"I never thought of using any other applications because generally WhatsApp is very popular among the public," says IPS officer K. Sanjay Kumar Gurudin who deployed WhatsApp as a source for receiving complaints of traffic violations in Kozhikode.
Gurudin announced a WhatsApp-based helpline in Kozhikode last month that is reachable at number +91-6238488686. In around 10 days of its launch, the police officer claims that the helpline received almost 1,200 complaints from the public.
"Earlier I had only 150 policemen who were in the field to detect the cases or manage the traffic conditions," states Gurudin. "But [through the WhatsApp integration], the entire city people have now started noting traffic violations in their local areas and actively reporting them to me."
"Other than violation or suggestion-focussed messages that come to me regularly, the big difference that I could see is that each and every person in the city has started abiding [by] the law and thinking that some people would take a photo and send it to the police... I personally feel that a lot of people with that fear that anybody can take anybody's photo and report them to the police, traffic conditions in the city have improved," he continues.
The police officers in Kozhikode verify the information they receive through WhatsApp at their level and then reach out to the offenders. In some cases, they even send warnings to the offenders directly through their WhatsApp numbers. Gurudin has also built an initiative to encourage the public to actively use the new medium by giving certificates to three of the best contributors on a weekly basis.
"We get the phone numbers of the complainants, but we never disturb anybody or pass them on to anyone else," notes Gurudin. "We have kept two things in place, one is the identity of the complainants should be protected and the second one is we give them the right to ask us anytime about what action has been taken on their filed complaints."
To keep a record of all the complaints the police department receives through WhatsApp, Gurudin states that he has made a model in which the team is logging everything they receive from the citizens and even save the images they get with serial numbers that are also available on the notices they send to the offenders. Moreover, there are plans to build a model in which the image sent by the citizens will be paired with the notices that are being received by the culprits to give them the evidence of their offence.
Sometimes, the Kozhikode Police also receives wrong complaints and misinformation that the team tries to filter out internally. Gurudin also highlights that apart from being a source of receiving traffic complaints, the state police is using WhatsApp app for various other purposes, including intelligence collection.
"WhatsApp is one of the biggest sources of collecting information — what we call it is an open-source intelligence — where we infiltrate, we become a member of a WhatsApp group, and then we monitor what is going on and what is mongering," the police officer divulges.
WhatsApp has emerged as a huge platform for communication in India with more than 200 million monthly active users. But with the rise in its popularity, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app has also become a major source of dispersing misinformation.
The circulation of false messages through WhatsApp even resulted in serious incidents of mob lynching in some Indian states. However, its convenient features that enable sharing of not only text messages but also photos and videos and its easy accessibility through mobile devices have persuaded a list of civic and government bodies, including various state police departments, to use WhatsApp as a source of formal communication.
Just like how the Kozhikode Police is using WhatsApp as a source to connect with the citizens, the Pune Police is also operating a WhatsApp number, +91-8975283100. This is aimed at letting citizens easily send their complaints and grievances to the police. A deputy superintendent of police (DySP) who is the in charge of the city police control room analyses the nature of complaints received and takes necessary action.
An official tells Gadgets 360 that the Pune Police receives 15-20 reports through the WhatsApp helpline on a daily basis, and two constables have been deployed to obtain the information through the helpline 24x7. The nature of complaints is quite diverse as they receive messages informing about traffic-related reports, complaints about cybercrime, property conflicts, and harassment of women, among others.
Similarly, the Mangaluru City Police has a dedicated WhatsApp phone number, +91-9480802303, for receiving complaints about traffic-related issues. The helpline is called Kudla Traffic (the city is called Kudla in local language Tulu).
Uma Prashanth, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime and Trafiic), Mangaluru city, tells Gadgets 360 that on an average her team receives 300 to 400 violation reports per month via WhatsApp. She also mentions that the new integration resulted in an increase in the total number of cases booked and fine collected by the Mangaluru City Police. The violation reports received through WhatsApp are being forwarded to the concerned traffic police inspectors who are all members of a dedicated WhatsApp Traffic Group, the police officer added.
The Rajasthan Police also has a WhatsApp helpline, +91-8764871150, dedicated to addressing inter-caste marriage issues in the state. The police department provides protection and counselling upon receiving of messages from the victims.
Recently, Indian Railways also tied up with MakeMyTrip to provide passengers with an ability to check live train running status directly from WhatsApp number +91-9480802303. Similar is the case with the Tata Power Delhi Distribution that has been offering a meter reading service via WhatsApp through number +91-9667558009.
Great potential, but will it succeed?
Experts believe that with the growth in adoption by civic bodies and public authorities in India, WhatsApp would become a handy source of connecting people with the government.
"I think WhatsApp has amazing potential, especially for people who are innovative and they want to connect with people, including the administrative bodies," says P.N. Vasanti, Director General, Centre of Media Studies.
