How WhatsApp became the tool of choice for WHO's COVID-19 messaging

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The World Health Organization launched its WHO Health Alert service on WhatsApp. Photo by: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

SAN FRANCISCO — The World Health Organization launched its WHO Health Alert service on messaging platform WhatsApp as a way to reach people where they are with up-to-date information on COVID-19.

Many organizations try to share content by drawing people into their channels, said Andy Pattison, manager of digital solutions at WHO. Pattison’s strategy, meanwhile, is to get WHO content onto platforms people are already using.

This is part of the reason WHO turned to WhatsApp, which has 2 billion active users. Users can text "hi" in a range of languages to +41 79 893 1892, and the chatbot replies with a menu of options, including the latest numbers of new cases and deaths, myths versus facts, where to donate, and more.

WHO is one of a growing number of governments, NGOs, and international agencies that are using WhatsApp as a way to automate one-on-one interactions at scale.

Because of its massive user base and end-to-end encryption, Facebook-owned WhatsApp emerged as the best option for WHO to broadcast COVID-19 information, but a number of challenges stand in the way of it being the perfect solution to keep people informed.

WhatsApp for social impact

“WhatsApp was really created for personal use, to chat with family and friends,” said Nmachi Jidenma, global strategy and business development lead at WhatsApp, who is the main point of contact for the platform’s relationships with NGOs.

“There are no shortcuts. What WhatsApp and chat allows is for you to build these frameworks and get to scale much faster. But you can scale failure.”

— Gustav Praekelt, founder, Praekelt.org

But when the WhatsApp team saw that businesses, NGOs, and governments were using the platform, they decided to “create custom tools to facilitate that work,” Jidenma said.

In August 2018, WhatsApp launched a beta version of its Business API tools, which was developed for organizations “who want to communicate with people at scale,” she said.

One of the early investments WhatsApp made in exploring the role it could play in the social impact space was a partnership with Praekelt.org, the organization behind a maternal health platform called MomConnect, in South Africa.

When COVID-19 hit, Praekelt.org — and its software as a service company Turn.io — worked with the South African government to develop its COVID-19 WhatsApp helpline. WhatsApp suggested to WHO that Turn.io could also provide the machine learning technology that powers the WHO Health Alert Service.

Organizations that are interested in leveraging WhatsApp to advance their mission need to go beyond building a bot, making sure they have a strategy to connect with their audience, get them to take some kind of action, and measure whether they did, said Gustav Praekelt, founder of Praekelt.org.

“If you’re getting somebody to read something, has it changed real world behavior?” he said.

For MomConnect, for example, success is determined not just by how many pregnant mothers opt into the service, but whether that two-way dialogue improves the health of mothers and their infants, as well as experiences of service delivery, Praekelt explained.

“There are no shortcuts. What WhatsApp and chat allows is for you to build these frameworks and get to scale much faster. But you can scale failure,” he said.

‘A critical part of people's lives’

In depth for Pro subscribers: How WHO is engaging Big Tech to fight COVID-19

Silicon Valley companies met with the World Health Organization to share ideas on addressing COVID-19 before it became a pandemic. Andy Pattison, WHO manager of digital solutions, discusses how the agency approaches these tech partnerships and where they stand now.

It was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who proposed that WHO use WhatsApp as a platform for COVID-19 information. But considering the platform’s limitations, other tech and health groups following the progress of the WHO Health Alert would like to see the specialized United Nations agency look beyond Big Tech for potential solutions.

When WHO gives a technology its seal of approval, “it has significant weight on how other groups and ministries of health decide what to use and support,” said Barry Finette, founder of THINKMD, a mobile health diagnostic company.

While he has attempted to get in touch with WHO about his organization’s COVID-19 education and screening tool, he said there is no clear process for how other technology solutions might be considered alongside WhatsApp and Turn.io.

“Should leaders of powerful technology companies, such as Mark Zuckerberg, have a major influence in the health technology response to a global pandemic?” he asked in a follow up email to Devex.

“Unfortunately when such decisions are made in this manner, it creates a new standard for decision processes that may have unforeseen consequences and prevent the utilization of other technology options that could have significant value.”

For now, WHO Health Alert uses Turn.io’s machine learning technology to provide automated responses via WhatsApp on COVID-19 information, from common symptoms to advice for ways that users can protect themselves.

One major challenge has been keeping up with the changing nature of COVID-19 information.

“This is a disease where every month we learn more so our guidance changes,” Pattison said. “How do we make sure that when the guidance changes it gets out on all of our bots as soon as possible, and accurately, and that we translate it to all these languages immediately? You suddenly end up with this logistical problem. Harder than launching it is keeping it alive and current and exact.”

Another challenge is engagement. On WhatsApp, users have to engage for the conversation to continue. If they do not keep asking questions or checking in beyond the initial conversation, there will be no further follow up by WHO.

“They use it for the first day,” Pattison said. “And then you see them drop off completely. There’s nothing there to remind them to come back.”

WHO is in conversation with WhatsApp about whether they will allow WHO to send push notifications as new COVID-19 information is available, but WhatsApp wants to avoid a scenario where inboxes are flooded with impersonal messages.

“One of the reasons WhatsApp is so successful is we always put the user first,” Jidenma said.

She said WhatsApp is moving “deliberately and carefully” as it expands its work with governments, NGOs, and multilaterals, and constantly evaluating its policies to determine what makes sense.

“How do we make sure we’re a critical part of people's lives in a high value way that's driving impact in their day to day activities and keeping them delighted?” Jidenma said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.