessons Learned

  • Nurse-midwives interviewed for the pilot study suggested that more focus be placed on training pregnant women and their companions to be successful with the program so that they might offer their testimonials and disseminate the system within their community. They also suggested that ProGobernabilidad advertise the program with posters, billboards and flyers.

  • The study failed to secure follow-up interviews with the majority of mothers who had graduated from the maternity health program, as the phone numbers were either disconnected or the mothers had changed carriers. In economically underdeveloped regions, users are more likely to jump from carrier to carrier to take advantage of deals. It’s advisable to account for this behavior when designing your TextIt SMS application and the program in which it will be implemented.

Moving Forward

One of ProGobernabilidad’s long-term goals is to demonstrate to the government of Peru that providing services via mobile phones is a mutually beneficial endeavor.

On the heels of a successful pilot, ProGobernabilidad is preparing to expand their presence from 6 clinics to more than 20 by including the Tumbes and La Libertad regions.

Sign up for a TextIt account today to start building your own SMS application. In keeping with our goal of fostering development, we provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We understand that flexibility is key when deploying an SMS or IVR application, and that’s why we offer a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:





Using TextIt to Build Meaningful Client Relationships & Provide Flexible Support

We recently spoke with Lawrence Omondi, Office Manager at Access Afya, about his experience using TextIt as a means of supporting clients and building meaningful relationships. 

Access Afya is a sustainable social enterprise that runs a chain of affordable microclinics in Mukuru, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, that provides low-cost, quality healthcare to the local community. Access Afya uses text messaging to send appointment reminders, follow-up with patients post-appointment, and keep them informed on the importance of healthy living.

Why TextIt?

“100% of our clients are able to provide us with a mobile phone number on which to contact them, whether because they own the phone individually or because each family has at least one phone.

Given that mobile phone penetration is very high even in Kenya’s informal settlements, Textit provides us with the perfect communication channel to reach our client regardless of where they are.”

How have you integrated TextIt into Access Afya’s workflow?

"TextIt has allowed us to create an open, personal and friendly relationship with the communities we work in, providing easy access as well as the confidence to approach us. Patients associate our brand with the quality service, care, and attentiveness our clinicians provide.

Textit has enabled us to develop an ‘offline’ relationship with our patients for the times that we are not interacting with them in person. This individual, personalized relationship extends to the emotional and physical well being of a patient, their family, and other community members. Textit has enabled us to form a bond with our patients that gets stronger each time we see a new client in one of our clinics and are able to follow up with them via text message."

Which feature has helped Access Afya the most?

"The ability to group clients. We have created different client groups within Textit, categorized according to their geography, age, demographic and the Access Afya program they are enrolled in. We use these groups to communicate with our patient base in a more strategic manner, and most frequently our communication with them involves sending the relevant groups health messages and inform them about Access Afya community engagement events or bundles that we are providing.

We also value the ability to create a message Flow. This enables us to provide continuity, build relationships and collect data to understand the needs of our patients over time (given that our text messages to them and their responses are saved on the same thread). This enables us to collect useful information from our patients and draw on trends to improve our service delivery."

TextIt puts you in the pocket of your target user with more reliability than email or social media. Using TextIt, you can take advantage of increasing mobile phone ownership rates and communicate more directly with your client or patient. 

Sign up for a TextIt account today to build your own SMS or IVR application, no programming experience required. We provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We understand that flexibility is key when deploying an SMS or IVR application, and that’s why we offer a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:


Leveraging RapidPro to Empower Health Workers Amid the Liberian Ebola Crisis

Here’s a story from the field spotlighting a RapidPro implementation in Liberia that we proudly maintain for UNICEF and the mHero initiative. As we’ve discussed before, RapidPro is the Open Source software platform that powers TextIt.

We recently spoke with Sean Blaschke of UNICEF and Amanda Puckett of IntraHealth about the groundbreaking Health Worker Electronic Response and Outreach (mHero) program for Ebola response in Liberia.

Sean, Health Systems Strengthening Coordinator for UNICEF Uganda, and Amanda, IntraHealth International’s technical advisor for human resources for health, played key roles in the development and deployment of mHero, a suite of applications that relies on RapidPro for communication. Other components include iHRIS (IntraHealth’s health workforce information software), DHIS 2 (a web-based open-source information system) and the mHero Sync Coordinator (mSync).

mHero is a symbiotic conglomeration of distinct applications that form an SMS-based, IVR-enabled system that facilitates communication between Liberia’s Ministry of Health (MoH) staff, health workers, and community members. RapidPro enables SMS and IVR communication while the combination of iHRIS and DHIS 2 provide data infrastructure and health resource information, such as health workforce data sorted by cadre and location. “It’s the lowest common denominator in essential integrations,” says Sean, “a mobile communications engine for any set of systems.”

