Publications, reports, and articles.

Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps (2017)

Posted on:
May 24, 2020

What is this research about?

This report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) discusses the implications of adding messaging apps to the range of communications channels currently used by humanitarian organizations, which includes face-to-face communication, print materials, SMS messaging, social media, radio and television. The report does not include detailed discussions of the uses or functionalities of these other channels, which have been discussed and researched extensively elsewhere (particularly in the context of natural disasters).

This report is intended as a first step towards understanding how messaging apps are used in the humanitarian sector, particularly in conflict situations. It also aims to clarify the opportunities and challenges this technology presents and identify avenues for future research and action.

What do you need to know?

The questions raised in this study very much overlap questions we need to be asking about, including creating the strategies and standards for use of messaging apps and technology more broadly in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector.

As smartphone ownership and messaging-app usage continues to rise, it is clear that messaging apps are here to stay. However, humanitarian organizations have so far only conducted limited research into where and how messaging apps could help improve their work. Using messaging apps also introduces critically important questions about security, data protection and privacy, and creates technical challenges for information management and data analytics.

These unresolved questions must be resolved. The practical uses of messaging apps as an operational tool, both for two-way communication with local communities, and for internal coordination, information-sharing and management, offer an opportunity, but one that must be well harnessed.

What did the researchers do?

This report is based on a survey of relevant literature, interviews with staff working in humanitarian organizations (including technology specialists, logistics officers and field workers), representatives of messaging app companies, and organizations that focus on providing technology for humanitarian organizations.

Interviewees were identified through the authors’ and advisory groups’ networks, and through responses to an open call publicized on mailing lists and through social media. In total, researchers spoke with more than 45 people working in Asia, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

What did the researchers find?

Humanitarian organizations need to better understand how to make use of the opportunities that messaging apps offer. To do so, they should establish strategies and standards to determine where messaging apps might be appropriate, how to use them effectively and how to meet the responsible data challenges they pose.

The researchers offer a number of recommendations from:

  • useful guiding principles organizations should follow - understand your users, locally, whenever you interact with them - systematically include questions on access to and use of mobile telephony into intake and needs assessments. Deploying messaging apps may be the easy part - building trust with communities is much harder.
  • privacy, security, and data protection - Prioritize individuals’ privacy and security when choosing a messaging app; Ensure that your organization has and complies with a data protection or responsible data policy.
  • implementation - Messaging apps can introduce large quantities of data from many different sources. Consider how your organization will manage and respond to the information it receives.
  • collaborating with partners - Work with local media to tailor messages and promote humanitarian services. In our sector, this should include community/ethnic media, and communities themselves who manage messaging app groups and networks.

How can you use this research?

Review the principles and incorporate them into your work. International humanitarian organizations' work overlaps with immigrant and refugee-serving organizations. In some cases, you will actually serve the same people (refugees) in different contexts. The principles and practices outlined in this document are useful for all in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector.

The authors provide useful information about how organizations are using messaging apps in their work. They also outline the challenges and risks.

Usefully, they also provide an appendix examining features offered by ten messaging apps: Facebook Messenger, imo, LINE, Skype, Snapchat, Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp, Signal and FireChat.

Summary

This report discusses the implications of adding messaging apps to the range of communications channels currently used by humanitarian organizations, which includes face-to-face communication, print materials, SMS messaging, social media, radio and television.
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