Meena Palaniappan

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Meena Palaniappan
United States
Elected in 2021

Meena Palaniappan, through the award-winning organization she started, Atma Connect, has created and launched an innovative platform enabling people in vulnerable communities to collaborate for disaster resilience and become changemakers. AtmaGo, a social network for neighbors helping neighbors, has reached over 7 million people in Indonesia and Puerto Rico. They use AtmaGo to share real-time information and solutions to better prepare for disasters, advocate for better government services, and prevent the next disaster by creating more resilient communities. An independent evaluation found that people took early action as a result of an early warning on AtmaGo; people evacuated, warned others, and moved valuables. At a scale of 1 million people, this added up to $106 million in avoided property damage and over 6,000 years of healthy life saved every year.  

Because of the pandemic, Meena Palaniappan was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Meena creates a community-based emergency responding platform that empowers vulnerable communities to be local changemakers.

The New Idea

Meena realized that the world has not focused enough on amplifying voices and unlocking the power in vulnerable communities to be resilient to disasters and emergencies. With the value of neighbors helping neighbors, Meena has the vision to create a world where people in neighbors’ communities can prepare for disasters, improve access to basic needs ad overcome chronic challenges by creating a platform that empowers them to be changemakers. Meena created a community-based emergency responding platform called AtmaGo that empowered people, especially the vulnerable communities to be local changemakers who respond early to emergencies, have the confidence and take the initiative to find collective local solutions to their local problems. For the first time, voiceless and neglected communities regained their voices and had space and resources to take control of their lives and to solve their problem.

Through several creative systems of incentives such as gamification, profiling community leaders, and holding contests, AtmaGo has successfully attracted 7 million people to collaborate, exchange know-how, and engage local governments to respond to their needs. In addition, AtmaGo also offered training on Citizen Journalism and Digital Literacy to increase the number of women community leaders who joined the online platform. The result, after nearly five years in Indonesia as the first country of impact, was the creation of a movement and the transformation of neglected millions of marginalized people into visible and proud changemakers who believed in their power and acted to change their own lives and change their communities.  Obsessed since her childhood with how voiceless people are perceived and perceive themselves as invisible, Meena through AtmaGo online platform allowed them to be seen, heard, and respected by their governments and other local communities as equal citizens. She believes passionately that every person is resourceful and ingenious, and that when we let the people who are the most affected and who are the least heard lead the way. They will lead the world to the more connected, equitable, resilient world we’ve been waiting for.

The platform has been expanded into other countries of impact such as Puerto Rico and Colombia. Globally, Meena aims to reach locations with similar characteristics to Indonesia (high mobile penetration and literacy with high crisis need). Through the AtmaGo platform, hundreds of marginalized communities in Indonesia and Puerto Rico solved problems of garbage, poor infrastructure, and also created together resilient plans to face floods and other emergencies. The platform feature is also expanded to enable users to find information about jobs, events, communities and discuss a broad range of topics as a community. It also allows people to report the social issue around them and get engaged with the local government to respond.  AtmaGo has reached hundreds of communities in 91 locations in Indonesia with over 600.000 peer-to-peer information exchanges that have been made on issues of water, flood, jobs, education, shelter, earthquake, crime and fires.

The impact of AtmaGo was shown in October 2018 when the organization launched the report conducted by the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG). The research aims to estimate the potential impact of AtmaGo in improving disaster preparedness and response in Indonesia. The report proved that 79% of users found AtmaGo helpful in connecting them with the community and 6.67% of respondents found AtmaGo helpful in assisting them to prepare for disasters. The impact was greatly shown in three disaster-prone area in Indonesia which are Palu, Lombok and Yogyakarta. The solution helped the community to make decisions accurately and efficiently when the disaster happened. The platform also enabled the community to have collective action and spread innovative solutions to their neighborhoods quickly. Apart from that, the local governments and government ombudsman found Meena’s idea is very helpful for mapping social issues including disaster risk mitigation in the region. To respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, AtmaConnect also launched a new feature in AtmaGo platform to raise awareness, provide psychological support and crowdfunding. After being successfully implemented in Indonesia, Meena has launched AtmaGo in Puerto Rico at the end of 2019 and aims to expand globally in the next five years. In the long run, Meena wants to increase the changemaking density and community cohesion to thrive in the 21st century.

