Atma Connect gets people to safety fast with text-based disaster warnings

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Massive floods are common during Indonesia’s monsoon season. Houses and roads are often inundated with floodwaters, and extreme weather sometimes displaces thousands of residents and causes dozens of fatalities each year. Government early warning systems exist but are unreliable, rarely reaching those living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. However, most Indonesians have a mobile phone, making SMS communication a natural fit for critical communications in the region. Realizing this, Atma Connect turned to text-based communications to deliver locally relevant alerts to its users.

The organization’s flagship tool is AtmaGo, a web- and Android-based social networking app designed to foster neighbor-to-neighbor communication in traditionally underserved urban communities. Users have taken to AtmaGo to share real-time information about floods and other disasters, help community members find jobs, keep others informed about food prices and availability, and drive communications to local politicians about local residents’ interests.

 

Meeting urgent communication needs with SMS

Having worked in international development for many years, Atma Connect Founder and CEO Meena Palaniappan saw how quickly mobile phones were transforming the landscape in developing countries. “People without access to water, shelter, or jobs often had mobile phones,” she says, enabling communications to play a powerful role in community development.

But most mobile development projects either collected information from people or told them what to do. In developing AtmaGo, Meena and her team wanted peer-to-peer communications to reflect the interests and needs of local communities by enabling them to create their own social network experience. “We’re trying to put people in the driver’s seat of their own development,” Meena explains.

The Atma team uses Twilio Programmable SMS to help meet its more urgent communication needs. Instead of requiring users to visit the mobile web or Android app to learn about pending disasters or critical news, AtmaGo sends Twilio-powered text messages over local phone networks. This includes warnings direct from the PetaJakarta flood warning system through an arrangement with the local government.

The method is not only quicker, but more reliable, as phone service is more comprehensive than Internet connectivity in Jakarta. Plus, the system is capable of reaching people who are outside the reach of traditional government communication platforms.

“One of the big issues with early warning systems in Indonesia is they typically fail to reach the last mile, meaning the poorest and most vulnerable communities,” Meena explains. “Now when the government declares an early warning, our users receive this info almost immediately.”

Atma estimates that the app and its early warning system could reduce flood damage by $28 to $85 million per incidence in the Jakarta region alone.

 

Coming together for mutual aid

Launched in 2015, AtmoGo is expanding at a steady pace. The app has reached more than 260,000 unique users in Indonesia as of June 2017, and has grown more than 600% from 2015 to 2016.

What’s more, the app is winning widespread acclaim. Alamsyah Saragih, an Ombudsman for public services in Indonesia, called AtmaGo the manifestation of a core tenet of Indonesian society. “Our founding fathers envisioned a society based on gotong royong, where communities come together for mutual aid,” Alamsyah says. “AtmaGo is an important mass public space for us, because it offers a public way for us to share solutions and help each other.”

Jakarta businesswoman Fajar Inayati, whose office lost hundreds of millions of rupiahs (tens of thousands of U.S. dollars) in the 2015 floods, calls the app a valuable information resource. “AtmaGo helps us be aware of our neighborhoods, as we often don’t know what’s happening in the area,” she says. “On AtmaGo, we can read posts about what to do during rainy season.”

Twilio SMS played a big role in 2016 flood preparations. AtmaGo sent 42,741 Twilio-powered SMS alerts during the 2016 flooding season. AtmaGo helped 54,500 people stay on top of the latest flood news.

Meena says the text alerts are critical to reaching people fast. “Twilio allows us to break through the mobile phone environment,” she says. “You’re always going to get a notification on SMS. It gives us a way to immediately reach users.”

 

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