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Are Messaging Apps and Emoji-Driven M&E a Game-Changing Innovation?

By Jacob Korenblum on January 16, 2017

Ten years ago, very few people mentioned cell phones and M&E in the same sentence. Phones were for phone calls, or for texting friends; monitoring surveys were done on paper. End of story. Whenever we at Souktel pitched the concept of cell phone-based M&E, the response–to put it mildly–was lukewarm. Collecting data through a handset was dismissed as unwieldy, unsafe, or just weird.

Fast-forward a decade, and mobile devices are central to many of our M&E processes. We can choose from dozens of solutions that help us gather information via SMS, audio, or mobile web. Now, the debate is shifting from “Should we use mobile for M&E?” to “What about smartphones? And WhatsApp? And Emojis?”

Yes, you heard right: Emojis for M&E. As the cost of smartphones keeps dropping, and as the growth of messaging apps like WhatsApp continues to skyrocket across Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the range of possibilities for phone-based M&E is becoming more diverse—and more complex—very quickly.

The Case For Messaging Apps

Are messaging apps potential game-changers for M&E? We think so. In a talk at this month’s MERLTech conference, I outlined the key reasons why.

  • Messaging apps are cheaper. In many cases, a major barrier to running SMS or audio surveys is cost: Someone—either communities or project implementers—needs to pay for all those messages or minutes. In contrast, messaging apps consume data–but typically at much cheaper rates in many regions. Recent research from South Africa (while not necessarily representative of all countries) highlights the cost savings related to using WhatsApp for messaging and voice calls.
  • Messaging apps offer a wider range of M&E options, bundled together. Most messaging apps let users send and receive audio files, images, and video within a single chat thread. On handsets with touch screens, the apps let users press on-screen buttons to choose survey options—or use emojis to give feedback. And they let users share their location instantly, without cycling through menus. All of this adds up to faster, easier, and more inclusive data collection with a lower likelihood of user error. Even more exciting is the potential to send payments via messaging app—a feature which Facebook has just rolled out in the US, and which may grow into other locations.
  • Messaging apps are already the main communication platform in many countries. In Kenya, half of all mobile subscribers use WhatsApp as their key messaging tool. In the first quarter of 2016 alone, SMS traffic in Kenya dropped by 20%, compared with the last quarter of 2015. In the Philippines, formerly the “world leader in per capita SMS usage,” the country’s largest mobile network reported a 50% decrease in SMS revenue from 2014 – 2015, as mobile users switched to data plans and messaging apps en masse.

The Case Against Messaging Apps

Yet even as apps like Facebook Messenger, Viber, and Line continue to grow rapidly, they may not always be the best fit for M&E processes:

  • They exclude non-smartphone owners. Mobile industry association GSMA projects that close to 60% of Africans will own a smartphone in 3 years’ time, as device costs continue to drop. Astute M&E experts will note that, consequently, about 40% of Africans will not have data-enabled devices that support messaging apps. A key segment of the communities we serve won’t be WhatsApp users next year, or the year after.
  • They need mobile broadband coverage. Owning a smartphone is just one piece of the puzzle; messaging apps also rely on mobile data to send content back and forth. These apps work passably on 2G networks–but in locations where there’s no data coverage, Line or WhatsApp hit a wall.
  • They use up more battery life. Messaging apps like Facebook Messenger or Viber tend to suck battery life out of handsets. In places where power cuts are frequent, or where access to power is limited in the first place, that’s a non-starter.

The Verdict? It Depends

Messaging apps are a perfect fit for some M&E contexts, but less so for others—especially where smartphone and data access is low. In many cases, a hybrid approach may be best: Reaching some communities via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, others via voice call, and others by standard text message.

At Souktel, we’re rolling out hybrid M&E and content delivery solutions which do just that: They offer a range of options for simultaneous data collection—via messaging app, SMS, and/or audio—in a single interface.

In 10 years from now, we’ll likely look back on the discussion about “WhatsApp for M&E” with a smile—the same way we grin when thinking back to our 2006, and the hot debate about whether to use cell phones for data collection. Once again, it’s an exciting time of change.

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Written by
Jacob Korenblum is CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions, a developer of custom mobile data solutions for the aid and development sectors.
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3 Comments to “Are Messaging Apps and Emoji-Driven M&E a Game-Changing Innovation?”

  1. I read something recently about the value of empathy in app development. Too often we don’t put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and set unrealistic expectations. Short messages with emojis or pictures can be really effective, and if they’re done on a regular basis could paint a larger picture of what is happening in any project. Thanks for the article –

  2. Nick says:

    Awesome! Emojis and acronyms forever!

  3. Tom Walker says:

    If you’re interested in learning more about this, The Engine Room, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Block Party have just launched an in-depth report that looks at a lot of these questions in relation to humanitarian work: https://engn.it/appsreport. It includes input from lots of people, including Jacob.