The Problem

The disaster-prone countries in the world such as Indonesia, are regularly experiencing earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions, flooding, and drought, and other huge losses during and after the disasters, therefore, the is an urgent need to reduce the risk of disaster and improve the emergency preparedness in the country. People are most likely to survive and recover from disasters and emergencies because of good social cohesion and strong peer-to-peer communities, where people work with their neighbors toward shared support. When emergencies happen, people will need to get emergency notifications and critical information from the trusted sources to take any action to survive and help each other in need. Based on the analysis, technology particularly Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have been highlighted as one of the key resources to improve emergencies management and risk reduction due to the broad availability of mobile phones, internet access, and social media in the current era. Emergency warning system through ICT has been proven to save lives and protect property, but unfortunately, studies have shown that these systems rarely reach poor and vulnerable communities in the country, including women, children, disabilities, elderly persons, and certain members of ethnic minorities. Enabling the vulnerable communities to survive and support each other has received little attention in the risk reduction effort. Inadequate measures for the needs of vulnerable communities to act can lead to catastrophic consequences such as large death tolls.

On the other hand, the number of internet users is highly increasing in Indonesia due to the increasing affordability of smartphones and internet connectivity across Indonesia. Social media is highly used to allow them to continuously interact with family and friends, keep them up to date with the daily news and gain popularity.  However, the ease of sharing information becomes a double-edged knife for the community. With the massive growth of social media usage, ICT has been used for dominance, enrichment of the few and to gain advantage over others. The social media companies extract the data from these users and sell the data commercially. The current social media is also flooded by negative contents and advertising driven algorithm which led to consumerism. As a long-term impact, it promotes a new inequality, community disengagement, and social exclusion. Research showed that Indonesia is considered very vulnerable to online hoaxes. In 2019, following the electoral riots, the government partially restricted access to the most popular social media platforms to prevent and stop the spread of fake news.

Meena realized that the world has not focused enough on amplifying voices and building social cohesion and power among vulnerable communities to be resilient to disaster and emergencies to take collective action. With the value of neighbors helping neighbors, Meena has the vision to create a world where people in neighbors’ communities can prepare for disasters, improve access to basic needs ad overcome chronic challenges by connecting them online and offline.

The Strategy

AtmaGo is designed as an antidote to existing social media and used only for the good of all. With the combination of a community-based emergency responding platform and community empowerment program, Meena is changing the way neighbors interact and support each other, and how people use technology to be changemakers. Meena’s idea through AtmaGo is designed as a trusted, reliable, and local tool for particularly vulnerable communities especially women that can be used daily, hence people turn in when emergencies happen since people are more likely to survive in disasters and address vulnerabilities when they have good social cohesion. Meena envisions four massive changes to achieve disaster and emergency resilience among vulnerable people; shifting the power of people through hyper-localized social network, building on-ground movements, changing narratives through storytelling and sparking civic engagement to get everyone involved in social issue.

On the digital side, AtmaGo is launched as a free mobile-friendly website and mobile app for Android phones that allows people to read, write and comment posts in four categories: report problems, discuss solution, share events, and find job. Users in selected locations can receive emergency alerts to help them respond to and recover from floods and other disasters or emergency situations. The user-created posts are associated with a given city and even district or neighborhood and people can get access to real-time information about problems, solutions, and opportunities in their local area. People use AtmaGo to build social connectedness and mitigate crisis and disasters through early warnings, disaster and crisis mitigation, disaster and crisis preparedness, and disaster and crisis response and recovery. The system is now being used beyond disasters to enable local communities to connect through Ruang Komunitas (community room) and document, share and aggregate the impact that is collectively done by the communities on the ground. To respond to the current pandemic, AtmaGo recently launched the COVID-19 platform aiming for behavior change as a response to COVID-19 and build support community, collect need assessment, connect a thousand users, and used as a crowdfunding platform including promoting physical distancing effort. The platform also enables the user to get psychological support since domestic violence was reported to increase during pandemics.

