October 24, 2018 / 9:42 AM / 23 days ago

'Facebook for disasters' app helped Indonesian neighbors save lives - researchers

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A fledgling social media app that connects neighbors in disaster-prone communities across Indonesia has saved lives and reduced financial losses, researchers said on Wednesday.

Used by 1 million people in 78 locations across the archipelago, the AtmaGo app was launched by San Francisco-based non-profit Atma Connect in 2015.

Similar to a localized message board, users post information as disasters unfold, allowing community members to take immediate action.

“Ultimately, when disaster strikes, it is going to be you and your neighbors that are going to need to have the power to get through it,” said Meena Palaniappan, founder and CEO of Atma Connect.

The Jakarta-based Center for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG) surveyed more than 350 users and non-users in five flood-prone locations across Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

In 2015, Jakartans using the app shared photos of flooded streets, locations of shelters, and warnings about water-borne diseases.

About 30 percent of AtmaGo users who received flood warnings took preventative action, such as moving valuables, evacuating to a higher floor or warning neighbors, the survey found.

AtmaGo could reduce property damage during a disaster by $324 per household per year for Jakarta residents, according to the survey.

Wirawan Agahari, a senior researcher at CIPG, said it is important to assess the effectiveness of apps like AtmaGo, as there has been little research into how such technology can improve peoples’ responses to disasters.

AtmaGo has also partnered with government agencies and humanitarian agencies, which can post advice for residents, said Palaniappan.

She said her company began service on the island of Lombok immediately after a July 29 earthquake, and on Sulawesi, which was hit by a quake and tsunami on Sept. 28.

“People are using it now to share information about where to get food and water, and gathering together,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The app can also be used for daily needs like finding work or reporting problems to the local authorities.

The app, which works on low-priced mobile phones, lists posts geographically so that users and government agencies can quickly find out what issues are facing communities.

Soon to be launched in Puerto Rico, the aim is to make the app available in every country in the world, according to Palaniappan.

“Our goal is to be bigger than Facebook,” she said. “We want to be Facebook for lower income communities that are vulnerable to disaster.”

(This story has been refilled to clarify name of organization in 5th paragraph)

Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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