Opportunities and risks for messaging apps in the development sector

Icons of popular messaging apps on a smartphone. Photo by: Alvy / Microsiervos / CC BY

As humanitarian organizations increasingly experiment with phone-based messaging applications, a new report from the International Committee of the Red Cross offers ideas, pointers and notes of caution to guide their work.

Messaging applications appeal to humanitarians because, in many communities, they are increasingly the preferred communication platform. With a growing number of users, messaging applications stand to offer aid groups a direct line to the people they aim to serve. Many platforms can also be accessible when other forms of communication are down, for example during a natural disaster or in a conflict zone.

The ICRC report, titled Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps, points to this potential, while cautioning humanitarians to consider challenges in user privacy and to understand local dynamics. In partnership with technology and data research group The Engine Room, the ICRC studied the opportunities to incorporate messaging apps into aid efforts and the associated risks and safeguards needed to ensure user protection.

“There is much more emphasis today in programming in the humanitarian sector about trying to understand and engage with different communities and individuals around their needs and information sources,” said Charlotte Lindsey Curtet, communication and information management director, at ICRC.

The report places a particular emphasis on messaging app usage in areas experiencing armed conflict or high levels of migration, but also considers natural disasters and epidemics, other development sectors and the media.

Humanitarians might best use messaging apps as a complement to current communication channels, Curtet said. They could be used in addition to methods such as face-to-face communication, print materials, SMS messaging, social media, radio and television.

Entering the conversation

Messaging apps surpassed SMS in daily message volume in 2013 and overtook social networks in monthly active user accounts in 2015, the report notes, proving its ability to reach large populations rapidly in the aftermath of a natural disaster or in conflict zones.

Mobile messaging has been adopted more quickly, and by more people, than virtually any other digital communications technology before it. According to the report, more than 2.5 billion people around the world use messaging apps, a figure expected to grow to 3.6 billion by 2018.

More than 10 messaging apps have more than 100 million monthly active users, with Whatsapp having the largest number of 1 billion as of Feb. 2016, according to the company. Others including Viber, Snapchat and Imo are also used extensively. In places such as Iran, an app called Telegram is popular, which illustrates the need to adapt this method to best meet the needs of the population it serves.

“That’s one reason people are really interested in using these apps, because it’s what people are already using. It’s not trying to replace what’s on the market,” said Tom Walker, The Engine Room’s lead researcher on this project. “It has a number of advantages and, in some instances, it’s the only way of actually accessing people.”

Walker pointed out instances following natural disasters when major communications networks were down, but messaging apps were somehow still working. Data from their research cited interviews in Nepal, where messaging apps remained operational following the earthquake there in April 2015.                                     

Messaging apps could also be used more widely for internal communication, explained Curtet. Organizations can create groups of staff members around the management of a program, enabling quick information sharing and coordination. Israeli-based humanitarian organization IsraAID, for example, uses a WhatsApp group for staff communications in each of the 19 countries in which it works to share information, according to the report.

Aid organizations such as the U.N. World Food Programme, U.N. High Commission for Refugees and UNICEF have also begun experimenting with these applications, although not yet on a large scale.

In Yemen, for example, ICRC used messaging apps as a hotline to report incidents or to request assistance. It proved a “real life-saving or livelihood tool,” Curtet said, because the team could directly engage with individuals that reached out to them.

BBC Media Action, the development charity arm of the BBC, used messaging apps during the Ebola crisis as a platform for locals to voice concerns as well as to access accurate information and ask questions about their situation. More than 12,000 people used their app. BBC Media Action’s research also found that some communities created smaller, private subgroups where they shared quotes from press releases and news briefings, updates on aid facilities throughout the country and incident reports.

A matter of trust

Most users rely on messaging apps to talk to people they know and trust. Walker said there is not enough information to indicate whether people want to use messaging apps to talk to humanitarians.

Humanitarians would need to win — and closely safeguard — communities’ trust for messaging to be effective. If the apps were somehow used to deliver misinformation, the result could be devastating. In insecure environments where the veracity of information is pertinent, the misuse of messaging apps could engender distrust or even become life-threatening.

In armed conflicts, the information environment is often contested and misinformation, propaganda and rumours travel swiftly. Humanitarian organizations need to understand how all these challenges affect their operations and messaging.

Data protection is also paramount, the report emphasizes. Walker and Curtet said further research will be required to understand the levels of protection possible for beneficiaries.

“There are still various questions around privacy, security and data protection that need to be explored,” Walker explained. “There is a range of different people who would like access to this information to use it against people that are already vulnerable.”

The uncertainty is particularly acute in conflict areas. Risks to privacy and data security can arise amid general insecurity, limited physical access to local communities, disrupted utilities and telecommunications infrastructures.

Curtet said both those running programs using messaging apps as well as users engaging with humanitarian organizations must understand that submitting information using these apps does have risks, for example requiring you to provide your name, email address and location.

“All these areas must be greatly considered when we do our impact assessments from the ‘do no harm’ perspective to ensure that we do as much as we can to safeguard the privacy of the individuals who use messaging apps to engage with us,” she emphasized.

In other places, network connectivity could limit the use of messaging apps. Connectivity can vary widely between rural and urban populations, so the report urges consideration of the most appropriate means of using messaging apps, Curtet said.

“The potential is enormous,” Curtet believes. “As long as you can balance the risks, you could have better reach of your program, better engagement with communities, and better understanding of the people and their needs.”

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.