Founder & CEO, Atmaconnect
Fellow project website: www.atmaconnect.org
While some social media can deplete social capital and cohesion, Meena Palaniappan created a trusted peer-to-peer social network that builds them up, amplifying local voices and agency. Her digital platform AtmaGo connects and empowers millions of people in vulnerable communities in Indonesia and elsewhere to be changemakers. Community members use it to help each other anticipate and respond to emergencies, share real-time information and solutions for community needs, advocate for better government services, and build community resilience from within.
THE NEW IDEA
What outsiders may think of as “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” or “disaster-prone” communities in need of humanitarian relief actually have their own inherent powers of resourcefulness, confidence, resilience, and changemaking, which Meena’s digital peer-to-peer platform AtmaGo unlocks.
It takes advantage of increasing mobile phone penetration in previously underserved communities across Indonesia and elsewhere. It also draws on the Indonesian cultural value of gotong royong (“mutual support” or “people helping people”). Shaped by user-generated posts, the platform connects and empowers community members to help each other anticipate and respond to emergencies, solve local problems, and become effective change agents.
AtmaGo provides an early warning system for emergencies proven to save lives and property and to result in accurate, efficient decision-making when disaster strikes. Users share information on evacuation routes, where to find food, water, and healthcare after a disaster, and much else.
Beyond disaster relief and recovery, AtmaGo serves as a user-driven platform for solving local problems, rewarding and aggregating the positive social and environmental impacts users create themselves. It also helps service providers be more effective. Posting complaints or flagging needs on AtmaGo prompts local government officials and NGOs to act fast to resolve them.
I look at AtmaGo weekly to see what challenges I need to address. Atma Go is building the movement of mutual support, a pillar of democracy. - Alamsyah Saragin, Ombudsman of Republic of Indonesia
Atma also has a face-to-face community empowerment dimension. It organizes in-person training in digital literacy and citizen journalism skills which connect and amplify previously unheard voices, and it identifies and supports emerging local leaders. For example, women have been speaking up in citizen journalism training to share their knowledge—one of the most unique results of this community empowerment dimension. 54% of the application’s users are now women, who are up to 14 times likelier than men to die in a disaster.
AtmaGo gives users early warnings for fires, floods, and crime, so they have time to prepare and take shelter, while also offering advice and solutions about jobs, education, and health. Besides giving notices, AtmaGo also provides advice on what people should prepare to anticipate a disaster, such as clothing, basic food and healthcare supplies, and clean water. Users’ posts will also be responded to by local governments and NGOs. - THE JAKARTA POST
Meena founded AtmaConnect as part of her lifelong mission to give voice to the voiceless and make the invisible visible. But AtmaGo and Atma community empowerment programs are more than a megaphone. They’re a smart changemaker toolkit that keeps evolving as users engage it, tapping and honing communities’ ability not only to survive and recover from disasters but to make and lead positive change. For example, Pak Abdul Razaq, a 49-year-old community leader in Yogyakarta City, realized that the poverty in his neighborhood was the root of his community’s poor health and was worsening any number of other social problems. As a local speaking to the people’s interests, one of Razaq’s posts about the local women’s farmer group drew visitors to the village to learn. Razaq explains, “I believe my posts have been inspiring others to improve their own neighborhood conditions, encouraging my people to do more good things, providing transparency on the local governance, and serving as village documentation for better knowledge management.”
Natural disasters have increased tenfold globally since the 1960s, and their pace and scale are accelerating with climate change. This is true everywhere, though worse in some countries than others. Indonesia is especially subject to increasing floods, droughts, landslides, and tsunamis, as well as non-climate-related disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The need for better emergency preparedness is acute and growing along with the risks.
When disasters strike, people need emergency notifications and timely information from trusted sources. As mobile phones and internet services become widely available, technology is an increasingly important resource for managing disasters and improving outcomes. Digital emergency warning systems can save lives and protect property.