On the ground level, Meena and the team implement a capacity-building program such as citizen journalism and digital literacy training for local communities especially women. Women’s participation in the platform has been increasing from 45% to 55% in the past year. Meena gives users both the tools and the skills to amplify their voices to ensure that users build trusted connections and see the real implementation of changes. The team engaged residents called Resilience Ambassadors who volunteer to organize workshops and events and monitor content in surrounding neighborhoods. It enables and rewards networking for purposes not for promotion or for tribalism. Apart from that, she is also introducing the roles of the local ambassador who can mobilize their community and monitor the content to prevent any hoax, advertisement, or non-beneficial content. The AtmaGo team also provides creative incentives such as gamification, profiling community leaders, and holding contests to engage more users and deepen their engagement. The team actively featured impact stories happen on the ground in the online platform to inspire more people to engage.

Meena and the team have partnered with Funders including Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Qualcomm Wireless Reach, Cisco Foundation, Vodafone Americas Foundation, Hilton Foundation, and others to implement projects. Government, international and local CSOs, and donors also showed enthusiasm to replicate her idea as indicated by our 30+ signed MOUs in the last five years. Meena’s work at AtmaConnect is inspired by the Indonesian idea of Gotong Royong (mutual support — neighbors working together to improve their communities) and eventually started first in Indonesia in 2015 and expanded to Puerto Rico in late 2019. Meena is currently aiming to replicate the model globally in the next few years. In every new location, Meena starts with human center design interviews that help to determine the feature and growth approach more suited to the community. They have conducted with refugees and host communities in humanitarian crises and will conduct ongoing HCD interviews in Colombia as they expand there.

The Person

Being born as the third daughter in her family made Meena feel invisible as well as realize the importance of bringing voiceless people to be heard. The feeling of being invisible drove Meena to sharpen her empathy and inspired her to make the invisible people become the changemaker. Born and raised in India, before she moved to the United States, Meena witnessed and experienced how environmental issues strongly affect the living of vulnerable communities including women, children, and minorities. Back when she was in high school, driven by her strong will to be a solution maker, she has orchestrated several changemaking experiences such as founded an environmental club to conduct research and increase student awareness on waste. She also founded the animal rights club after witnessing the suffers from animals on the farm. She was able to mobilize her teachers and friends in her school to take part in her clubs’ activities. All of these events come in line with her passion for the interaction of humans and nature. Later in her life, she saw how people, especially children, were dying as a result of poor water quality. She decided to study environmental engineering, to develop and spread solutions that would protect people and the planet.  Being the only girl in her class, made her realized that men are still disproportionately dominating many sectors, including in social sector.

After several experiences including participated in Teach for America and worked with several NGOs in India as a consultant in water issues, Meena started to see the connection between people and the environment and grew her passion for that intersection. She spent many years evaluating the potential facilities, asking people questions and advocated new regulations. Meena realized the importance of collecting evidence, documenting any information, and working with media to make invisible visible. Later on, she also wrote the Environment Sustainability Kit as the guideline for people to start their project, engage multi-stakeholders, change policy, and advocate government.

Meena worked for more than a decade on environmental justice in the United States and built her understanding of the inequality in the ecosystem. The people who benefit the least from the economic system are the ones who suffer the most from its side effects, and whose voices fail to be heard in the halls of decision-making. As the adage goes, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. This is when Meena recognized her second passion - empowering the most vulnerable people by recognizing their ingeniousness and amplifying their connections and power to create a better world. Later in her life, Meena realized that the technology-based solution is not enough if we don’t change the heart, mind and policies.

During her time in Pacific Institute, Meena experienced many projects on water and sanitation issue in Africa and India. She found the high usage of mobile phones across the country. Meena then initiated Water SMS program supported by USAID and implemented it in Indonesia. That became her first encounter with the Indonesia’s social context. Starting in North Jakarta, Meena abled to reach 2,000 people in other 2 cities in Indonesia in 3 years launching. By the time, Meena understood that the Indonesian communities are keen to share other valuable information among their neighborhood apart from water information. It led her to the launching of AtmaGo in 2015 to initially enable communities to share information about chronic flooding or other emergencies in Jakarta. Through Human Center Design (HCD) approach, Meena and her local team in Indonesia tried to understand the social problem in the vulnerable communities and started to iterate the platform based on the needs to overcome the daily challenges. Later on, the foundation was officially established in Indonesia under the name Yayasan Saka Warga to locally operate and build partnerships with the government and other partners. Through her innovation, Meena won Tech for Good Award, IDEO Amplify Urban Resilience, Climate Braintrust, and Global Resilience Innovation Award. She is also active in publishing research on climate change and urbanization.