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Credit: By StudioKanu on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Messaging apps have become more than quick and useful ways of staying in touch with friends, as news organisations have tapped into their newsgathering potential.

There are times and places where traditional chat apps like WhatsApp or Viber won't work, however, either because a country has restricted their access or a breaking news event makes it difficult to access the internet.

This is why FireChat yesterday announced a new feature, allowing users to communicate through private messaging even when an internet connection is unavailable.

It's empowering the way in which people communicate and making communication more resilient because people are free to build their own networksMicha Benoliel, Firechat
Two important elements to accompany the feature are end-to-end encryption of messages and "store and follow up", an option that allows information to be stored on people's phones when they're offline and read later.

"When your messages go through other people's phones and are carried by them, you only want them to reach the right person and be read by the sender and the receiver only," said Micha Benoliel, co-founder and chief executive of Open Garden.

The app has been around since March last year, launched by San Francisco-based Open Garden to showcase its newly developed technology called "peer-to-peer mesh networking".

This means that, when Internet access is lacking, you can still send messages through FireChat because the app will use the radio inside your mobile device to connect directly with other people's phones.

Benoliel explained the main aim was to "show the potential of this technology", mainly by targeting events like music festivals in remote locations, where there is poor or no internet access.

Through FireChat, messages can travel up to 70 meters (210 feet) from one phone to the next in 10 to 20 minutes.

You don't run the risk of losing your "connection" if a larger group of people are also using it, because the messages will form a network and circulate from one device to the other until they reach the intended recipient.

How peer-to-peer mesh networking works in practice

Firechat joins the growing ranks of chat apps useful to news organisations. The BBC has used WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat and Line as news distribution platforms to reach people around breaking or ongoing events.

The New York Times published to WhatsApp for the first time this month to send people information about Pope Francis' visits to South America and many news organisations are looking at these apps both as distribution channels and newsgathering tools.

FireChat came into the spotlight quickly after its launch, as students in Taiwan used it last year during the Sunflower Movement protest when the government threatened to shut down access to the internet.

Benoliel said the company "quickly realised" the app's potential for this type of event when 500,000 people installed the app to communicate during the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong.

"What happened on the streets of Hong Kong is that you had so many people there, that all the mobile networks were congested and this was the only way of communicating," he told

In light of this, FireChat developed a partnership with social news agency Storyful earlier this year, creating an "open live newsroom" within the app to explore citizen journalism.

It has its own hashtag or chatroom, #Storyful, as the app groups discussion topics into public chat rooms, such as #travel or #elections.

You can search for and follow people on FireChat and exchange photos, but Benoliel said he wanted to perfect the basic function of text messaging before expanding to include audio, video and other multimedia elements.

"It's empowering the way in which people communicate and making communication more resilient because people are free to build their own networks."

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