Research on Humanitarian WhatsApp Surveys: An Overview of Papers and Reports

by | Feb 12, 2023 | Humanitarian Agencies, Research Universities, WhatsApp

We all know WhatsApp as an easy-to-use chat app. But did you know that WhatsApp also plays an increasing role in research and humanitarian projects?

For a couple of years now, universities and humanitarian organizations have explored WhatsApp as another option in the toolkit for mobile surveys. And with good reason: Reliable message delivery and low per-message cost when compared to typical SMS or IVR Surveys make WhatsApp an attractive alternative. Features such as audio clips, images, and read notifications offer powerful new ways to interact with constituents.

We explore these benefits and also the challenges that come with using Whatsapp in a separate blog post. In this article here, we will highlight a few research papers with quite different examples of WhatsApp usage to conduct research polls and humanitarian surveys.

Have you written a paper that you think should be included here? Let us know—always happy to extend our knowledge and share it.

(And yes, the image above was AI-generated as we explore tools and approaches to help our customers use “Humanitarian AI”.)

Building a WhatsApp Survey Tool using APIs (Colombia, US)

How can you do a panel survey of migrants and refugees using WhatsApp?

In their paper, Fei et al. describe how the authors built such a survey and used it to survey 1,651 individuals in Colombia and 343 in the United States.

To design, connect and automate these WhatsApp surveys, the authors used a mix of tools: WhatsApp Business API, Twilio Studio, Google Sheets, and Google Apps Scripts.


  • break down of how many people agreed to be surveyed, provided valid WhatsApp numbers, actually replied to the survey, and completed it, including cost per survey
  • the method described is “not suitable for complex question formats or in-depth qualitative responses” — note the difference to the study with Syrian refugees and migrants in Lebanon
  • as phones can be shared within a household, you may need to establish whom you’re talking to before starting the actual questions.

The arguably most valuable part from an implementor’s perspective is the Appendix with technical documentation and a How-to manual. Read the full paper here.

Source: Fei, Jennifer & Wolff, Jessica & Hotard, Michael & Ingham, Hannah & Khanna, Saurabh & Lawrence, Duncan & Tesfaye, Beza & Weinstein, Jeremy & Yasenov, Vasil & Hainmueller, Jens. (2020). Automated Chat Application Surveys Using WhatsApp. 10.31235/

Comparing Voice IVR and WhatsApp (Senegal, Guinea)

How does WhatsApp compare to IVR for follow-up surveys?

That’s the question that Ndashimye et. al. try to answer in their paper. The authors surveyed 2,144 WhatsApp numbers originally collected by IOM. An SMS announcement was sent, and then one hour later the actual survey, either using WhatsApp or Voice IVR, randomly chosen. In both cases, the question was asked via voice—an audio clip for the WhatsApp case.

The surveys were done using our engageSPARK WhatsApp Survey tool.


  • IVR had a higher response rate, but once participants started the survey WhatsApp had a higher completion rate. A verified WhatsApp business profile may have improved the outcome for WhatsApp.
  • Success of a Whatsapp survey depends in parts on how much the app is already used in daily life. In the paper, it worked better for the urban population in Senegal than the rural one in Guinea, as the former used WhatsApp more extensively already.
  • WhatsApp is more suited than IVR when you want to interview migrants before, during, and after their journey because the WhatsApp profile can be retained—whereas national phonenumbers are often replaced by local ones. (“longitudinal” surveys of cross-border migration.)

Read the paper here. Or read more about how IOM used WhatsApp on our blog.

Source: Ndashimye, F., Hebie, O., & Tjaden, J. (2022). Effectiveness of WhatsApp for Measuring Migration in Follow-Up Phone Surveys. Lessons from a Mode Experiment in Two Low-Income Countries during COVID Contact Restrictions. Social Science Computer Review, 0(0).

Collecting stories of Syrians refugees and migrants (Lebanon)

A few years into the Syrian crisis, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) wanted to find out how Syrian migrants and refugees and their Lebanese host communities were perceiving their coexistence, their future, and each other.

To that end, UNDP Lebanon did a WhatsApp survey with 1036 people participants: 87% were Syrians, and the rest were Lebanese. Rather than a quantitative study with defined answers, they wanted to hear stories from people. The resulting report is a long but fascinating read. Note also the guide that was produced as part of this report.


