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Mutual Aid and Community Support in Indonesia: The Story of AtmaGo

An adaptable mutual aid platform from Indonesia has helped countless communities to organise. What lessons does it have for other data-sharing projects?

Gotong Royong. Wikipedia defines it as a concept of sociality familiar to large parts of Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. Most translate it in English as ‘mutual aid’.

It’s also how many would describe AtmaGo, a community-powered sharing platform that focuses on addressing the long-term impacts of social problems on vulnerable communities. In a profile by the technology company Twilio, Alamsyah Saragih, an ombudsman in Indonesia, explained the utility of the app:

“Our founding fathers envisioned a society based on ‘gotong royong’, where communities come together for mutual aid. AtmaGo is an important mass public space for us, because it offers a public way for us to share solutions and help each other.”

In Indonesia, the primary features of the app allow users to receive alerts about disasters, organize disaster recovery activities, and publish posts about disasters. The app makes use of simple menus and is quick and straightforward to localise using the app’s interface.

Users can take photos if they observe disasters, such as flooding, and can create reports to estimate impacts as well. If a local ambassador sees the notice they can create an alert which, once verified, issues a warning in the feed of everyone living in the neighbourhood.

Atma Connect’s Origins

Meena Palaniappan, an environmental engineer and social justice leader, founded Atma Connect after working on international development globally, including with partners like USAID. Palaniappan felt stunted by projects that couldn’t change course to build what users wanted to build.

She started Atma Connect as a lean start-up that believes in the power of people, and developed Atma Go (the app offshoot) as a social media platform dedicated to the idea of neighbours helping neighbours. She chose to launch first in Indonesia because of citizens’ high technical literacy, and its “canary in the coal mine” status with regard to climate change, which leaves it exposed to frequent environmental challenges. It’s also the fourth most populous country in the world.

In Indonesia, Atma Go fills the gap of localized, community-centered, peer-to-peer support by enabling trust-based relationships and community engagement. When it launched, through leveraging the influence of local ombudsmans and ambassadors, people started using the app to share photos of flooding incidents, and to build networks of psycho-social support.

Today, the app has 300,000 monthly users, and has reached more than 5.5 million people in total. People can issue warnings to each other about flood-stricken roads, as well as launching campaigns for good governance, and coordinating disaster relief efforts.

Outside of proven economic and livelihood results, one of the most unique aspects of the project has been empowering women — who are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster — to share their knowledge through citizen journalism training. Now 54% of the app’s users are women.

Designing and Refining for Accessibility

In designing the app, Palaniappan and the team of technologists and designers had to balance accessibility, information, and innovation. The platform had to be accessible to all users (particularly those with low bandwidths) and on a range of mobile phones. “It would be really great if we could use JavaScript; we could use prediction mechanisms so we don’t have to make people go through all the screens and drop downs. But it doesn’t work on our users’ mobile phones,” Palaniappan said.

In 2016, the group worked with the design and innovation company IDEO to create a modern and clean design for the platform, but increases in loading times caused a major crash in the app’s number of users. “One of the hardest things is location, we are location-based as an app. It requires a lot of back-and-forth requests from the server and a lot of data to allow map-based interactivity,” Palaniappan described. They needed to support innovation around sharing this high-level data.

As an open-source platform sharing open data, Atma Go intentionally collects as little information about users as they can, but Palaniappan mentions that they have begun to collect more demographic information (such as gender), as well as allowing users to follow a particular location in order to develop a curated feed.

Anyone can register and post, but recently an approval process was introduced to protect the app from fake job advertisements. (Power users and those on the platform who have completed previous digital literacy training can post without needing to go through this approval process.) All posts are tagged, the information is in both Indonesian and local languages, and the platform enables video and infographics. Their new COVID-19 response site also includes a section for recorded voices where local people help their fellow community members understand how to socially distance themselves.

As content sharing and collaboration across different locations is key to the app, each area on the app has a different character. Since the content is user-generated, and users engage with the content that is most relevant to them, certain themes emerge organically across local regions. For instance, in Yogyakarta users focus more on engagement with local government budgeting and ensuring accountability, whereas in Lumbuk, many users are more engaged around disaster recovery.

Data Sharing and Community Building

The app has grown to its current form as a result of its users’ efforts, and in response to their local needs, with the app’s infrastructure designed to be open and malleable. While it was originally launched to share water price information, people wanted to share more than that, and so it grew.

The open-source and data-sharing aspects of the platform also enable direct cross-sharing of knowledge amongst its users, who often cite how the app empowers them. For example, Pak Abdul Razaq, a 49 year-old community leader in Yogyakarta City, realized that poverty in his neighbourhood was driving poor community health, and exacerbating social problems. One of his posts about the local women’s farmer group, a compelling story of local interest by a local that spoke to people’s interests, drew people to come into the village to visit and learn. He shares:

“I believe my posts have been inspiring others to improve their own neighbourhood conditions, encouraging my people to do more good things, providing transparency on the local governance and serving as village documentation for better knowledge management.”

While Atma Go’s data is open to everyone, developers are currently using Tableau to create visualisations to make the data more meaningful for its users, as some challenges remain around making data immediately comprehensible and useful — including for users in government, some of whom are publishing local budgetary data via the app, and consulting with community members about how best to target their expenditure.

Currently, officials can use the app to find out how people in a disaster-affected area are responding to a crisis, but the platform does not currently aggregate user data in a streamlined way. Ideally the app would connect aggregated data to the government’s official complaint bureau, which has previously been accomplished, but which requires sustained effort.

The Future of Adaptable, Community-Led Support

One of the advantages of the design of the platform is its adaptability. In the Puerto Rico context, and for other humanitarian situations where it is used by the Red Cross, they have had to change surprisingly little. Palaniappan noted that: “The headings (community discussion, community reports, events, and jobs) are still valid and of interest, and people still use the community discussion to make recommendations.”

In Puerto Rico, as in Indonesia, AtmaGo users are sharing information around preparing for and responding to disasters and spreading solutions to neighbourhood challenges including garbage and water. The focus is on enabling community communication to amplify voices and solve existing challenges.

Adaptability is built into the project’s design: part of the crucial aspects of being a user-inclusive platform is continual iteration. Atma Connect’s COVID-19 website launched in early May, and they have already gone through a new design iteration. The team works in sprints, adding new features every two weeks. They are looking to release a crowdsourced needs assessment for use after a disaster, and have currently rolled it out for their COVID-19 response platform.

In areas of the world where people trust their neighbours and believe in the power of social connection, apps like AtmaGo can really provide a reliable and simple interactive platform to save money, property, and lives. The model of a social sharing app with localization features may be relatively new, but the philosophy of mutual aid is not.

A blog exploring the potential of open data to transform closed societies, from the Iran Open Data team.

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Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Ambika Samarthya-Howard is a video producer, writer, and communications specialist. She is the Head of Communications at Praekelt.org.

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