Facebook for disasters: meet Meena Palaniappan’s Atma Connect app

Somewhere between the desire to help disaster-prone communities navigate preparedness to revolutionizing the way marginalized people use social media, Meena Palaniappan gave rise to an app most easily described as “facebook for disasters.”

Meena headshotAtma Connect is a tech non-profit that runs the AtmaGo app, a local social network with 4.5 million users in Indonesia. Launched in 2015, the app was pioneered to spread disaster alerts, share safe routes and locations of government shelters, and even alert locals to signs of waterborne disease in children. 

Then, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2018, thousands turned to AtmaGo to alert and support friends and family. In the wake of 1,700 deaths and the displacement of over 70,000 people, locals used the app to host humanitarian workers and direct those affected to resources such as food, water, and healthcare. 

Today, Meena envisions AtmaGo becoming the largest pro-social network in the world. Her passion to build resilience and social connectedness for billions of people living in low-income communities—while on the forefront of climate change—is clear. Communities with developed and successful social networks have been proven to have fewer deaths and the unique ability to bounce back quicker from disasters. 

The Backstory 

For the past two decades, Meena has been implementing community-based technology-related projects in Africa and Asia. Before AtmaGo, Meena was the principal investigator for a USAID project to improve water service for low-income communities in Indonesia.

While working on climate-related issues in India, Meena met a woman with a brilliant water conservation solution but no easy means of sharing this information with those in her community who could benefit. At the time, most (if not all) mobile networking platforms were geared towards collecting information from poor people to serve larger institutions.

Meena jumped at the opportunity to amplify the power of people through peer communication, highlight their ingenuity, and release trapped knowledge with the goal of building a grassroots movement for change. 

“Why hasn’t a social tech project reached the scale of Facebook?” Meena asked herself. “I firmly believe we need to move beyond traditional development strategies which see poor people as objects and work to build the agency of people to direct and lead their own change.” 

Building from the ground up 

The first app launched by Atma Connect in 2014 was a neighborhood water price sharing platform. Making evident the importance of focusing on the needs and opportunities of people living in low-income communities, users immediately requested that Atma Connect expand their services. 

At a scale and reach of just 10% of the population of Jakarta, AtmaGo could add 6,980 years of healthy life, save $106 million in avoided damages, and save $4.7 million in healthcare costs. (Check out this evaluation report for a detailed account of all the ways in which AtmaGo can improve disaster preparedness and response in Indonesia.)

In order to build their team and engage users, Meena used a variety of key tactics like human-centered design interviews and in-person marketing. Ambassadors, power users and friends of Atma promoted the platform. Atma reached out to local journalists and other organizations to share information and promote Atma sponsored events like garbage clean-ups and tree-planting. 

Unlike other social-centered networks (e.g., Instagram and Twitter), AtmaGo is a trusted source because it is organized locally to allow users immediate insight into neighborhood happenings. The app is available on low-cost phones as well as a mobile website, designed specifically for intermittent internet environments and low bandwidth. 

According to Meena, “Atma combines digital tools with citizen journalism and on-the-ground reporting as well as partnerships to ensure that local users see real-life community improvements.” She wanted to have the ability to “take a lean startup approach and truly follow the needs of people on the ground and not be beholden to larger institutions and interests.” 

Atma is just the beginning of protecting vulnerable communities through a fundamentally different approach. AtmaGo allows users to read, write, and comment on posts in four categories: Reporting problems, discussing solutions, finding jobs, and sharing events.

So what?

The success of Atma thus far has inspired Meena and only made her more humble—a trait she hopes to use to amplify all that is good about humanity. The challenges along the way have inevitably shaped her perspective, and she admits that “The hardest part is probably raising the funding to keep this going and developing earned income that is mission-aligned.” Put another way, Meena will not allow Atma to contribute to surveillance capitalism or erode the social fabric by monetizing people’s attention. 

