By Emily Aiken and Joseph Agoada with support from the InSTEDD team
Whether or not you are aware of it, you have probably interacted with a chatbot – whether checking your finances, making a travel reservation, or even ordering a pizza. But what opportunities exist to use chatbots to assist humanitarians and development practitioners?
Chatbots are conversational computer programs that can read message questions, interpret responses, and perform actions or make decisions, without any assistance from a live person on the other end. For example, cosmetics supplier Sephora’s chatbot asks potential customers a few questions on beauty preferences, produces personalized product recommendations, and then allows the user to make purchases without ever leaving their messaging application.
Chatbots for Development
In the same way a chatbot can successfully give personalized information on makeup choices to a shopper, the technology has the potential to be an innovative tool for development and humanitarian organizations to better communicate with their constituencies. The ability to deploy a scaled outreach campaign while not heavily burdening staff with regards to time and training has the potential to be one invaluable use of chatbots to development organizations with and without an ICT focus.
Chatbots smartly guide beneficiaries and other end users through surveys, making the surveys easier to understand and complete correctly. There are options for additional functionality using artificial intelligence and machine learning in the interpretation of messages and sending of information.
With smartphones, social media and Wi-Fi connectivity becoming more widely prevalent worldwide, another value of chatbots can be reaching captive audiences that are now using SMS for their daily communication. Chatbots can also reach people without being totally reliant on mobile network access.
The field of chatbots for good is still emerging, but nonprofit and government organizations have begun to develop use cases. Here are a few examples:
- MedicMojo is building a chatbot for healthcare that will keep track of patients’ vital signs between appointments, provide reminders for taking medication and doctor’s visits, and facilitate appointment scheduling.
- Bolsa Familia Bot is a chatbot that allows families in Brazil to find information about eligibility and accessing critical social services.
- Yeshi simulates a young girl in Ethiopia on a journey to find water, humanizing the water crisis for many potential contributors.
- HealthTap allows users to enter questions about their symptoms, then returns responses based on searching an extensive database for similar queries. If the user is not satisfied, it then connects them with a doctor.
While there are major upsides and potential for the chatbots, there are challenges too. In addition to their relative newness as a technology, chatbots require significant technical design and development know-how to make them work successfully in large-scale deployments. Chatbots require more complex development process than mobile phone surveys and may need to interact and integrate with existing systems, which requires interoperability work.
InSTEDD began working on its first chatbot project in 2016 through a collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP). WFP’s goal for their chatbot is to aid in the organizational mission of zero hunger worldwide. In practice this has meant developing a chatbot that can aid efforts in surveying and communicating with populations at high risk of food insecurity, particularly those that are displaced and living in refugee camps.
Over its year of development the WFP chatbot has already undergone a deep design, discovery and iteration process to ensure it can be durable and adapt to many different contexts.
The answer then to the question of what value chatbots offer the development and humanitarian sector should be viewed in the broader landscape of ongoing efforts.
Chatbots will not be the solution to all problems, but simply another ICT tool that has the potential to deliver value with a thoughtful approach and proper design and development. Although there are still important questions to be answered, expect to see useful chatbots making a positive difference in the world over the coming years.
Does your organization have an idea for a chatbot? We want to hear from you – leave a comment on this post and let’s start a discussion on the potential for chatbots in development.