BBC Uses WhatsApp For An Ebola Health Alert Service In West Africa

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While Snapchat may reportedly be talking to a dozen news organisations for a “Snapchat Discovery” service, another big name in mobile messaging is also breaking new ground with big media. The BBC today started a new account on Facebook-owned WhatsApp to update people with the latest information about Ebola.

The BBC says its service is aimed primarily at reaching WhatsApp users in West Africa, the region at the heart of the health crisis that has killed more than 8,000 people. WhatsApp, which has passed 500 million users, is the most popular chat app in the region today.

Since WhatsApp adds people to your network based on numbers in your on-phone phonebook, those interested in the service need to add +44 7702 348651 to their contacts, and then texting JOIN or JOINDRE to that number on Whatsapp to add the alerts.

This is a free service and the BBC says it is not paying WhatsApp anything to use the platform for this purpose — it’s sending out messages effectively like another WhatsApp user, and those who add the service to their contacts will get those messages free of charge.

The idea is to use the channel to help update but also educate people the in region being most affected at the moment.

“This outbreak of Ebola shows no signs of abating. Myths and misinformation about Ebola are still widespread – and life-threatening,” the director of the World Service Group, Peter Horrocks, said in a statement. “The BBC is trusted by millions of people in the affected countries, so we are stepping up our efforts to reach people with timely information, whether they’re listening to the radio, watching TV or using chat apps.”

Information will be sent out in both English and French, and will be a mixture of breaking news alerts, as well as public health information on the Ebola virus using audio, text message posts and images. It is part from a wider push at the BBC to cover Ebola: it will also be providing regular bulletins in French on BBC Afrique and its World News TV channel, as well as working with other broadcasters to product and air radio programs, and developing content in vernacular languages.

Part of the reason for using mixed media is because of the variety of handsets and network availability West Africa, and also because the BBC is also targeting people who may not be able to read English or French, the broadcaster told Journalism.co.uk. Video clips may be fine for those with smartphones and fast networks, but audio will work better for those on less advanced devices or slower connections.

The BBC has worked with WhatsApp as well as other messaging apps like WeChat, BBM, Line and Mixit in the past on news alerts — for example, to broadcast information around elections in India and South Africa. But the BBC says it is the first time that it has used WhatsApp for a health alert service.

While the BBC is not paying WhatsApp to host its Ebola account, it does highlight a way that WhatsApp could one day monetise its platform — by charging third parties for branded, opt-in channels on the service.

Both WhatsApp and its new owner Facebook have been very firm in saying that they will not be adding advertising on WhatsApp, or sharing data from users on the service to serve ads elsewhere. That opens the door to other possibilities that tap into the app’s half-billion user base.

Ebola, which has already killed over 8,000 people, has set off alarm bells for the health community worldwide, as the virus’ spread seems to show no signs of slowing down and is now moving into countries outside of those where it first appeared.

The BBC says that its mobilization in reporting on Ebola is its biggest health focus since it reported on HIV and Aids in the 1980s and 1990s.

There have been other efforts made from the tech and media sphere to try to help. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated $25 million to the CDC Foundation to help combat Ebola. And there is a new Indiegogo campaign, HackAgainstEbola, raising money for journalists in the West Africa region to be used towards the development of apps and online tools to educate and inform people of the latest developments.

Image: Flickr