As a woman of color, Meena possesses a unique drive that makes her a more empathetic leader. She is adamant about ensuring that everyone within her organization has their voice heard. Focused and passionate, Meena works to uplift everyone around her and outline their collective contribution to AtmaGo. Meena’s devotion is also evident in the stories of Atma’s users, who embody the profound change that is possible when amplifying the brilliance and ingenuity of every single person—especially of those who have historically not been heard. This video illustrates AtmaGo’s particular ability to do just that.

What’s next?

In a Medium article written by Meena herself, she admits that there are major problems with social media but also mentions the huge benefits communities can reap from an approach that centers helping people—radically and widely.

In 2020, Atma hopes to build a revenue engine by monetizing the economic loss prevention and mortality impact of AtmaGo through partnering with insurance companies. Atma also plans on expanding the tech non-profit’s value by increasing online and offline engagement, integrating more disaster services and including more voices directly from users. Possibly the most exciting next move is scaling Atma’s impact from Indonesia to Puerto Rico and Colombia. 

In conclusion, Meena leaves us with a few tips for women entrepreneurs hoping to create the next big thing: 

Don’t give up.

Remember why you are doing this.

Take care of yourself—body, mind, and spirit.

Always be celebrating, all the little successes. 

 


A Look Back at our SOCAP Diversity & Impact Gathering

As we enter the winter season approaching the end of the year, we wanted to reflect on one of the highlights of the previous season. In October, we attended SOCAP19 in San Francisco. As every year, this impact investing conference created an amazing space for connecting to other change-makers, sharing information and hearing from industry leaders. The reason this year was particularly special was that Beta Boom co-hosted a happy hour mixer that brought together diverse founders, impact investors, and supporters for an evening of conversation.

Our motivation to host was clear. First, SOCAP is a huge conference that can feel overwhelming. After a day of inspirational addresses, panels, and networking it’s important to decompress and talk with people who share our interests. Second, since starting Beta Boom, we’ve had the great pleasure to connect with national organizations that are promoting inclusive entrepreneurship across the US (such as the Kauffman and Case Foundations), as well as many local groups supporting female entrepreneurs and people of color. Our work also builds ties to individuals seeking to invest in more diverse founders. While all these groups are working toward a common goal, they aren’t often in the same room together. 

In short, we hear all the time about the need for greater connection and collaboration between founders, investors, and supporters, so we endeavored to bring them together in a relaxed setting to further build these connections.

Co-host Monique Aiken, VP of Programs at Mission Investors Exchange (MIE) came wearing multiple hats including as a member of the steering committee for the SEO impact investing network and as an alumna of the Tiogo Foundation. In the spirit of collaboration, Monique merged MIE’s 4th annual happy hour event with this gathering, inviting all threads of her connections to attend as “a testament to the spirit of the night.” She encouraged the room to “work in coalition and build community to go further, faster together.” 

The founder conversation highlighted the need to focus on the user and chart one’s own path

In a room overlooking the Bay, with food and drinks in hand, conversation flowed and connections were sparked. We wanted to give our guests a window onto the important work founders and supporters do, and highlight how these roles intersect, so we organized two informal Q&As. Our founding partner, Sergio led the first conversation made up of three founders/CEOs: 

  • Meena Palaniappan of Atma Connect, a non-profit tech company working to build resilience in low-income urban communities worldwide; 
  • Amanda DoAmaral of Fiveable, an EdTech livestream platform that prepares high school students for AP tests; and
  • Erica Plybeah of MedHaul, a company providing transportation solutions for medical patients in low-income and rural urban communities.

They started by discussing the most important lessons they’ve learned as founders. Erica confessed she’d been a perfectionist before she became a founder, “and any founders out there know that doesn’t work well. I also had to realize I can’t do everything in one day.” She advised fellow entrepreneurs to take work/life balance seriously, and explained she spends a couple mornings a month volunteering in her son’s classroom. “I don’t bring my phone, I don’t check my email, which is very tough. It’s a very exhilarating experience.”

