By Laura Urrutia

A passionate belief that technology can help change the world from the ground up was the inspiration behind the launch of a social network that is helping millions of people develop greater resilience and economic empowerment in several countries across the world. 

Its founder, Meena Palaniappan, is an environmental engineer who worked on community-based technology projects in the developing world for more than a decade before launching in 2015 AtmaGo, a social network that has reached over 10 million vulnerable people in Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and most recently, Ukraine. 

It was her experience in Indonesia that provided one of the key insights for Meena. Working in what is the fourth most populated country in the world, she realised that the increasing mobile phone penetration in previously under-served communities provided a massive opportunity to use technology to have impact at scale empowering vulnerable people.  

“I started this journey thinking, how can we use mobile phones to make visible the urban poor?” she recalls. “We were just using mobile phones to tell poor people what to do, or to collect information from poor people in the service of larger institutions and organisations. 

“This is an opportunity to create peer-to-peer connections that build power, we've ceded that ability, while companies like Facebook and Twitter have reached billions of people. And so the question was haunting me: Why have we not created a good social product that has reached this massive scale? That was the driving force, how to unleash and unlock the brilliance of these incredible people on the ground and help them connect with each other so they can help each other through mutual support, so they can take collective actions or they can get governments to pay attention to really transform the world from the ground up. And that's how AtmaGo was born.”  

AtmaGo is a free, non-profit, low-bandwidth app and mobile-friendly website to report problems, share solutions, find jobs, and post news about communities, that started off as an application that sent users emergency alerts to help them prepare for disasters and real-time information to help them recover as effectively as possible. 

The impact achieved by the platform proves that it has become an effective tool to connect and empower neighbours and communities to help each other anticipate and respond to emergencies, solve local problems, and become effective change agents. Just last year, it sent out 338 flood alerts and 365 earthquake alerts. An independent recent research study found that people took early action in response to AtmaGo warnings, such as evacuating, moving valuables, and warning others. Overall, the study estimated that each year AtmaGo can reduce mortality and morbidity by a total of 6,000 years of healthy life, cut healthcare costs by up to $4.6 million, and avoid property losses of over $100 million. 

“Our users kept telling us: it doesn't matter to me what I share online, I want to see real change where I live.” Meena says. “And I don't think any other tech platform is really focused on that return, the real world impact, the true vision that our users have, which is: this is a tool for me to be able to achieve this change that I want in my community. 

“And we continue to evolve it further. We released a community impact feature where community leaders can create community groups and document the impact they're having quantitatively and with stories, creating a resumé of their impact in ways that can magnetize funding and support for their work.” 

The effects of the connections made on AtmaGo are no longer limited to the times when disasters occur. In the hours after disaster, people are helping their neighbors find water, shelter, healthcare. And, in the months after, people are working together to rebuild better. And, in fact, they've had the long-term effect of strengthening communities, making them more resilient in the face of climate-related disasters and more determined to trigger system change from the ground up. 

“This is the power of social connection, that is, of people helping one another,” Meena says. “The final really exciting last part of the resilience circle is that people are now addressing together the root causes of disaster. So they are cleaning up garbage from streets, which prevents the intensity of the next flooding, and they are planting mangroves, which prevent the incursion of sea level rise and sea water. They're actually leading us to a more sustainable, resilient future by addressing root causes. 

“AtmaGo is about recognising that people on the ground are ingenious and resourceful, and helping them connect with each other to spread their solutions, build their power, and create this system change.”  

Meena became an Ashoka Fellow in 2021 and her work is featured in a research report from ASPIRe on leveraging platforms for the good of all that studied 14 cutting edge platforms led by Ashoka Fellows around the world and identified key guidelines that initiatives focused on having a positive impact on society can apply for impact at scale. 

Sharing data and knowledge on the platform has been crucial for AtmaGo, as it has allowed communities to learn from each other and to advocate in front of authorities, governments and agencies to get the necessary support in the most effective way. 

“What we have heard from community leaders is that they need a way to document their impact, inspire and learn from others, and get more support from their own community, the government, and the resources to grow their work,” explains Meena. 

Another key feature for the success of AtmaGo is the fact that it adapts and evolves rapidly according to the needs of its users, as the initiative uses Human-Centred Design (HCD) interview techniques at the core of its development strategy. 

“We're just a moving train and that's really what all technology platforms or projects should be.” It’s the way Meena puts it. “We're constantly making new releases every week with new features. We really listen to our users, we're constantly evolving and changing based on what users are telling us they need and want. I think this is one of the key lessons on our journey.” 

What makes this initiative unique is that it provides not only digital opportunities to connect, but it also facilitates face-to-face community empowerment programmes, such as digital literacy and citizen journalism trainings to help women, youth, elders, and rural communities be comfortable sharing their voices, ideas, and solutions online. The organisation also uses gamification, contests, and events to reach and engage users. 

She says: “We partner with community organisations and leaders in the places that we work and we conduct trainings for their constituents on digital literacy, citizen journalism, really helping people find and share their voice and realise that it is an important voice to share and their experiences, their solutions, so that helps get the user generated content that is pro-social that attracts others. 

“I think that, fundamentally, what I've come to realise is that all of the things around AtmaGo – the things that are not technology, the partnership with community organisations, the in person socialisation, events, workshops, are all helping to enable and promote the change on the ground – all of that is what makes this unique and special. This helps us to bring the goals and vision of communities to life. So I think this is actually how we create the future of technology in alignment with society.”  

This is also one of the design principles ASPIRe identified across many successful models. Reaching out and activating agency of marginalised and low-income communities don’t happen automatically, rather social entrepreneurs are extremely deliberate about making sure people who need it the most are able to reap the benefits of the intervention, despite barriers such as lack of digital skills or access to technology. In addition the change itself needs to happen in the community and the way they are able to do things together, and technology is only an enabler in this more complex system.  

Founded in Indonesia in 2015 and launched in Puerto Rico in 2019 and in Ukraine in 2022, AtmaGo has already reached and benefited 10 million people in over 300 locations and now Meena's objective is to expand globally, as she feels that her initiative is technically scalable and has gained the experience to enable communities around world to create bottom up systems change. 

“Our goal is to have this everywhere in the world,” she concludes. “I do feel like the world is ready for this transition to a kinder, more connected, more resilient, more sustainable place. And I think this is the platform for that world. So we want to partner with all the folks who can use and benefit from this. This platform can be everywhere and we need to have the community growth and engagement programming to support the positive benefits from it”. 

Meena's vision goes even further, as she believes AtmaGo could play a pivotal role in the build up and strengthening of a new world, one based in connection, care, and unity. 

“Mutual support is a fundamental pillar of human society. And in Indonesia, it's called 'gotong royong' this idea that we're here to support each other. Right now we're headed to the Metaverse, to a place with further disconnection from the real world and one another, where interaction is mediated with artificial intelligence. And where I think we have the opportunity to go is a place where we're really focusing on real world impact, finding every person’s individual genius, and creating more connection and unity. At Atma, we're focusing now on connecting people creating the opportunity and the inspiration for everyone to be a changemaker. We're bringing together the collective intelligence and collective action needed to address existential threats like climate change.” 


We invite you to read the full report “Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All. Insights from leading Social Entrepreneurs”, co-authored by Irina Snissar Lobo, Maria Zapata and Erlijn Sie.  We hope you find it useful, and that you will share your insights with us at