After a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit in Sulawesi, Indonesia on September 28, 2018 causing more than 1,700 deaths and displacing over 700,000 people from their homes, local residents turned to their mobile phones and AtmaGo to alert and support friends, family and neighbors. Thousands saw posts on how to get food, water and healthcare. - FORBES
But in Indonesia as in other countries, technology’s spread isn’t always positive or equitable. Digital emergency warning systems are less accessible to those who need them most: underserved communities and vulnerable populations – – women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and some ethnic minorities. In- Indonesia’s increasing mobile phone penetration and internet connectivity are often exploited by developers in untrustworthy ways – – extracting and selling user data, flooding social media with advertisements and negative content. Online hoaxes abound. When Indonesia’s 2019 election results sparked rioting, fake news was rampant, and the Indonesian government restricted social media access. Globally, online misinformation and disinformation pose threats to democracy and human progress.
Disaster survival and recovery rates are higher where social cohesion is stronger, and neighbors work together. Digital tools have the potential to enhance social cohesion. But systems users can’t access equitably and online content they can’t trust alienates them.
Meena uses technology to amplify social connection rather than social division. She built a trusted, pro-social, human-centered platform that offers an antidote to existing social media, and weaves and strengthens the social fabric of vulnerable communities, making them less vulnerable.
AtmaGo is a free, low-bandwidth, mobile-friendly web- site and mobile app for Android phones that sends users emergency alerts to help them prepare for disasters, and real-time information that helps them recover effectively. Last year, it sent out 338 flood alerts and 365 earthquake alerts.
An independent research study found that people took early action in response to AtmaGo warnings—evacuating, moving valuables, warning others, etc. These actions save lives and health and avoid property loss. Aggregated per million users, the study estimated each year AtmaGo can reduce mortality and morbidity by 6,000 years of a healthy life, cut healthcare costs by up to $4.6 million, and avoid property losses of over $100 million.
67 percent of users surveyed said AtmaGo helped them improve their disaster preparedness, with the greatest impacts reported in more disaster-prone areas (Palu, Lombok, and Yogyakarta). The study showed it helped affected communities make decisions accurately and efficiently when disasters hit, enabling them to take collective action and spread local solutions to their neighborhoods quickly. During the 2015 flooding in Jakarta, people used the app to share safe routes through the city, locate government shelters, and point out signs of waterborne diseases to watch for in children. After the 2018 earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, residents used AtmaGo to find food, water, and healthcare. The government also uses the platform to anticipate local needs after a disaster.
“AtmaGo helps me know what issues people are facing, and what will be soon reported to my office,” said Alamsyah Saragih, Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia.
When the pandemic hit, AtmaGo launched a new microsite sharing verified COVID-19 information, raising awareness, assessing community needs, locating re- sources like vaccination sites, offering free mental health telecounseling, and promoting behavioral changes like social distancing. 85% of the site’s users reported shifting their behavior.
AtmaConnect is a non-profit organization that focuses on community development through the use of IT.
In March 2020, as Covid-19 entered Indonesia, Atma developed covid19.atmago.com, an AtmaGo derivative platform that functions as an integrated Beyond emergency response and recovery, AtmaGo enables users to generate and share posts reporting local problems, discussing home-grown solutions, announcing events, and finding jobs (some 4000 job listings were posted to the app last year). Users can comment on the posts and flag them, and vote them up or down. These posts are hyper-locally targeted, and organized by city, district, and neighborhood, so when they log on users see posts from their neighbors that concern them directly.
79 percent of those surveyed say AtmaGo helped them connect with their community. The app holds contests and uses profiles of local leaders, success stories, and gamification to engage more users and reward the positive social and environmental impacts they create. Through its ruang komunitas (“community rooms”) feature, users document, share and aggregate their impacts, for example collecting garbage, empowering local women to build small businesses, or organizing the planting of mangrove trees to prevent flooding from sea level rise.
“What we have heard from community leaders is that they need a way to document their impact, inspire and learn from others, and get more support from their own community, the government, and the resources to grow their work,” explains Meena.
