How Messaging Apps Can Support Disaster Response

Humanitarian Futures for Messaging AppsBy 2018, half of the world’s population is expected to be using messaging apps. That means every second person on earth – including infants and the elderly – will be using WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Snapchat, Skype, Signal, Telegram or one of the many other competitors.

The response to the Syrian refugee crisis has shown that these apps are an essential communications channel for many displaced people, but many humanitarian organizations, NGOs, UN agencies and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies don’t know how to integrate messaging apps into their response strategies.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), together with The Engine Room and Block Party have just released a report that seeks to fill this gap and provide interested organizations and aid workers with guidance.

Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps” includes examples showing how affected people and humanitarian organizations are using messaging apps in crisis situations. This being the ICRC, the report also looks at the risks related to privacy or data protection. The report concludes with a number of practical recommendations for anyone who is thinking about adding messaging apps to his or her communications mix.

Personally, I found the annex the most interesting, where the authors compare the features of 11 different messaging apps. Unfortunately, this is also the part that will become outdated extremely quickly, as competing apps copy successful features from each other. However, for the time being, this section is gold since it can literally save you hours of work comparing the different platforms.

The thing that I found most surprising is that most of the messaging applications offer no or only very limited broadcast features. WhatsApp, for example, limits the maximum number of participants on a broadcast list to 256, which is a fraction of what you need if you wanted to scale it to a camp settings. Setting up multiple broadcast lists seems to be the most common workaround, but that just seems way too labour intensive and clumsy. While the report lists some applications (e.g Signal and Telegram) that offer better broadcast functionality, these are among the ones that are not as widely used and in the end, you’ll have to work with what the local population is already using. In some cases this will mean that SMS is still a better way to reach large groups of people at once, but SMS programs come with their own set of issues, such as frequently changing phone numbers, the costs of sending SMS etc..

If you are interested in using WhatsApp or a different messaging app as part of your program, you can download “Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps” here.

What are your thoughts? Have you experience with using messaging apps in the field? Please leave your comments below!