In practice, mHero allows the MoH to instantly send critical information to health workers’ mobile phones during the outbreak and in the future. Leveraging RapidPro, the tool allows for:

  • Broadcast messaging

  • Reporting emerging cases

  • Sharing reference and training materials

  • Testing and improving the knowledge of health workers

  • Improved coordination among the Ministry of Health, Social Welfare and remote health facilities.

  • Validating healthcare workers using DHIS 2 and iHRIS

Real-time monitoring, complex surveys and detailed analysis can be conducted with ease. What’s more, IVR allows healthcare organizations to deliver knowledge with higher content limits and no literacy requirement in any spoken language. Our last article highlights a UNICEF RapidPro deployment in Pakistan that leverages IVR to educate social mobilizers about Polio.

In addition to empowering healthcare workers through enhanced communication, the mHero initiative sought to give them control over how the application is being built.  “mHero is not prescriptive,” says Sean, “It’s a very simple proposal: improve communication between ministry of health and frontline health workers. From there, what do they want to do with it?”

The mHero team made it a point to train health workers and MoH staff to build Flows using RapidPro, and they took well to it. The idea, Sean pointed out, is to implement the system and let countries define their own use cases. Health workers are the best candidates to design communication systems for health workers. This approach has been successful thus far, as over 75% of workers have completed the surveys.

The ability to quickly and easily setup a RapidPro demo environment using an Android Relayer and the intuitive dashboard and Flow Engine allow for a seamless user onboarding process. “RapidPro is very simple to use, regardless of learning method,” says Sean.

Sign up for a TextIt account today to start building your own SMS or IVR application. In keeping with our goal of fostering development, we provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We understand that flexibility is key when deploying an SMS or IVR application, and that’s why we offer a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:


Polio, Meet Mobile: Targeting the Final 1% of Global Polio Cases with RapidPro

Here’s a story from the field spotlighting a RapidPro implementation that we proudly maintain for UNICEF. As we’ve discussed before, RapidPro is the Open Source software platform that powers TextIt.

Polio is at the brink. The total number of global polio cases has decreased by 99% since 1988.

For UNICEF Polio Innovation Lead Asch Harwood and his colleagues, that isn’t good enough. Whereas the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), of which UNICEF is a key partner, has been successful in eradicating the overwhelming majority of global polio cases, the final 1% has proven elusive. “We’ve reached a point where current methods are no longer working. We need to think outside the box.”

Polio flourishes in areas where awareness of and access to vaccination are scarce. These are communities in which literacy rates and income levels are low, and access to technology is limited. The average person in these communities might not be aware of vaccination services or might feel pressure from local leaders to avoid vaccination.

Today, polio circulates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Nigeria, the only other country where polio is endemic, the total number of polio cases is 6 as of 2015 though health authorities have not detected a new case of polio since 2014. Nevertheless, polio eradication can only be certified once the afflicted region demonstrates that transmission has been blocked for at least 3 consecutive years.

How can these people be reached, and what will enable that communication?

This is the prompt Asch Harwood and the polio communication team at UNICEF are attempting to answer. “It’s UNICEF’s job to make sure that people understand why vaccinations are important,” says Asch.

To reach the remaining 1% of cases, Asch and his colleagues are focusing their efforts on creating demand for the polio vaccine in those communities most at risk. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, this means working within potentially dangerous areas.

To reach these populations, polio communication teams engage in social mobilization, a communication for development (C4D) approach that seeks to change behavior by motivating a wide range of players to raise awareness of and demand for a particular development goal through dialogue.

Going into this project, Asch recognized the potential of mobile phones as a point of connection with people in communities most at risk for polio infection. After researching and testing various services that would allow him to build SMS and interactive voice response (IVR) applications to establish automated bidirectional communication at scale, Asch and the polio C4D team settled on RapidPro.

Asch points to user experience as the key factor that led the polio team to adopt RapidPro: “I’ve played with a lot of the other IVR tools, and you guys have definitely designed the best user experience I’ve seen so far.”

As an innovation lead, ease of use allows Asch to bring new ideas to life. “Probably the most powerful part of it is that because I was able to demonstrate it, I was able to get the buy-in necessary to help us start prototyping and piloting.”

The RapidPro platform allows Asch and his colleagues to build flowcharts or Flows that disseminate and collect actionable information geared toward improving vaccination awareness via a combination of SMS and interactive voice response (IVR). Asch chose to use IVR because the information he desires to disseminate exceeds the 160 character SMS format.