Vasanti explains that while WhatsApp has surfaced as a source of misinformation in the past, the circulation of fake news and misleading content particularly comes from the one-to-many or many-to-one type of communication that majorly takes place within WhatsApp groups.
"It [WhatsApp] is infamous for circulating misinformation and fake news," states Vasanti. "But I think for administrative purposes, if they take care and cautious about that the communication should not be from one-to-many or many-to-one and it's entirely one-to-one, it can be a considerable option for public grievances."
Having said that, Vasanti points out that the authorities need to apply checks and balances at their end to understand whether they need to take action on the complaints they've received from the public.
"It's not like that if I've received a message, I wouldn't check the fact and simply take an action on the basis of the message," she says. "We're in a very cautious age — we should not take action only on the basis of someone's message."
Notably, Vasanti is one of the researchers that WhatsApp has selected to curb the circulation of fake news. Her role is to examine the role of content modality to restrict misinformation, in collaboration with Shyam Sundar of The Pennsylvania State University.
"Any communication platform has the potential of doing good and doing harm," Vasanti tells Gadgets 360. "How we use it and how it is promoted is what matters. So far, WhatsApp hasn't been promoted completely. Slowly people would realise its potential, and I'm sure it will take on an important role to provide governance to the people."
Dr. Mohd. Arshad, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Agra, emphasises that while the adoption of WhatsApp by government authorities can be of great help, the authorities need to have a work culture to resolve public issues.
"WhatsApp as a medium can be very helpful for public grievances, but it is only a mechanism," the professor says. "What is more important is the intention of the people sitting on the authority side to address grievances effectively."
"So far as the majority of the public sector units are concerned, there is a dearth of work culture. WhatsApp as a mechanism can be helpful, but along with its adoption, there needs to be a kind of work culture and the intention to address the grievances of people. If the intention is there and the culture can be established to address public complaints, then, of course, WhatsApp could emerge as a solution to improve the efficiency of most of the state organisations," he adds.
Just like when email was new
Arshad also mentions that adequate training of personnel is important to use WhatsApp effectively to address public grievances.
"Most of the time, I feel that when a new medium is being used, it is initially all fine, but after some time when the medium gets a large number of complaints and feedback, the system becomes apathetic towards looking into the information coming from the public," he affirms. "As a mechanism, WhatsApp can be of tremendous help to improve the situation, but there is a condition that our personnel must be trained to address the issues through the new model."
Vasanti says that the challenge with WhatsApp's adoption is similar to how we faced the difficulty in using emails as a medium of official communication initially.
"When we moved from print to email, authorities also started considering emails as a source of getting information and complaints from the public," she stresses. "The authorities were required to see the credibility of the senders and genuineness of the content. But now, email is accepted for most of our official communications. In the same way, WhatsApp is just a tool to reach out and then there are various ways to cross-validate."
However, Arshad says a "sensitisation programme" should be a prerequisite requirement for government offices to use WhatsApp as a medium for official communication.
"A large number of people in the government offices are not even active to attend phone calls and emails. Now when the phone calls are not being attended or the emails are not being responded, how can you expect that the information passed through WhatsApp would be considered properly," he says.
Arshad published a research paper in 2016, titled Impact of WhatsApp on youth: A Sociology Study, highlighting the adoption of WhatsApp among the young smartphone users. He believes that the app is more conducive and better than SMS and other mediums not just for private messaging but also for official communication.
"It is cheaper and less expensive as compared to various other mediums, including SMS and emails, and more comfortable in terms of sending photos and photocopies or scanned copies of documents accompanied by the citizen complaints," he says, adding, "This is high time that we must open up to introduce WhatsApp as a mechanism for formal, official communication."
Sagar Deshmukh, a Senior Software Engineer at New York-based Haver Analytics, who has published a research paper titled "Analysis of WhatsApp users and its usage worldwide", says that while WhatsApp for addressing public grievances is a "good idea", the authorities need to take utmost care that people should not misuse it by giving false complaints and feedback. "It is difficult for the government authorities to understand the difference between fake and genuine complaints as WhatsApp can be misused by anyone to troll people," he says.
Vasanti remarks that it is difficult to foresee how WhatsApp will come as a tool for governance services as it's currently in just some bits and pieces. "It's picking up certainly, and it would become an important ICT tool to see, monitor, and share even in the government network, however, since it's been used only in some bits and pieces, I'm not sure how much it is going to take on," she says.
"India is a prime example of how WhatsApp helps to address public grievances," a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Gadgets 360. "For instance, communities use WhatsApp to report issues and complaints to local police so they can review and take action. We will continue to focus on building a product that helps people communicate and stay safe."
Vasanti presumes that the adoption of WhatsApp by the civic bodies would help improve its image and make it a more credible source for communication. "The more usage perhaps among the authorities connecting to people could give it more credibility and perhaps help counter misinformation," she supposes.
We discussed what WhatsApp absolutely needs to do in 2019, on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.