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!

Your Path to a $16B exit? Build a J2ME App

So it finally happened, Facebook snatched up WhatsApp for the not so bargain price of $16B to the simultaneous head explosion of every entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. A common cry echoed around the world "But, but, how is WhatsApp any different than iMessage / Facebook Messenger / Hangouts?"

To that, I have one answer: J2ME

See, WhatsApp wasn't born in Silicon Valley on an iPhone, rather it fought its way to a $16B exit by providing an awesome messaging experience to the middle billion, those living on $10 a day. And you know what, on $10 a day you probably don't have an iPhone or an Android handset. Rather you are probably carrying around a "feature phone", one of a thousands variations of handsets built by Nokia or Samsung running a version of Java 2 Mobile Edition. (J2ME)

Writing J2ME apps is no cakewalk. While Android developers might whine about having to support myriad resolutions and versions of the API, J2ME ends up being less a standard and more a series of rough guidelines. There is no shortcut, you just have to test on every device, each with its own unique bugs and idiosyncrasies. Building a high quality app aimed at J2ME is the very definition of shlep, it is incredibly time consuming, boring and frustrating work.

That was the genius of WhatsApp really, they recognized that messaging apps are all about network effects and instead of focusing on the comparatively small market of the 'developed world', instead targeted the other 3 billion people who don't have smartphones. And at that they have been supremely successful.

If you are anywhere apart from the States, WhatsApp is the de facto standard for messaging. Here in Rwanda, it has far more penetration than Facebook, it is used by literally everybody who has a capable device. That came about not by having some edgy new user interface, or by a gimmick around disappearing messages, but by providing real value, value that can be measured in the pocketbook of a market that is massively under served.

So the next time you are thinking about "putting a dent in the universe", maybe you should look a bit farther, and maybe, just maybe you should start with a J2ME app.

PS. Though I love WhatsApp as a consumer, there is tremendous untapped good that could come from it if they made their API open for some (not all!) organizations. Those same low income customers could be helped by simple messaging campaigns that TextIt could help build. If anybody from WhatsApp is reading this and wants to see how that could happen with a big partner like UNICEF, please reach out.

Update: Note that it turns out I was wrong, and WhatsApp was originally written for iOS, but my point stands. What made it uniquely successful was that they were ubiquitous across platforms (Android, iOS, Blackberry, S40 / J2ME) and targeted developing markets with a solution that saved real money.

TextIt goes Prepaid

We are excited to announce that TextIt no longer requires a monthly plan, instead TextIt now uses a simple prepaid model that lets you add credits to your account only as you need them. This lets you more easily deal with usage spikes at different times of the year and should also make it much easier for people to get started without any anxiety about picking the "right plan" for them.

Best of all, switching to prepaid plans has let us revisit our pricing and we've decided to significantly reduce our prices, especially for our most active customers. While our previous gold plan would have cost $3,000 for 180,000 messages over the course of a year, we now offer a 250,000 credit bundle for $2,250, which comes out to almost half the price per message.

Just as before, you can get started with TextIt without a credit card and start building flows immediately. We now include 1,000 free credits with every account, enough that most organizations will be able to get a feel for TextIt in the real world without spending a penny.

If you already have a TextIt subscription then don't worry, we've brought all the credits you've bought forwards and will let you know when you start running low. Credits expire a year after purchase, so you'll have plenty of time to use them on programs you implement in 2014.

You can see the new TextIt bundles now available on the Pricing Page, as always, let us know if you have any questions or comments.


Moving Contacts out of Flows

Flows are a really great way to engage people, making it easy for them to have natural two-way conversations. But what if your conversation starts to be one-sided? Some folks just aren't great conversationalists after all. Several of you have asked for a way to expire people out of flows if for some reason they stop responding. 

Today, we're launching a new feature that moves contacts out of flows if haven't responded for 12 hours. Your existing flows will continue to behave as they always have. However, you can opt-in to this new behavior for any of your flows by visiting the flow edit dialog and choosing an appropriate expiration for inactive contacts.