For example, registered social mobilizers in target communities might receive an automated phone call from UNICEF’s team announcing a survey aimed at better preparing them for their jobs. The automated voice recording will ask a question in Urdu — in this case, a quiz question about the symptoms of polio — and then ask the user to press the number that corresponds with their response. If the user answers correctly, the Flow will provide additional information before moving to the next question. If the user answers incorrectly, the Flow will respond with the correct answer and provide an explanation before moving forward.

The goal is to equip registered social mobilizers with the information they need to affect harmful discourse and raise the awareness necessary to increase the rate of vaccination within their communities.

The polio unit’s RapidPro deployment integrates with Twilio’s Global Reach to make international calls. The success rate of these calls is cause for optimism: In an analysis of 7,000 calls made through Twilio connections to social mobilizers all over Pakistan, it was found that only 7% failed to connect. This indicates that mobile network coverage in Pakistan is extensive.

The project currently reaches upwards of 2,500 social mobilizers within Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the coming weeks, UNICEF plans to increase that number to 7,000, focusing on females in high-risk areas. Asch and his colleagues expect IVR to be particularly powerful in low-literacy settlements.

Next, Asch will be in Nigeria working closely with the Nigeria polio communications team to begin prototyping RapidPro applications with social mobilizers in that country.

To learn more about TextIt, visit our Learning Center, review our documentation, or watch this short video:

Sign up for a TextIt account today to start building your own SMS or IVR application. In keeping with our goal of fostering development, we provide 1,000 complimentary credits to every new account, as well as country-specific guides to integrating with local carriers and international gateways.

We also integrate with Twitter, allowing users to take advantage of wifi and data plans to send Direct Messages to other Twitter accounts.

Why buying Provisioned IOPS on RDS may be a mistake

We love Amazon Web Services, we've been using EC2 and the ever increasing number of services provided by Amazon since way back in 2008, and depend on their awesome set of services to deliver TextIt and RapidPro hosting to our customers.

But one thing with AWS is that it isn't always clear what the most economically performant strategy is. Should you buy reserved instances? Light or heavy? What size instance should you get? What kind of storage on that instance? Even once you figure out the lay of the land, things are often changing, so the right choice six months ago may not be anymore. That's what happened to us.

We use Amazon's Relational Database Service (RDS) to host PostgreSQL. The ease in setting up a multi-AZ instance that will failover automatically, always be on the latest version and have bullet proof backups is well worth the added cost over managing those databases ourselves. When we first started scaling, we ponied up to reserve some large instances, and at Amazon's recommendation, also decided to buy provisioned IOPS to guarantee the performance of the disk on those machines.

Last week, we realized that was a mistake, both from a performance and a budget point of view.

See, provisioned IOPS don't come cheap, on a multi-AZ deployment, Amazon charges 20c per IOPS per month, with a minimum of 1,000 IOPS. So you are spending a minimum of $200/mo to guarantee your database can read and write at that rate. If you have say, a 100 GB database (also the minimum) then you are spending $20/mo on storage and $200/mo to guarantee performant access to it, that's pretty crazy.

Turns out that if your load tends to be peaky, you now have a much better option, using general purpose SSD drives. Amazon covers the specifics in their nitty gritty documentation, but the gist is essentially that for every GB of storage you buy, you get 3 free base IOPS, so for 100 GBs of space you get 300 "provisioned" IOPS for free.

Now obviously that might not be good enough for your database load, but Amazon has a neat trick in that they will credit you for whenever your DB is using fewer IOPS than your guaranteed rate and let you burst above it. This combined with the much more reasonable price, .23c per GB for multi-AZ, means you can splurge on your total disk size and get both some great savings and better performance than you would using IOPS. (oh and more disk!)

In our case, we decided to upgrade to 250 gigs of space and switch to a general purpose SSD drive. That gave us base IOPS of 750, only slightly less than our previous max of 1,000 IOPS, but now with the ability to burst to 3,000 IOPS for up to 40 minutes at a time. Not only that, but our bill for storage on our instance went from $220/mo to less than $60/mo, even though we now have two and half times the capacity.

For our usage patterns, which involve long periods of very little happening punctuated by very heavy writes and reads, this is perfect, as we now can burst far faster than we could before and have plenty of time to recover credits for the next event. A quick graph of our RDS IOPS makes that clear.

So check your logs and your current usage, you might be able to save yourself a bundle by moving away from provisioned IOPS storage and instead using SSD storage for your RDS instances.

New Feature: Viewing Recent Messages within Flows

One of the things we've always loved about Flows is how easy they make it to reason how people are interacting with your system. TextIt has always displayed the number of times your users pass through particular paths in your flow, making it easy to determine how people are moving through with just a quick glance.

