WhatsApp pilot helps tsunami response

Working with WhatsApp in the aftermath of the tsunami to quickly collect needs and provide information to stay alive

Lely Djuhari

10 April 2019

Palu, Indonesia. When disasters strike, how quickly assistance reaches you can be the difference between life and death.

The Indonesian archipelago — the world’s fourth most populous country with 266 million people — is constantly at risk of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and tsunamis. Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, there is at least one major volcanic eruption or earthquake in the country every year.

On 28 September 2018, a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Central Sulawesi’s Palu. Over 2,000 people died in the provincial capital and the surrounding areas. By the end of October of last year more than 200,000 people had reportedly fled their homes.

Over 2,000 people died...and more than 200,000 people reportedly fled their homes.

Rido Saputra, 10 years old, stands in front of his home which was destroyed by a tsunami in Donggala Regency, Central Sulawesi.

As part of UNICEF’s work to support the Government of Indonesia’s response to the crisis, UNICEF piloted a new WhatsApp partnership on the digital platform U-Report.

U-Report has traditionally used text messages to crowdsource people’s opinions and participation to deliver impact on UNICEF and partner NGO programmes. UNICEF asks young people about issues that matter to them which then informs UNICEF’s daily work, but when a natural disaster happens, the platform has a dual use:

First, UNICEF, the Government and NGO partners can send short, simple, useful messages to thousands of people to keep them safe. In turn, the subscribers can reply, in real time, to tell the responders what they need to survive.

“U-Report is a virtual helping friend in an emergency,

...Now when disasters strike, we want to use U-Report to help people to know how to survive in the first 72 hours and beyond."

I Made Suwancita, UNICEF Indonesia Technology for Development Officer

Using Facebook Geoinsights UNICEF was able to confirm internet connectivity was still functioning in the affected area which opened up a new opportunity by working with WhatsApp in the aftermath of the tsunami to quickly collect needs and provide information to stay alive.

As of February 2019, U-Report Indonesia has over 90,000 users and has the potential to reach millions more. Just slightly over half of the users are female, 78% are teens.

Fatimah, 2 years old, sits on her mother's lap in the evacuation tent yard of the RRI office, East Lolu, Palu City, Central Sulawesi.

Just after the tsunami, UNICEF used Facebook ads, posters, and word-ofmouth promotion resulting in over 3,500 new people registering to U-Report via WhatsApp within 48 hours. Of that, 90 per cent of the people said they were affected by the disaster. Their top three needs were food (38 per cent); family safety (13 per cent); shelter (11 per cent) while clothes and other support were deemed lower.

Within a few more weeks the number reporting on their situation and accessing UNICEF advice on their situation swelled to 25,000 new U-Reporters. It was music to the ears of a local government social worker who said, “In one day I travel to a district to take feedback from communities on their needs and reach 20 households a day. With U-Report data my workload will decrease because of direct feedback of communities via WhatsApp – It’s amazing!”

U-Report was also instrumental in getting timely feedback about the support work being done. Upon receiving family and dignity kits, the affected people reported that bars of soap, packets of detergent, buckets and sanitary napkins were the most useful items, while nail clippers and whistles were not needed. We also learnt that while most of the kit arrived in good condition, 5 per cent of the toothbrushes and some of the flashlights were slightly damaged.

Children affected by the recent earthquake and resulting tsunami in Palu stand in front of a tent sheltering displaced people in the front yard of the Great Mosque of Palu, Central Sulawesi.

“I appreciate being asked what I need. It’s makes me feel good.”

For Nela Anggraini, a young teacher with a six-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl, any efforts to ask her how she felt enabled her to stop being a victim.

She said she was able to take back control of her life: “Before I felt powerless and helpless as no one asked me how I felt. I’ve never felt so out of control of my life than after the tsunami. I can’t reject this donation of clothes but it’s more important that I keep my toddlers safe and give them nutritious food,” she said. “I appreciate being asked what I need. It’s makes me feel good.”

For many the path back to recovery is a fraught one, but with the application of technology, people affected by the emergency can feel they are being listened to and get help along the way.



For more information contact: 

Valerie Crab

Programme Specialist Innovations