The rise of mobile messaging apps offers a whole new way to share public health information. Damian Radcliffe explores how the BBC’s Global News division is tapping into this trend to support their coverage of emergencies.
“Fish where the fishes are.”
That’s the maxim of Trushar Barot, who looks after the BBC’s non-UK mobile services. As Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service and Global News services, his extensive portfolio includes mobile content for the BBC World Service’s English and 27 other language services, as well as the bbc.com website and BBC World News Television Channel.
In the past eighteen months he’s also led a series of innovations which have seen the broadcaster experiment with third party messenger and chat apps in order to engage audiences in new ways. This includes pilots on WhatsApp and WeChat during the 2014 India elections, alongside the launch of the BBC’s Line Account. Part of the new mobile messaging phenomenon, it is estimated that at the beginning of October 2014, the Japanese chat app had 560 million users worldwide, up from 400 million users in April 2014. This new BBC service, on a platform which is especially popular in Asia, launched in September 2014 and now has close to 1 million subscribers.
But it’s in the digital health space where some of his more high profile interventions can be seen.
Using WhatsApp to share public health information
Building off the back of his experience using WhatsApp to cover Indian politics, Barot was instrumental in the BBC’s provision of essential health advice about Ebola for audiences in West Africa last year.
Globally, WhatsApp is home to more than 800 million monthly active users, but with no publisher platform it’s not an easy service to use on a large scale. Nonetheless, its popularity means that it is a service the BBC needs to consider, especially for the right project.
“Following the [Ebola] outbreak,” Barot explains, “the BBC World Service - as part of its public service health remit - really wanted to push public health info to as many people in West Africa as possible.”
In the first instance, their approach to this was quite traditional, producing daily half hour radio bulletins featuring factual information about Ebola, including prevention tips, advice on managing cases and other useful information.
But, as Barot tells us, the former Director of BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks, also wanted to push this offering straight onto mobile phones.
“We thought about developing an app,” he says, “but realised that would take too long to develop. And even if you create a fantastic app, how do you get people to download it?”
This consideration was especially pertinent given that mobile services, in many of the countries affected by the Ebola outbreak, can be amongst some of the least affordable in the world.
However, as Barot notes, “we know that lots of people in West Africa - if they have a basic smartphone - they almost certainly have WhatsApp on it. So here’s a potential app which people have on their phones.”
Tapping into this existing market was a key driver for their Ebola information service, which has had 22,000 subscribers, the majority of whom are in West Africa.
That service is due to end soon, but is seen by Barot and others as a huge success, with the highest levels of subscriptions being seen in Sierra Leone – one the countries most affected by the crisis.
“In addition to those subscribers, we also know that many people are forwarding this content on to their friends on WhatsApp,” he tells us.
One of the challenges from this behaviour, as well as the platform more generally, however, “is that you can’t get any of that data or analytics to understand what reach you have got.” This may pose a problem for some funders and organisations, but, “anecdotally,” Barot says, “we know it is reaching a lot more people,” with the service potentially offering a replicable model for others in this space.
Emergency information disseminated in Nepal via Viber
The BBC’s early experience using fast-growing mobile messaging applications subsequently stood them in good stead following a series of earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year.
“We knew we need[ed] to do something to get public health and public safety information out to as many people as possible,” Barot says. This time, they offered emergency information – via Viber - for people caught up in these natural disasters.
“The reason we did that,” he explains, “was because Viber has a publisher platform which makes the process of publishing this information much easier than is the case with WhatsApp, so resourcing wise it is much more manageable.”
Alongside this, the BBC also knew that Viber has a big penetration in Nepal, “so we knew that we would get a reasonable opportunity to reach people inside the app.”
Having previously navigated the complexities of establishing such services on a third party service (which for a body like the BBC includes talking to the Corporation’s Editorial Policy, Fair Trading, legal and management teams), Barot was able to move quickly with this new emergency effort.
“We partnered with them [Viber] and what’s interesting is that from conception to launch took 36 hours.” It was, he concedes, “...by some distance the quickest time of a digital launch of any BBC News product.”
Offering content in both Nepali and English, the service had over 11,000 subscribers in its first three weeks alone.
“The benefit of going through those experiments [over the] last year,” Barot says, is that “the decision making process has been much quicker. Contacts are in place and I’m much more familiar with how to make it happen.”
Beyond this, he remains keen to continue to experiment and innovate, not least because these services are continuing to grow rapidly all around the world.
“One of my ambitions is to get as many of our audiences to have the BBC in their WhatsApp address book,” Barot tells us.
As he sees it, the popular messaging service has huge potential as a two-way communication channel. For broadcasters like the BBC, this means extending usage of these apps beyond simply using them as a tool for distributing messages; to harnessing their information-gathering potential.
“The day when the second big quake struck we did a live blog on our website and about 70% of the content on that blog came from our WhatsApp account,” he says. This content included “people’s personal experiences, images and short video clips.”
This valuable material, sent in by real people using an app that they were already familiar with was “hugely significant” Barot argues.
Given the nascent nature of these messaging apps, this often requires very new ways of working. For larger organisations, that can often be quite challenging, especially as the processes and performance indicators in place to measure the impact of these service can often be quite embryonic.
Nonetheless, as the BBC has found, embracing these new digital communication tools can reap considerable rewards. For a news organisation like the BBC, these platforms have already shown themselves to be hugely beneficial for both information dissemination and newsgathering purposes. “It was massively useful during the Nepal earthquake,” Barot says, “where we punted out a [WhatsApp] number on TV, Radio and Social Media and we got really valuable content coming in from Nepalese people.”
Given this impact, we can no doubt expect to see more of these types of services being used by the BBC and other interested parties – from broadcasters to NGOs - in the future. For digital health providers they offer new potential routes to people who need vital information, complementing existing services like SMS, or offering new ways to deliver vital messages. As a result, we can expect to see a lot more innovation and experimentation in this arena in the coming months and years.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.