As always, we love to hear how all of you are using TextIt and how we can improve it to better fit your needs. While it's a bit cliche to say it, we really mean it -- absolutely do not hesitate to reach out to us. We are happy to provide our feedback on your next SMS project. You can always reach us at info@textit.in, it'll go right to our inbox.



TechChange and TextIt

Ever since TextIt publicly launched (has it really been four months already?), we've created some wonderful partnerships with many different organizations around the world. Today I just want to give a quick shout out to our friends over at TechChange. If you haven't heard about them, you will soon, especially if you work in international development. We've been privy to a great many technology initiatives in the developing world, some good, some not so good, and seeing something like TechChange show up to meet a very important need is refreshing.

For the uninitiated, following in the spirit of online courses like Khan Academy, Udacity, and Coursera, Nick Martin co-founded TechChange to explore online courses for those who aspire to do social good with technology. In their own words:

TechChange provides scalable and interactive technology training for social change. We deliver online certificate courses to individuals, build customized courses and learning experiences for organizations, and strengthen technology-enabled communities of practice.

All too often in the developing world there isn't enough knowledge transfer, especially when it comes to sharing what doesn't work. I'm really excited that an organization like TechChange has cropped up -- with an explicit aim to help teach best practices for these sorts of programs. I'm confident they will go a long way toward discouraging projects based around technology simply for technology's sake.

At TextIt, we often talk of "people problems" instead of technology problems, which I go into more detail in the video below. Our tool removes the technical hurdles so you can focus on the hard problems in development. How do you engage your audience? What are the incentives? What value are you truly bringing to your target audience? Technology often is not required to solve these problems. TechChange gets this and helps guide folks so they can make informed decisions on when to apply technology, and more importantly, when not to. And if they do, what is the best technology and tool for the job.

Using TextIt for mHealth

This morning I had the privilege to speak at a TechChange session from here at kLab. The session was focused around mHealth and how TextIt can be used as a flexible tool for implementing a variety of proven interventions using SMS or IVR systems. TechChange brought in over 90 people in 30 different countries to hear what I had to say in a live Q&A format. What's better is they've shared our 60 minute session publicly so even those not enrolled in the course can benefit from it after the live event.

Creating a platform for these sorts of dialogues is extremely valuable and so very important. I wish them continued success as their online courses gain even more traction and I would encourage anybody working in the sector who hasn't yet, to check them out.

Using TextIt with a Local Number

While TextIt is an amazing tool for building SMS apps, it's not very valuable if you can't use it in your country. Over the course of the last several years, we've deployed many custom SMS systems in various countries in Africa. It was during these projects that we recognized the need for not only a flexible application workflow tool but one that can be easily deployed anywhere in the world.

There's a number of ways you can use TextIt with a local number in your country. The most popular of which is simply using an inexpensive, off-the-shelf, Android phone to send the messages for you. They can be had for around $90 and you can hook them up to your TextIt account in one step, and that's it. There's no step two. Your TextIt account is now live. It's hard to overstate the value of getting started this quickly. Not only do you get to do away with expensive and lengthly carrier integrations, you get to start experimenting right away. Learning what works, what doesn't, and how to move forward is the hallmark of effective programs. This means you get to stop guessing and start measuring even when you are just getting started with the idea phase of your project.

This isn't just for pilots either. Using an Android phone with TextIt is a proven, rugged, and reliable solution that large organizations are already using to send thousands of messages for their programs.

That's great, but how does it scale?

Nobody wants a solution that will only work at low-scale. While TextIt is already built to push millions of messages, the tricky part is how the last mile is configured. Using an Android phone will work for the vast majority of projects over their lifetime. It's even possible to use several phones in the same country to increase message throughput if necessary.

However, some of our customers require very high volumes. Thankfully, TextIt can grow with you. When the time is right, your account can be migrated over to use a local aggregator or even a direct connection with the carriers in your country.

Find out more by reading the TextIt Deployment Guide.

Introducing TextIt Campaigns

One of the core tenets around TextIt is to enable the kinds of interactions that have been proven to work most effectively. Our goal has always been to enable every organization to use SMS in the most natural and powerful ways so that their programs can be more successful. As such, it is with great excitement that we introduce TextIt Campaigns.

