Research on the Move: Exploring WhatsApp as a tool for understanding the intersections between migration, mobility, health and gender in South Africa

Thea de Gruchy, Jo Vearey, Calvin Opiti, Langelihle Mlotshwa, Karima Manji and Johanna Hanefeld (2021). ‘Research on the move: exploring WhatsApp as a tool for understanding the intersections between migration, mobility, health and gender in South Africa’, Globalization and Health 17:71, DOI:

Reflecting global norms, South Africa is associated with high levels of cross border and internal population mobility, yet migration-aware health system responses are lacking. Existing literature highlights three methodological challenges limiting the development of evidence-informed responses to migration and health: (1) lack of engagement with the process of migration; (2) exclusion of internal migrants; and (3) lack of methodologies that are able to capture ‘real-time’ data about health needs and healthcare seeking experiences over both time and place. In this paper, we reflect on a four month pilot project which explored the use of WhatsApp Messenger – a popular mobile phone application used widely in sub Saharan Africa – and assessed its feasibility as a research tool with migrant and mobile populations in order to inform a larger study that would address these challenges.

A four-month pilot was undertaken with eleven participants between October 2019 and January 2020. Using Survey Node, an online platform that allows for the automatic administration of surveys through WhatsApp, monthly surveys were administered. The GPS coordinates of participants were also obtained. Recruited through civil society partners in Gauteng, participants were over the age of 18, comfortable engaging in English, and owned WhatsApp compatible cell phones. Enrolment involved an administered survey and training participants in the study protocol. Participants received reimbursement for their travel costs and monthly cell phone data.

Out of a possible eighty eight survey and location responses, sixty one were received. In general, participants responded consistently to the monthly surveys and shared their location when prompted. Survey Node proved an efficient and effective way to administer surveys through WhatsApp. Location sharing via WhatsApp proved cumbersome and led to the development of a secure platform through which participants could share their location. Ethical concerns about data sharing over WhatsApp were addressed.

The success of the pilot indicates that WhatsApp can be used as a tool for data collection with migrant and mobile populations, and has informed the finalisation of the main study. Key lessons learnt included the importance of research design and processes for participant enrolment, and ensuring that the ethical concerns associated with WhatsApp are addressed.




About Thea de Gruchy

Thea de Gruchy is a postdoctoral researcher at the ACMS working on migration and health. Since the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic in South Africa, much of Thea's work has pivoted to exploring the effect of the pandemic and implications of the South African state's response to the pandemic for migrant and mobile populations. As part of this work, Thea helps to coordinate the Migration and Coronavirus in Southern African group (MiCoSA).

Her PhD research, which was supervised by Jo Vearey, funded by the Wellcome Trust and part of the Migration and Health Project (maHp) at ACMS, centred on questions of policy process and asked how policy is made and influenced in South Africa. In 2015 and the beginning of 2016, Thea worked with Ingrid Palmary to answer some of these questions and inform a conceptual framework on how policy is made in South Africa using the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013 as a case study. Her doctoral work uses a case study of health and occupational safety policy in the South African agricultural sector to elaborate on and develop this framework.

Thea’s MA, which was funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF), focused on the immigration industry and the relationship between the state, immigration intermediaries, and migrants. Part of this research explored the increasing precarity experienced by immigrants in South Africa as a result of changing and increasingly stringent immigration policy and regulations. Having received a Faculty of Humanities Ad Hoc Grant from the University of the Witwatersrand for 2016 to follow on with some of this research and as part of the Security at the Margins (SeaM) project – a collaborative project between ACMS and the Centre for African Studies at the University of Edinburgh – she continues to be interested in the relationship between policy, specifically policy framed in terms of security, and the precarity of marginalised and vulnerable groups.

Thea currently co-ordinates the PhD Work in Progress seminars at the ACMS.