Webinar: A practitioner's guide to messaging apps for development

Via YouTube.

SAN FRANCISCO — For people in crisis, whether they are fleeing gang violence in El Salvador or seeking asylum in Greece, the difference between rumor and fact can be a matter of life or death.

Signpost, a partnership between Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, — together with partners including Cisco, Google, Microsoft, and TripAdvisor — provides crisis-affected populations with the information they need to make decisions.

Meghann Rhynard-Geil, senior adviser for technology for development at Mercy Corps, said they use Facebook to meet people where they are, while also acknowledging some of the concerns about the company’s data collection methods.

Rhynard-Geil joined Devex for a recent webinar on mobile messaging applications, along with Debbie Rogers, managing director at the Praekelt Foundation, and Jake Watson, senior director for platforms and services at the Digital Impact Alliance, or DIAL.

The webinar, “A practitioner's guide to messaging apps for development” highlighted the opportunities and challenges for global development professionals to tap into the fact that nearly half of the world’s population uses one or more messaging apps. The webinar built on the findings of a report from DIAL, which captured lessons for development and technology practitioners.

Catch up on the webinar highlights below.

1. Focus on user needs

Rhynard-Geil of Mercy Corps discussed a range of factors that NGOs need to keep in mind as they figure out how exactly they want to leverage messaging apps to reach the people they aim to serve.

“If we provide interactive, accessible, accurate, relevant, responsible, and timely information to people made vulnerable by man-made crises and natural disasters, then they will be empowered to address their needs and make informed decisions,” read one of her slides.

Rhynard-Geil urged webinar participants to “be user driven” rather than “distracted by the tech” and talked about how the partners behind Signpost take a human-centered design approach.

2. Ask what platforms allow for scale

“Go where people’s attention is,” said Watson, senior director for platforms and services at DIAL, an initiative to advance digital inclusion globally hosted at the United Nations Foundation.

That was one of several pieces of advice he offered NGOs considering how to leverage messaging apps for their work. For many NGOs, going where people are means using Facebook, given the reach of the Silicon Valley-based tech giant.

Rogers of the Praekelt Foundation, which designs and implements mobile technology solutions for women and girls, talked about the reason for a shift away from SMS — or texting — and USSD, which refers to messaging in an open session.

As the Praekelt Foundation explored third party integrations, it was drawn to WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, but offers encryption — unlike Facebook Messenger, she said.

Rogers explained that WhatsApp is accessible, secure due to end-to-end encryption, affordable because mobile network operators offer unlimited access at a low fee, and engaging since it allows for not just text but images, video, and audio.

She emphasized “the massive scale” of WhatsApp and its over 2 billion users as a reason the Praekelt Foundation now runs MomConnect, a program supporting maternal health in South Africa, on that platform.

3. Address privacy concerns

One webinar participant posed a question about steps being taken to address privacy and data concerns related to the use of messaging apps in international development.

“The weakest link in a system is generally people,” Rogers of Praekelet said.

She talked about the importance of processes and guidelines to reduce the risk of people creating issues, but acknowledged that one of the challenges is that funders are not very interested in supporting NGOs to put the necessary security measures in place.

DIAL’s Watson had five considerations for success in his presentation:

1. Go where the people’s attention is
2. Focus on user needs over implementer needs
3. Engage more users with multiple channels
4. Prioritize communications content and personnel
5. Partner for scale and technical expertise

At the end of the webinar, his final call to action included: “Do no harm.”

Watch the webinar for a full take on the opportunities and challenges of messaging apps for development.

About the author

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    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.