In March 2020, as Covid-19 entered Indonesia, Atma developed covid19.atmago.com, an AtmaGo derivative platform that functions as an integrated information and service platform related for Covid-19, which also provides support for secondary economic and mental health impact recovery. - TIMES INDONESIA
With the “community rooms” feature, users can form or join a community in which they can then conduct discussions and share activities. The feature also enables users to develop a community portfolio, with which they can recruit volunteers, set measurable goals, and document actions.
Further development looks towards enabling communities to monitor their work through data and analytics, to measure their achievement against a goal, and to inter- connect between Indonesia and Puerto Rico, transforming 18,940 kilometers into an immediate connection.
In addition to the AtmaGo digital platform, AtmaConnect offers non-virtual community empowerment programs, including in-person training in digital literacy and citizen journalism. These are skills that connect and amplify previously unheard voices, and women make up the majority of trainees. Atma identifies, networks, and supports emerging local leaders known as Resilience Ambassadors, who volunteer to run their own workshops and events and monitor platform postings in their area for commercial ads, hoaxes, and other non-beneficial content.
Founded in Indonesia in 2015 and launched in Puerto Rico in 2019, AtmaGo has reached and benefited 9 million people in over 100 communities so far. Meena is working to scale it up globally with funders and collaborators to further develop and scale the platform, including Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Qualcomm Wireless Reach, Cisco Foundation, Vodafone Americas Foundation, and Hilton Foundation.
For Meena, scaling up is part of a conscious strategy to build a global changemaker movement. As the pace of change accelerates everywhere, changemaking is a critical skill for everyone in the 21st century, including in communities considered vulnerable or marginalized. Working to scale AtmaGo “supports the agility and creativity of citizens and reinforces the value of gotong royong [people helping people],” says Meena, “to build a citizen movement to help residents prepare to face and bounce back from disasters, and rebuild their communities.” Her goal is to expand AtmaGo over the next five years, from millions of users to billions globally, as a way to build changemaking capacity in vulnerable communities everywhere, so they are strong, resilient, and able to thrive in an everyone-a-changemaker world.
Atma is just the beginning of protecting vulnerable communities through a fundamentally different approach. AtmaGo allows users to read, write, and comment on posts in four categories: Reporting problems, discussing solutions, finding jobs, and sharing events. - THE WORLD
Meena was born and raised in India before moving to the United States. As a girl, she felt motivated to champion and amplify those whose voices weren’t being heard. She saw how environmental impacts disproportionately affected vulnerable populations and witnessed the suffering of farm animals. In high school, she started an environmental club and an animal rights club and recruited her friends and teachers to take part.
Growing up she was keenly aware of children and adults in India dying from poor water quality. When she at- tended Northwestern University, she chose to study environmental engineering to find solutions. The field was male-dominated; she was often the only woman in her classes, which fueled her determination to empower women and amplify unheard voices.
She went on to take a Master of Science degree in Energy and Resources from the University of California at Berkley. She taught in underserved communities through Teach for America and worked for more than a decade on environmental justice issues and sustainable community development with major CSOs.
For the Environmental Defense Fund, she co-authored EDF’s Environmental Sustainability Kit, which gives citizen environmentalists advice on how to start projects, engage diverse stakeholders, and advocate for policy change.
For the Pacific Institute, she worked on water and sanitation issues in Africa, India, and Indonesia. She initiated the Water SMS program in Indonesia, which used mobile phones to track and improve urban water services. It enabled transparent digital communications between residential water users, local governments, and water utilities, and the informal water sector, empowering users, especially poor urban residents, to advocate for better service.
That experience demonstrated the potential of digital technology to empower and amplify unheard voices to make a change and led Meena to found AtmaConnect. The first iteration of her platform allowed users to share information about water prices in Jakarta with neighbors to create transparency. It quickly evolved to share information on chronic flooding and other emergencies in and around Jakarta. From there, Meena and her team worked to understand social problems in vulnerable communities and iterated the platform using a human-centered design approach to enable community members to solve them.