How messaging apps are changing the way people respond to humanitarian crises

Necessity is the mother of invention, but ingenuity can also come at a cost.

In drought-stricken Somaliland, a WhatsApp group called Daryeel, “Caring”, is directly connecting “donors” with affected relatives and their communities. Launched six months ago by a few individuals, the initiative weds the centuries-old Somali clan structure, rooted in community support, with the one of the most popular messaging apps in the 21st century so far. The result to date? 600 water trucks sent out, monthly food packages for 864 families across 39 villages, and a total of USD 255,000 donated by Somali diasporas from around the world. For the creators of Daryeel, WhatsApp made it possible for help to arrive directly, in real time. Now, other sub-clans are also using it as a model.

Messaging apps are perhaps the fastest growing digital communication phenomenon ever. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, WeChat, Telegram and LINE are becoming the primary mode of communication for hundreds of millions of people around the world, including people affected by natural disasters or caught up in armed conflicts. Over 2.5 billion people use a messaging app today. By 2018, that figure that is expected to reach some 3.6 billion – almost half of the world’s population.

While most of us simply use messaging apps to stay in touch with family and friends, share pictures, and arrange social plans, others, like in the story from Somalia, use them to better organize and respond to crises.

Humanitarian organisations are also experimenting (or have been forced to experiment) with messaging apps, as people expect and demand interaction through those channels. When security and access are precarious, information may be the only thing people may receive from humanitarian organisations.

Addressing a ‘doctrine gap’

As smartphone ownership increases, and data plans decrease in cost, it becomes clear that messaging apps are here to stay.

The opportunities and risks presented by messaging apps’ current and potential humanitarian uses were most recently summarized in the ICRC’s January 2017 report, Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps: Understanding the opportunities and risks for humanitarian action.

The report, jointly produced with The Engine Room and Block Party, showcased messaging apps’ key role in sharing vital information, documenting events, or combating misinformation during crises. It also highlighted an important number of concerns around security, data protection, privacy and consent. Messaging apps also introduce issues around old inequalities, and create new ones in the form of digital, age and gender divides.

As a follow up, the ICRC is starting a new research project with Privacy International. The project will further explore the risks associated with metadata generated by humanitarian organisations. Metadata, or data that describes other data, can include the date and time at which messages or files were sent, the user’s location, or the identity of the person to whom the data was sent. If exploited by ill-intended third parties, this information could lead to individuals or groups being singled out or retaliated against because of the conversations and information they exchanged among themselves and/or with humanitarian organisations.

Due for public release in early 2018, the new ICRC-Privacy International report will specifically focus on how humanitarian organizations can develop responsible, effective and secure ways to use messaging apps in order to better meet people’s needs.

This is but one step towards developing more sector-wide frameworks for the use of messaging apps. To date, the humanitarian sector has yet to agree on set codes of conduct, standards or ethical frameworks for deploying messaging apps. With its new research project, the ICRC aims to partially address this “doctrine gap”, and promote a responsible use of messaging apps that prevents us from doing any digital harm.

Mike PalmerComment