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Creating Mobile Phone Communities with RapidSMS

By Wayan Vota on August 10, 2009

Everyone knows how SMS works – you can send an email to one other person. And there are SMS aggreators like FrontlineSMS that allow you to send text messages to multiple people. But now we have RapidSMS, which promises to take SMS text messaging to a whole new level.


RapidSMS is an open-source framework for dynamic SMS communication developed by Matt Berg, the UNICEF Innovation Team, and a core team of volunteer programmers (with a little help from Inveneo).

Developed over the past year, in the field and in code sprints, RapidSMS promises to be an innovative platform for SMS-based solutions using server-side logic.


The first solution, RapidResponse, is a unified mHealth malnutrition monitoring platform that includes screening for malaria and diarrhea – major killers of children under 5 years old in Africa. Here is a great video on the RapidResponse benefits:


Tostan has rolled out their own RapidSMS soltion, according to MobileActive. In a year-long pilot with UNICEF, several Senegalese communities are using “Jokko” as a low-cost system to encourage group decision-making in the villages.

Jokko utilizes the RapidSMS functionality dubbed ‘SMSForum, as MobileActive explains:

Joining the Jokko community

SMSForum allows community members to access a server in the Tostan office by sending their text to a “magic number”. This number feeds directly into the server or computer which then forward the SMS to a group of community members phones.

The platform supports easy and dynamic creation of multiple groups of people. For example, one village  has created a discussion group exclusively for youth. The basics of this system work much like a group list for text-messaging, however, the sender is only charged for the cost of one local text message. The cost of text messages sent to the “magic number” are covered by the administrator, in this case Tostan.

Innovation Opportunity

Now let us take these examples and think of new applications for RapidSMS. Personally, I think the SMSForum functionality is quite empowering. I can see self-assigned groups starting up, much like a listerv or Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, but all SMS-based.

This would be great for both development projects as well as commercial enterprises. Make the inbound SMS a premium short code and add advertising to the outbound SMS and you could recover costs or even make a small profit on such a system for general community use.

But enough of my ideas. What are yours?

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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