For advocacy groups, NGOs and activists, SMS has been the go-to solution for tech-assisted data collection and citizen reporting. With smartphones getting cheaper and more accessible, and data costs following the same route, chat apps like WhatsApp are being used for general communication more than ever.
This also means there is a potential for apps like WhatsApp to be used in outreach for advocacy or campaigning purposes. We wanted to share some of the things we’ve been learning as we explore the use of WhatsApp for our Matchbox partners.
Using WhatsApp for advocacy in Zimbabwe
The engine room recently completed a three-month partnership with Kubatana, an NGO based in Zimbabwe. Kubatana wanted to use its WhatsApp subscriber base (of around 6000) to collect data on water availability throughout the city and oversee the city of Harare’s implementation of water rehabilitation infrastructure projects. Kubatana sends weekly requests via WhatsApp asking for their neighborhood and the water availability for that week. The information collected would allow civil society to hold the city accountable for 24/7 water supply for Harare by the end of 2015.
WhatsApp has advantages in terms of data collection and cost. Mobile data costs are generally significantly lower than the cost of using SMS. WhatsApp adds a new dimension by not restricting the length of the message to the traditional limitations of 160 characters. Audio and video can now also be shared, which adds more detail and engagement to conversations.
What we helped build
We worked with Kubatana to find a way to easily process all of the information received in their WhatsApp conversations. Finding a way to pull data from WhatsApp into a more usable format is something that many organizations are currently struggling with. Someone often has to manually retype the information into a spreadsheet to aggregate and carry out analysis. For Kubatana, we helped build a workaround solution that included a web-based tool that would take an encrypted version of the WhatsApp database and import it into an online database, and then export it into an Excel file for more efficient analysis.
Other things to consider
One challenge we faced during this work with Kubatana was overcoming the fact that WhatsApp is proprietary. We were unable to build in new functionality directly into the app which resulted in the development of a workaround that could quickly break once the platform is updated.
Another consideration when exploring the use of WhatsApp for your initiative is the inherent insecurity of collecting and storing data on a mobile phone. WhatsApp uses an encryption protocol (though the strength of the implementation has been questioned), but an experienced hacker could figure out a way to intercept and decrypt messages with root access to the phone being used to send the messages. WhatsApp is also likely to have the capability to intercept communications.
As more people migrate from SMS to apps like WhatsApp, it’s important that advocacy organizations are able to keep up with these technology changes, and meet their your audience where they are. Just be sure to understand the challenges and risks that you might face along the way so that you can mitigate them as much as possible.
What’s your experience?
Are you using WhatsApp to collect or share information with your audience? What challenges did you face in implementing this tool? What solution did you find to move the data from WhatsApp to a spreadsheet? Please share any stories, examples, questions and advice in the comments below!