Campaigns allow you to easily schedule interactions with your users based on dates they have entered. For example if you collect the expected delivery date for a pregnant mother, you can send her a reminder to attend pre-natal visits in the months leading to her delivery. You could also encourage her to make an appointment to deliver her baby at a clinic and send followup reminders for vaccinations. To the mother this is a convenient service that requires only a simple registration she can undertake with the help of a clinician.

One reason we are so excited about campaigns is that they have been proven to be effective. In 2011 we participated in a randomized controlled trial that showed that mothers receiving reminders are almost twice as likely to visit a clinic after birth. With TextIt, we hope to make that simple and inexpensive intervention available to clinics around the world.

But really, we hope that is only the start. Campaigns can do more than just send messages, they can also start users down a flow, working them through a decision tree, collecting information about their pregnancy or helping advise them as to when to seek help from their local clinic. We hope that by enabling these types of interactions we increase the rate of experimentation and learning, leading to completely new programs.

The idea of reminders span much more than just maternity health. We think Campaigns can be used across sectors, reminders farmers as to when to plant their crop and fertilize, or just following up with users as they complete a set of surveys.

Every TextIt account got a free upgrade to campaigns, so you'll see them next time you log in. We recommend watching the introduction video above to get started, but if you have any questions, we always love hearing from you at feedback@textit.in.

TextIt featured at TwilioCon 2013

Last week TextIt had the honor of being featured at one of the biggest events in the telephony industry, TwilioCon. This was the third and biggest installment of the conference yet. For the uninitiated, Twilio is a company founded to alleviate the pain of integrating with carriers, enabling developers to instead code against a cloud API when they want to do innovative things with SMS or VOIP. To that end, they've done a great job of really lowering the barrier for new and interesting ideas to emerge on their platform.

Unfortunately, here in East Africa (and anywhere outside of the US, Canada, and the UK) we don't have the full benefit of Twilio. While their platform can send messages to local numbers here, there's currently no way for people to respond to a local number. So this means the opportunity to be the Twilio of Africa is still up for grabs. I have to say though, after spending time with CEO Jeff Lawson and the rest of his team, I really hope that Twilio becomes the Twilio of Africa. They are a developer-focused, no shenanigans operation that we can really identify with. In fact, TextIt was born out of a similar mission to reduce barriers to innovation. The key difference is that TextIt enables people who aren't developers to easily create SMS campaigns anywhere in the world without the time and money required to integrate with carriers. No matter where you are, you can take advantage of our exclusive flow engine by simply downloading a free Android application.

To kick off TwilioCon this year, Lawson led off his keynote by highlighting TextIt and how organizations are using it for a lot of social good in the developing world including programs focused on health, education, and governance. While we are extremely proud of that, the value of TextIt doesn't stop there. It's also being used to help corporations both large and small engage with their customers all over the world.

There were quite a few announcements at the conference this year but the most exciting was twilio.org which promises make it easier for non-profits to do meaningful work with less of a financial burden. Even though Twilio only allows two-way SMS in the US, Canada, and the UK, they do allow voice-enabled phone numbers in many more countries and can terminate those calls anywhere in the world. What's even better is that TextIt flows for easily building IVR (Interactive Voice Response) applications are already in beta. So this means that if you are a non-profit, you can for example, have a TextIt IVR application call India for only $0.025/minute, get $500 of free credit to get you started, and you can deploy it instantly. This blows the door wide open for doing low-cost IVR systems that can be deployed in any country. We are super excited about this. If you are a non-profit and interested in doing SMS or Voice applications, please get in touch, we'd love to help you get started with this stellar program.

TextIt at USAID TechCamp Kenya

We had the honor of being one of the trainers for the TechCamp Kenya conference on September 9th and 10th in Nairobi. TechCamp's are organized by USAID and are incredibly neat because they are so hands on and relevant. Instead of picking a theme themselves, the organizers query the aid organizations in a particular area asking them what they want to hear about. From that they put together a list of topics and then seek out subject matter experts to help train and organize the participants.

This TechCamp was focused on health and we were lucky enough to be invited to train on SMS technologies. I say lucky because it is always inspiring to see the work others are doing, both in very large organizations and very very small ones. TechCamp's format means we were always working in small groups, really talking about the problems they faced and helping us better understand the needs and realities on the ground.

