Community Working Together Through Technology

Interview with Meena Palaniappan, Founder & CEO of Atma Connect

Now more than ever we need tools and technology to connect with community; here’s one way communities have come together to respond to disasters.

Recently, I spoke with Meena Palaniappan, Founder and CEO of Atma Connect, who has created a tech for good nonprofit that has assisted communities to share resources and come together through the connections they make through the app called AtmaGo. It has currently been implemented in Indonesia in response to flooding, and more recently in Puerto Rico in response to the earthquakes in the south of the island. Through a conversation with Meena Palaniappan, I learned more of the initial idea for the app and the positive impact it is having on the communities Atma serves.

It all started through Meena Palaniappan’s  interest in the connections between the relationship to the planet, environmental engineering and design solutions. As a result, she studied engineering at Northwestern University. Afterwards, she went to India and worked on the issues she had been studying, such as public health issues of water scarcity and poor sanitation. Through her work in India, she observed the reality that many developing areas face. Later she worked on environmental justice issues in the United States, and it became clear to her that the solutions are fundamentally found through the people facing these environmental issues. The question then became, “how do we engage people that are on the front lines in creating the change that’s needed?”.

After her work on environmental justice in the U.S., she transitioned into working on national honor issues around the world in Africa, India, Mexico, and Indonesia. Through all of this, she started to see that in the last five or ten years, people still didn’t have water and sanitation, but increasingly they had mobile phones. As a result of her insight, she started incorporating mobile phones as a tool. However, when observing the landscape of development projects that incorporated mobile phones, she noticed there were a number of things that were missing. One aspect was that mobile phones were used for top down instructions, while another use was for collecting information to serve large institutions. What she wasn’t seeing was people at the front lines of the issues as agents of change. Through her realization she asked, “how can we transform people into agents and connect them to each other in ways that can amplify their power and their ability to make change?”.

Additionally, through the development of AtmaGo, she researched how she could scale the project to reaching billions of people, inspired by Silicon Valley tech models that had gained such a large reach. Through taking a human-centered design approach and lean start-up approach she designed for and with the people on the ground, having complete humility about what people needed and asking what people wanted.

She started developing the app through a lean start-up by launching the product early, iterating it and finishing it based on the vision of the communities they served. Initially, the app was formulated to assist people in sharing water price information as peer-to-peer communication in order to make better decisions and increase affordability. Then her team realized that they wanted to share a lot more than just water prices with their neighbors. As a result, they improved on the idea and developed a new app as a local social network and immediately, in 2015, people started using it around the flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia. They were telling each other the locations of flooding in three locations of government funded shelters and giving each other mutual support. After the flooding, they told each other to watch out for signs of waterborne disease. AtmaGo had the same impact again in January 2020, which was some of the worst flooding in Indonesia. However, this time they were able to deliver tens of thousands of early warning directly to people’s handheld phones. People were helping each other find resources and helping each other stay out of harm’s way.

AtmaGo has turned into something even greater than what they initially imagined, as people are using the app in new ways. Currently, they’ve reached over 5 million people in Indonesia in hundreds of locations. In 2020, they also expanded to Puerto Rico. One example is that people went on Facebook and Twitter to find water in their community after the tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2018.  Then they went on AtmaGo and found where to get water in Lumbok. One woman said she had extreme fear about leaving her house after the earthquake, and said she was depressed and posted on AtmaGo. In response, people got together on AtmaGo and created community supportive activities, which got her out of the house and gave her hope about recovery and rebuilding. This kind of community led activity is now occurring throughout Indonesia.

People are taking action to prevent the next disaster and mitigate climate change. On AtmaGo, people have organized mangrove and tree planting events and organized biweekly garbage cleanup. Moreover, they have an independent evaluation that shows that based on early warnings, people have taken definitive action because 81% of people trust the information they received on AtmaGo. As a result, people have moved valuables, evacuated, and warned their neighbors to prevent millions of people from suffering through flooding or other natural disasters just through early warnings. People are avoiding 106 million dollars in damages a year, and over 6,000 lives have been saved.

The stories of women finding their voice in the community and spreading their solutions on AtmaGo have been powerful. One example is a community member named Lena who responded to the problem of garbage in Indonesia. She decided to recycle found goods into products such as bags and prayer mats. Moreover, she shared with others on AtmaGo on how to do it, organized events and trainings, and has now trained 90 people to recycle waste products into products the community can sell, further creating new economic solutions.

The community built through AtmaGo is solving issue in terms of economic empowerment, jobs, entrepreneurship, and women’s issues. Meena Palaniappan said they took a focus on women because of the important role that women play in the family’s economic development and the fact that women and children are fourteen times more likely to die in disaster than men.

Local governments have also been empowered through community information gained through AtmaGo, learning about community needs where there may not be information elsewhere.  Based on the request of a local elected official, they’ve created a village bulletin to respond to needs that they have for communication. For example, the mayor found out about local catfish farming methods someone was using on their property and has now shared information on how people can farm catfish on a small-scale to all of the places in his municipality. As a result, there are ways in which the local government is now better able to respond to needs and spread solutions.

Atma has 40 partners including partnerships in Indonesia with local governments, with national women’s groups, and local organizations. They also have contracts with Red Cross to enter new locations and conduct citizen journalism and digital literacy trainings to improve earthquake preparedness and resilience. Additionally, Red Cross is interested in using AtmaGo in humanitarian crisis response in the Americas with the Venezuelan migrant crisis. Mercy Corps also contracted Atma to bring them to new locations such as Puerto Rico.

The common thread is the power of social cohesion and social connectedness that changes outcomes in disaster response. For example, academic studies in disaster have found that communities that have had better social cohesion experience less mortality, morbidity, and bounce back quickly from disaster. Additionally, this is a key missing link in large scale migration because there are rising tensions between host communities and migrant communities. However, there is the possibility to bring back the fundamental human interest in providing mutual support.

Some current projects Meena Palaniappan is excited about are a new product with Ford Foundation and the opportunity to use AtmaGo for humanitarian crisis and migration. Through Ford Foundation and a partner in Indonesia they will use AtmaGo as a as a tool to promote pro-climate community narratives at the forest and community interface. Meena Palaniappan is excited to support the protection of existing forests and providing a way for communities to engage in sharing information about how to bring economic development and ecotourism to their areas while protecting forests.

“I’m also excited about the opportunity to see AtmaGo used in humanitarian crises and migration. In reflection of what we’ve seen, through the migrant crisis is that migrant communities also want to give back and connect with their communities. How can we amplify the stories of peace and cooperation and really create an alternative to the divisiveness of xenophobia?”

Meena Palaniappan

Meena Palaniappan said it was in fact possible to use their technology locally in the U.S. as well. They were contacted by a group that emerged out of the Southern California wildfires, called 805HELP and they have been interested in bringing AtmaGo to their area. Atma has been slow to expand to the U.S. due to similar tech for good companies. However,  they’ve heard that their tool is something different. There’s a certain type of interaction that happens on other apps that can also be divisive and as certainly has been shown to have racial overtones and problems. Whereas AtmaGo is more about building more resilient communities. The approach is different, their architecture is different, and there is demand and interest. They’re considering it because it could be another alternative because people may not be finding what they’re looking for in other apps.

When asked what her vision for the future is, Meena Palaniappan said her vision for Atma is to is to reach billions of people around the world and empower people to improve their community, from the ground up and to really create a positive social force that is about people helping people.

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