Today we just launched an addition to this feature that makes it that much more powerful. If you hover over any of the activity badges, we'll quickly pull up the last five messages that went through that path. This works for both outgoing messages, so you can double check how variables are being replaced, as well as incoming messages, so you can check your rules are working as you expect.

We think this is going to make it that much easier for you to quickly adapt your flows once you see real data come in, and make it that much easier to know exactly what is happening when people respond with unexpected values.

This is just one of many new features we've been hard at work on to make flows more powerful yet easier to understand. We're working hard every day to make sure TextIt remains the most powerful way to build interactive SMS and Voice applications. As always, feel free to send us a note if you have any suggestions of your own!

TextIt Open Sources Technology Platform as RapidPro

We've been a bit quiet on this blog for the past six months but today we're at last ready to tell you why.

As most of you already know, TextIt was born from Nyaruka's experience building custom SMS systems for NGOs in East Africa. Over the course of four years, our team in Rwanda built dozens of custom systems to collect, communicate and aggregate data using SMS in sectors spanning agriculture, health and governance. For each of those projects we used the excellent Open Source framework called RapidSMS, originally built and stewarded by UNICEF.

Though the process of building many one-off systems made for a good consultancy, we began to grow frustrated that we weren't making a larger impact – enabling more people to reap the rewards of simple messaging campaigns. It was with that goal of enabling access to great technology that two years ago we embarked on our journey to build TextIt. While not based on RapidSMS, TextIt was informed and in some ways inspired by our experience using it, so it's no big surprise that some of our biggest fans came from inside UNICEF. After all, UNICEF is perhaps the single largest and most informed user of SMS systems in the developing world.

But despite loving the work we had done with TextIt, UNICEF had reservations about adopting it internally given their strong tradition of using Open Source platforms. The developing sector has seen first hand what can happen when a vendor has exclusive rights to a platform, vendors can become, well, greedy, and stop investing in a platform, sitting on their laurels instead of continuing to innovate. Having a platform be Open Source gives customers the leverage of taking their business elsewhere if worst comes to worst, which keeps everyone honest.

So it was with that context that UNICEF approached us to take the technology platform that was TextIt and Open Source it as RapidPro

You might think this was a hard decision for us to make, to publish our secret sauce if you will, but really it fit perfectly with our original mission: to enable every organization to use SMS to improve the efficacy of their programs. Not only is RapidPro now being used in a dozen (and growing) UNICEF offices at a scale which we could only dream of previously, but UNICEF's involvement guarantees that the the platform will continue to grow, mature, and become ever more capable.

Best of all, UNICEF's investment in the platform didn't end at Open Sourcing, along the way they also funded development to add lots of exciting new features, from new ways of communicating to users, better analytics and more, all of which we'll be talking about in upcoming posts.

Over the past few days we've migrated our TextIt servers to run this new RapidPro platform, and today we're happy to announce that TextIt is a RapidPro provider. As we make improvements to TextIt, we'll continue to roll those changes into RapidPro, just as changes made to RapidPro will be rolled into the TextIt service.

For TextIt users this means you now have the added benefit of knowing your chosen platform is also being used by one of the largest aid organizations in the world and that it will continue to thrive and grow for years to come. If you are a current TextIt user, thank you for being part of that journey, we look forward to continuing to serve you. 

Last but certainly not least, we'd love to thank everyone we've worked with at UNICEF in the past six months. In the end it is their trust and faith in what we've built that has allowed us to make RapidPro a reality and we look forward to continuing to move the platform forward together.

If you haven't yet signed up and are curious about RapidPro, you can set up a TextIt account instantly to try RapidPro today.

Some common questions that have come up and their answers:

What is the difference between RapidPro and TextIt?

RapidPro is a software platform, TextIt is a hosted service. Running the RapidPro platform yourself requires you to acquire web and database servers, load balancers and have the expertise to run, maintain and keep all the software up to date in a secure, high availability data center. TextIt takes care of doing all of that for you, while also providing technical support and assistance, letting you focus on accomplishing your goals with the platform.

Does RapidPro being Open Source mean TextIt is now free?

No, as discussed above, TextIt is a hosting service for the RapidPro platform, and as such we have costs associated with running the servers, maintenance, support and ongoing improvements to the platform. As a rough guideline, if you think TextIt is too expensive, then you definitely cannot afford to host RapidPro in a reliable manner yourself.

Where can I access the RapidPro source code?

All the source code for RapidPro is available on GitHub. We are also making every effort to perform ongoing development, even bug fixes, transparently and in the open. Our goal is to have an open and vibrant community moving the platform forward, come and join us!