Perhaps the most rewarding part for us was seeing the reception to TextIt. Though we have large customers using TextIt now, it is great to see smaller organizations see the potential and talk about how they can use our low cost tool to help them achieve their goals. We also got to share our experiences in building other SMS systems in East Africa, both good and bad and generally just had a lot of fun meeting others in the ICT4D community.

If you a TechCamp comes to your part of the world, I would encourage you to attend. They are fantastically organized and they are a fantastic way to see how others are solving problems and share your own experience. We're already looking forward to the next one.

Ten Tips for Building Effective SMS Surveys

One of the most popular (and best) uses for TextIt is to build multiple question surveys. SMS Surveys have much higher completion rates than those done over email and are usually completed much faster as well. But while most people won't mind answering a few questions, there are a few simple things you can do to increase the odds of getting great response rates. Here are some tips to make your SMS surveys as effective as possible.

Introduce Yourself

Even if you have communicated to your users via SMS before, it is always good to remind them who you are in case they haven't saved you to their address book. As always, keep it short, just add your organization name to your greeting. Leading with something simple like "Hi from TextIt!" can go a long way.

Short Messages

Try to keep your questions clear and as short as possible. Though all handsets support messages as long as 160 letters, many do not display more than the first 50 or 60 without scrolling. Try your best to put your question in those first characters so your users know they are expected to respond and know to scroll down.

Limit your Questions

Along the same lines, don't get greedy with your survey, keep it to a manageable number of questions. Ideally try to keep your survey under five questions, though depending on the audience you may be able to ask up to ten effectively. You'll need to test this out yourself, but make an effort to think of what the critical indicators you want to collect are and stick to those. If you absolutely must ask more questions, then try to split them among multiple surveys asked over a longer period of time.

Personalize

Nobody wants to feel like they are talking with a robot, so do everything you can to make the survey feel personalized and fun. If you know the names of your users, use TextIt's variable substitution feature to include it in your greeting, after all, everybody likes hearing their name. Even if you don't, personalize how you pose questions based on previous answers. This will make your users feel like they are being listened to and help them stay motivated to complete you survey.

Enumerate Choices

Unless you are asking an open ended question, you should give your users some clues on how you want them to answer. If you are asking a Yes or No question, end your question with "Answer with Yes or No". This removes one point of friction for your users, they don't need to ponder what formats are supported and it also reduces the chance of them receiving an error because they answered with something unexpected. Of course, even if you provide great prompts you'll still want to support synonyms and provide helpful error messages.

Make it Free

If possible, make answering free to your end users. In most countries you can configure a SIM card to be reverse billed, that is, you would pay for the incoming response instead of your users. This is especially important in developing contexts where the cost of responses over a long survey can add up. Sometimes it is tricky finding the right person at a carrier to set this up properly, but it is almost always possible. Oh and once you have this set up don't forget to tell your users that responding is free!

Give a Reward

Can't make responding free? Then set up some kind of reward for your users. This can be something that has real monetary value, like a coupon you send them upon completion or can be something fun like a quote, joke or motivational message. Another idea is to enter anybody who completes your survey into a drawing to win something. Be creative, there are lots of different ways of motivating users!

Timing is Everything

Think about what your users are going to be doing when they receive your survey and use that to your advantage. If you send them a question while they are asleep or having dinner, they might not see it or forget about it entirely. The "right" time to send out a survey is different for every audience, but with a little thought your messages will hit them right when they are most receptive.

Respect

Treat your users with respect: allow them to opt out of future surveys and don't send surveys too often. This is especially important in more developed markets which have regulations about how you can contact your users. Follow the general guideline of only contacting users who you have a relationship with and respecting their wishes if they choose not to participate, TextIt makes it easy to manage groups in flows to do just that.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Most importantly, keep experimenting!  Every audience and context is different, and your users' tastes may even change over time. Experiment and keep track of how many users finish your surveys and keep iterating based on those learnings. There is no catch all solution, but if you make an effort you'll have amazing response rates in no time.