Can WhatsApp be used for policy innovations in developing countries?

Source: When I was traveling through the gorgeous and remote Kerala Backwaters in India last year, I met a bright teenage entrepreneur named Amit, from the local fishing village. He owns three canoes, which he uses as taxis to transport locals and tourists from village to village. This story is as old as time, except for one thing: it was 2015, and his business depended entirely on the popular messaging app WhatsApp.

Amit uses WhatsApp to coordinate with his employees (other young men from his village), who operate his canoes in the area. He also pushes messages about canoe rates and locations to a growing list of customers (he believes he can find enough customers to invest in more canoes). Even as I finished my canoe ride, Amit made sure that we were connected -- just in case I had friends coming to the area. “Hey bro, make sure you add me on WhatsApp.” Always hustling.

WhatsApp, the most popular chat app in the world with over 900 million users, has especially flourished in developing countries around the world. Its diffusion through the developing world is nothing short of astounding, and there is a reason for its widespread adoption. In many developing nations, people can load different amounts of minutes and data on their cell phone SIM cards -- however much they can afford -- using cash. Whatsapp, a no frills messaging service, uses miniscule amounts of data to send and receive messages.

Earlier this year, the company decided to remove the $1 annual subscription fee and make WhatsApp a free service. In their statement, the company cited the problems with a paid service: “Many WhatsApp users don't have a debit or credit card number and they worried they'd lose access to their friends and family after their first year.”

WhatsApp has been used for innovative policy solutions in developing countries. One example is in New Delhi, India’s overpopulated and infrastructure-strained capital. As anyone who has visited the city can attest, traffic is anarchic, and nobody bothers to abide by any semblance of formal rules. In 2014, the overworked and understaffed Delhi Traffic Police launched a WhatsApp number for people to report traffic violations and vehicle breakdowns. Within six months, they received 85,000 complaints and acted on over 7,500 of them.

In 2015, the World Health Organization published a short article on social media usage in managing an influenza outbreak in Gujarat, India. A group of physicians worked with key stakeholders to manage the public health crisis using WhatsApp. They shared data on patient symptoms, treatment locations, and overall trends. By sharing information on WhatApp, the group was able to track the extent and scope of the outbreak. The group concluded that the event “demonstrated some evidence that data on social media could facilitate real-time surveillance of health issues and outbreak management.”

The underlying strengths of WhatsApp are its accessibility to the poor and its widespread usage in developing countries. As a result, we already see instances of policy innovations all over the world. From Amit’s Keralan fishing village to the bustling metropolis of New Delhi, WhatsApp is having a major impact on how the developing world communicates and coordinates.

Ankur Singh Chawla is a public policy graduate student at Duke University, with a focus on international development.

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