  • response rate: 17%
  • follow-ups yielded “considerably higher” response rates
  • “The unique contribution of WhatsApp surveying is that it makes the collection of a large qualitative sample possible in a very short time (it would take weeks, if not years, to interview a 1000 people)”
  • Qualitative surveys with WhatsApp rely less on local gatekeepers.
  • WhatsApp allows to stay in contact with migrants as they cross borders. (The longitudinal aspect also mentioned above.)

Source: UNDP Innovation ‘Speak up via WhatsApp’ Project-Bar Elias Final Report.

Get it here.

Surveying physiotherapists: Distribute links to an online survey via WhatsApp (Nigeria)

How willing and able are physiotherapists in Nigeria to care for COVID-19 patients?

That’s what Mbada et al set out to answer with a nation-wide WhatsApp survey. They managed to get responses from 210 professionals across various professional organizations and groups. In each group “focal persons” were distributing the survey.

The survey itself was done using an online tool—only the link to the survey was distributed manually via WhatsApp.


  • Same as with the survey of anesthesiologists in Burundi, the survey was sent via professional associations.
  • The questionnaire consisted of 58 items. (That’s a lot.)
  • Based on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) WhatsApp Surveying Guide we mentioned above.

Source: Chidozie E. Mbada, Omotola A. Onigbinde, Clara T. Fatoye, Overcomer T. Binuyo, Opeyemi A. Idowu, Adesola O. Ojoawo, Kayode I. Oke, Udoka A. Okafor, Saturday N. Oghumu, & Francis Fatoye. (2021). PHYSIOTHERAPISTS’ KNOWLEDGE, ATTITUDE AND WILLINGNESS TO CARE FOR COVID-19 PATIENTS: A NATIONWIDE SURVEY IN NIGERIA. Journal of Physical Education & Health, 10(17), 60–73.

Manual WhatsApp Survey (Burundi)

What anesthesia equipment is available in Burundi? And can WhatsApp be used to find out?

Sund et. al. surveyed 224 people from 65 hospitals in Burundi, asking which of five pieces of anesthesia equipment they had. The survey was done in two parts and questions were sent in a WhatsApp group as free text. The replies came in like that, too: in the group or per direct message as free text.

The survey was done manually, without any automation or API: The president of the association sent the questionnaire directly and got the answers, too. Then, the answers were manually transcribed into a spreadsheet.


  • There was no need to gather phone numbers—because the authors cooperated with a professional association of anesthesiologists, who sent out the message to their members.
  • For part 1, 50 responses out of 224 participants were received via WhatsApp
  • The president called some of the non-replying participants, and with that, they got answers from 55 of 65 hospitals on the first part. For the second part, only WhatsApp was used and they got 56 replies for 56 hospitals.

Source: Sund, G.C. & Lipnick, Michael & Law, T.J. & Wollner, E.A. & Rwibuka, Gilles Eloi. (2021). Anaesthesia facility evaluation : a Whatsapp survey of hospitals in Burundi. Southern African Journal of Anaesthesia and Analgesia. 27. 70-75. 10.36303/SAJAA.2021.27.2.2456.

Read the paper here.

Endline assessment using WhatsApp Calls to refugee caregivers (Lebanon)

COVID-19 lock-downs kick in and you need to interview refugee caregivers on short notice—how do you do that?

That’s the problem that War Child Holland, an international non-profit organisation, had with their randomised controlled trial (RCT) when lockdowns hit Lebanon. Instead of doing face-to-face interviews, they had to scramble to get going with remote data collection.

Since the interview was not automated, the 30-40 minute interviews had to be scheduled in advance with the 240 participants. Pre-formatted Google Spreadsheets were used for data entry.


  • protocols needed to be set up to handle things like bad phone connections or lack of privacy on the other end.
  • coordinators monitored data entry in read-only mode

It’s a short read. Give it a go here.

Source: Chen, A. & Tossyeh, F. & Arnous, M. & Saleh, A. & El Hassan, A & Saade, J. & Miller, K. E. 2020. Phone-based data collection in a refugee community under COVID-19 lockdown. The Lancet. DOI: