Messaging apps are the fastest growing digital communication phenomenon ever. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, WeChat, Telegram and LINE are becoming the primary mode of communication for hundreds of millions of people around the world, including people affected by natural disasters or caught up in armed conflicts.

Figures reported by messaging app companies as of November 2016.

Number of smartphone users globally

Research reports that as of spring 2015, 43% of adults worldwide owned smartphones. However, those numbers varied greatly from country to country, reaching rates as high as 88% in South Korea, and as low as 4% in Ethiopia and Uganda

Percentages based on total sample



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 are hampering discussions in humanitarian organizations about 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.

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.

What are people in crisis situations using messaging apps for?

The following section summarizes findings from available research on the use of messaging apps in situations of armed conflict or among refugees and migrants.

The tasks that messaging apps are used to perform are also likely to differ significantly depending on the situation – existing research has tended to focus on the Middle East, and its findings should not be applied to other geographic areas.

Refugees and migrants in transit

Research by the Danish Refugee Council has identified a typology of usages of digital communications technologies by people migrating to Europe. These include:

  • finding data on the intended country of destination (including legal information);
  • initiating contact with smugglers or brokers;
  • getting updated information on migration routes, particularly attempting to verify rumors; and
  • Accessing safety and rescue services while in transit.

Screenshots of the messages, location and pictures that 30-year old Syrian lawyer Mahmoud Alkuder sent to the Greek Coast Guard in October 2015 to alert them to his position when the vessel that he and some 60 other people were on ran out of fuel. The boat was rescued by the Coast Guard and towed to the nearby island of Lesbos.

Communications with the diaspora

In some regions, messaging apps seem to play a crucial role in making connections between diaspora members and individuals in their home country. Sacha Robehmed of REFUNITE, a non-profit organization with a platform that helps refugees and IDPs search for and reconnect with their families using their mobile phone, stated: “Syrian refugee populations are so connected that most don’t need a service like REFUNITE – they are already in contact with relatives dispersed globally, using WhatsApp, imo, Viber and Facebook.”

Natural disasters

In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, people use messaging apps for three purposes: to contact friends and family, access accurate information about the situation and express their most urgent needs. For example, the LINE app was created after the 2011 Japanese earthquake by employees of a company who wanted to communicate with family members while phone networks were unavailable.


Research by BBC Media Action found that during the Ebola crisis, people appreciated using messaging apps to hear “people like them” voice their concerns, as well as to access accurate information and ask questions about their situation. Separate BBC Media Action research found that many people set up small, private WhatsApp groups where they shared quotes from press releases and news briefings, updates on aid facilities throughout the country, and reports on incidents, and asked questions about their own situation.

In October 2014 the BBC launched an Ebola public health information service on WhatsApp to help people get the latest public health information to combat the spread of Ebola in the region.

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