Meena continued by noting the lessons her users have taught her, explaining that “purely as a result of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people [we serve],” Atma has gone from “a way for urban poor people to share water price information,” to a tool for building resilience to future disasters. “I’m just constantly humbled and amazed by that.”

Amanda, who didn’t come from a business background before launching her startup, talked about how she’s learned that “Everyone is making it up as they go.” While finding investors and advisers who can help you get from A to B is key, she’s also learned that there are really no specific markers of success, so founders should “Just keep going.” She also touched on how her platform can address the immediate needs of her users, saying, “We all think that education needs a big overhaul, and that’s true, but the kids right now need it tomorrow. They don’t have time for us to get it together and overhaul it.”

All three women closed by mentioning how partnerships could help take their companies to the next level. Amanda and Fiveable are looking for a way to help students pay for livestreams. Meena explained that entering the disaster space has brought Atma into conversations with insurance companies like SwissRe, (whose tagline is “Making the world more resilient”) and she’s been buoyed by the realization that there are “big institutional sectors that are driven by the same goals that our users have.” Erica and Medhaul have already partnered with Lyft, and she noted, “Solving issues in healthcare is not something that one company can do,” so she’s open to “nontraditional” partnerships with big companies like Google or Walmart. 

Sergio concluded by reminding the crowd that one thing Beta Boom really believes in is helping entrepreneurs in ways beyond investing capital. Supporters “can provide connections to customers, to mentorships, to strategic partnerships, and there’s also a huge value in providing visibility into the work that founders are doing. So when you do meet a founder I would really challenge you to ask yourself, ‘What other ways can we help them be successful and better serve their users, their customers?’ ”

Investors and supporters challenged us to check ourselves, think of unintended consequences and to perhaps not run fast and break things

Kimmy led the second conversation featuring investors and supporters from innovative organizations:

This conversation zoomed out a bit to address the differences these panelists see between predominant models of investing and thinking about tech and the ways they and their respective organizations see and do things. 

Eliza set the tone in her intro about why she’s currently focused on poverty and inequality in the US, saying, “we’re at a critical juncture… and there’s massive urgency around how we think about and start to shift systems here.” She continued by explaining her approach to investment, adding, “I’m somewhat contrarian in the venture investing world in that I don’t want my entrepreneurs to run fast and break things. I want them to be thoughtful and deliberate and energized.” 

After explaining that her org “believes that dignified job creation is the best way to tackle poverty in emerging-market countries,” Nathalie stressed the importance of “hacking” in a very particular sense: “Working with people who have done [similar work] and are willing to share their results.” This approach is currently playing out in an initiative she’s working on that will integrate gender-equity metrics into the enterprises where NESsT invests.

As one of two developers of the first CRM system and co-founder of the People-Centered Internet, Mei Lin took a moment to emphasize that investing and innovating “isn’t just about getting money and doing things” — it’s also paramount to consider the unforeseen consequences of the technology we are working to create.

Building on the notion of thinking beyond the current moment, Dustin stated that the most important thing he’s learned in the impact investing space is the need to “Check yourself. Always. It is my absolute privilege to be able to work with entrepreneurs that are changing the world, and I come to things from my very own perspective, [which] is white, male, and privileged. I’ve had to learn to actually engage with people and understand what their struggles are and, honestly, to always try to provide value to the other person in conversation.”


Fiveable Is Enabling College Success for All High School Students

When students take and pass AP courses, they can save as much as $19,000 in college tuition and other costs. Unfortunately, many students lack both access to AP courses as well as support outside of the classroom, which can greatly improve students’ course completion and test outcomes. Amanda DoAmaral, the founder of Fiveable, has intimate knowledge of this reality having taught AP History in Oakland, California as well as from her experience with Teach for America. While this gap is greatest in school districts with fewer resources, this is a wide scale problem across the United States.

Read More


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