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April 30, 2015, 5 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

In earthquake-ravaged Nepal, the BBC is using messaging app Viber to share information and safety tips

The broadcaster is following up on an experiment using WhatsApp to provide updates on the fight against Ebola in West Africa.

In the aftermath of last week’s earthquake that devastated Nepal, BBC News is today launching an account on the messaging app Viber to publish news, information, and tips for staying safe as the country continues to recover.

Since the earthquake, the BBC World Service and BBC Nepali Service have added additional broadcasts and are sharing information over the air and online about things like where people can get aid and updates from the government on relief operations.

BBCNepalThe Viber account is meant to compliment these offerings, BBC World Service mobile editor Trushar Barot told me. In addition to public service announcements, the Viber messages will focus on safety tips and advice on how people can protect themselves from aftershocks and other dangers, he said.

“We just want to try and get as much useful information to people in the affected area as possible through any means at our disposal,” Barot said.

The BBC will publish messages in English and Nepali, and the account will be primarily run by the BBC Nepali service. Barot said most messages will be text-only — with only an occasional photo or link when it’s important — because of the limited data coverage in Nepal. “We wanted to make sure that the content was consumable on devices where they may find data is a bit of an issue,” Barot said.

This is the World Service’s first foray into Viber, but the broadcaster has been active on a number of other chat apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, BBM, Mxit, and Line. It’s modeling its Nepal service after a project it launched last September in West Africa to provide updates about Ebola on WhatsApp. About 22,000 people, mostly in the affected areas, signed up for the BBC’s alerts through WhatsApp, and it’s still continuing to send messages and update users.

With its effort in Nepal, however, the BBC decided to use Viber because it’s easier to use for publishers. Last November, Viber launched a feature called Public Chats that lets users subscribe to public accounts. Unlike with WhatsApp, it’s possible to publish from the desktop, users don’t have add followers one-by-one, and users can also give access to multiple users to control the account, Barot said. BuzzFeed, for example, has accumulated 94,000 followers on Viber since it began posting to the service in January.

The BBC now uses WhatsApp primarily as an “incoming audience engagement platform,” Barot said, noting that it’s an effective way for the BBC to get people to contact it and send in information, photos, and video clips.

“The difficulty with using it as a push distribution service is that the app is not really designed for that, Barot said. “It’s really labor intensive to use WhatsApp in that way. The Ebola service was very much an exception to the rule for us, where we felt it was so important that we got additional manpower to help us.”

Viber says it has more than 360 million global users, and Barot estimates there are up to 4 million Viber users in Nepal.

The BBC is planning on running the effort for the next month or so. The Ebola WhatsApp service launched as a six-week project, but the BBC has extended its life. Barot said they’ll evaluate the Nepal project’s status week by week, reconsidering the types of information shared as the situation in Nepal evolves. For the first week, Barot said, the BBC will mostly focus on information about how to stay safe during aftershocks, where relief is being provided, and how people who are missing friends or relatives can attempt to get in touch with them.

“We might then start focusing on longer-term issues, on what to do with hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced,” Barot said. “What sort of services or help might they need, or what sort of information would they find most useful? [We’re] making sure we assess that properly and provide that information as well.”

Photo of a search and rescue team in Nepal by Jessica Lea/DFID used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 30, 2015, 5 a.m.
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