By Gastón Gertner
Back in 2010, as an Argentine attending grad school in the United States, a close friend of mine introduced me to the free text-messaging service called WhatsApp. There was only a handful of us who used it on campus. Most of my American fellow students just used regular text messages, but for me, WhatsApp offered a free way of staying in touch with my friends and family back in Buenos Aires.
Almost six years later, WhatsApp has vastly expanded its reach, making it easier than ever to connect with people, especially in the developing world. It has been joined by other platforms such as Viber, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger.
According to the global web index, 86% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean’s have mobile phones. And the use of WhatsApp is the highest in the region with a user penetration of 66%.
However, the benefits of mobile technologies, such as texting apps, go beyond keeping us in touch with our loved ones. These platforms are becoming a useful tool for promoting development. The World Development Report 2016 on Digital Dividends reports that the use of mobile phones has increased employment and labor earnings in rural areas by connecting people to job opportunities. In addition, mobile access and chat applications are fostering productivity among program staff managing infrastructure projects.
From personal experience, I know that this trend has found its way into the world of development work. Over the last six months, during my follow-up visits to water and sanitation programs funded by the Inter-American Development Bank in rural communities in Bolivia, I have watched WhatsApp become the main coordination and communication tool among program staff.
Why has WhatsApp become so popular in the field? The answer is simple. WhatsApp transfers real-time data and information to program staff, helping them improve their performance while they are working in the field. Shared information among app users ranges from reporting the number of sanitation interventions in various sites to scheduling staff meetings and checking road access to remote areas for supervision activities.
What makes WhatsApp so useful in the field?
Based on my experience, WhatsApp facilitates our field work by allowing us to:
1. Easily coordinate activities: From scheduling meetings to apprising access to remote communities, program staff and project supervisors in social protection and water and sanitation programs can easily coordinate and exchange information through groups on WhatsApp.
2. Effectively request equipment: Centralized resource management covering rural areas requires effective channels to inform, request and update information on equipment replacement. Dry sanitation toilets under construction in rural communities depend on the delivery of materials to the site. For program staff, chat applications represent effective ways to place orders with detailed information on where and when they are needed.
3. Schedule interventions and payments: Home visit interventions are becoming more frequent among Early Childhood Development programs serving remote areas. Trained community agents pay scheduled visits to households in order to work together with children and parents on cognitive and other forms of stimulation to improve child development. Communication among staff from different municipalities is channeled through WhatsApp groups that inform on dates and location for monthly payments for staff.
4. Check the progress of a program: Coverage indicators on access to improved sanitation and safe water programs are monitored frequently. Staff need to report progress on toilet construction in communities to their regional supervisors. Survey apps do a good job of tracking these indicators. However, when in doubt, supervisors often double check information via chat applications.
Some drawbacks of WhatsApp in the field
Despite the various advantages of mobile technology in the management of infrastructure projects and social services delivery, there are also a few drawbacks. I have identified a few red flags that that might backfire on us and may result in detrimental consequences for program sustainability and could put financial resources at risk. When using mobile technology such as WhatsApp in the field, we need to keep these aspects in mind:
1. Are we getting too close? Frequent iterations among co-workers create a (false) sense of proximity. Too much personal information or media sharing on non-work related topics can distort the original goal of chat groups.
Solution: Stick to work topics. Minimizing personal information is key.
2. Are we sharing too much? A single group chat might have too much information. Mixed messages and breaking the line of the current topic of conversation may create a disorganized flow of information for program staff that may lead to unnecessary mistakes.
Solution: Keep it short and clear. Concise messages, clear ideas and proper use of concepts–especially when expressing technical issues. Since mistakes are often expensive in multi-site program implementations, clarity should always come first.
Solution: Using subject and topic organization. Using titles or even agreed hashtags to identify lines or topics of conversation can potentially structure the exchange of ideas and the flow of information.
3. Mind your tone! Communication via chat applications can often lead to misinterpretations. Chats allow everyone to express their own voice and this should be for the benefit of the group.
Solution: Keep a tone of respect. Users should always keep respect at the forefront.
4. Is this a fact or an opinion? Ambiguous answers to defined information requests on inputs, misuse of data on percentage of households with improved sanitation in a community and transferring unconfirmed information through chat groups can multiply into unintended consequences.. When in doubt, it is a good idea to re-think your message.
Solution: Refrain from sending inaccurate information. Users should express documented information when addressing their managers or peers. Objectivity and accurate figures are an important part of the line of work we are involved in. Data errors coming from unchecked sources can multiply quickly. It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer and ask for more time to confirm the information. It’s always a good idea to double-check the information we share.
Technology and mobile devices are here to stay—at least for the near future–; that’s a fact. Our work in development can benefit from the use of flexible, effective and fast channels of communication. However, to make the most of it, to create an important difference in the monitoring of our projects in the field and to ensure greater development effectiveness, we need to acknowledge proper and responsible use of these technologies.
About the author
Gaston Gertner is an impact evaluation consultant at the IDB’s Office of Strategic Planning and Development Effectiveness.