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Experimenting with chatbots in Nigeria and Haiti

WFP/Lucia Casarin

Testing the bot in Haiti – WFP/Lucia Casarin

Readers of this blog know that the team has been experimenting with chatbots to communicate with disaster-affected communities – read our previous posts about our prototype and the Nielsen Hackathon.

As part of this effort, during recent missions to Haiti and Nigeria, our team went out to talk to communities to find out whether a chatbot would be right for them.

Would a chatbot be a stretch in these communities?

Well it’s not that much of a stretch.

In North East Nigeria, most displaced people live in Maiduguri, a city of over 1 million people. In this ‘urban’ setting connectivity is good, most people own cell phones and many young people use social media and messaging apps. Mobile operators have been offering services that allow people to access the internet by selling ‘social bundles’ (unlimited social media access sold in very small increments) and offer some services for free, including Facebook Light and Facebook Messenger.

In Haiti, three-quarters of the population live in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where 3G connectivity is good and most people use messaging apps to communicate with friends and family. Even in rural and difficult-to-reach communities, leaders and young people own smartphones and connect to the internet. There is a lot of competition between mobile operators so the prices for mobile data are very low. This means that most people can afford to access the internet either via their own smartphone or from shared smartphones.

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Mobile phones charging station on the road from Léogane Peri to Port-au-Prince WFP/Lucia Casarin

A bare-bones demo

In both countries we tested a simple chatbot that asks people about food prices and what the food security is like in their community. The survey we used was much more basic than our usual mobile questionnaires as we felt it was important to keep things simple at this stage.

For Nigeria, the bot demo was initially in English but we soon translated it into Hausa, the primary language spoken by displaced persons in Maiduguri. In Haiti we made it available both in Creole and French. The chatbot was very responsive on 3G and it even worked with slower 2G connections so the technology works in these contexts. But this was only the starting point, what we really wanted to know was what ‘real’ people thought about the bot.

We organized focus group discussions with displaced people in Maiduguri and with community representatives in Haiti. We helped people access the WFP bot via their Facebook accounts, and they began chatting away.

Sounds cool, but what are the limitations?

Here’s what people said:

First of all, people thought the bot is a convenient, quick, and easy way to get in touch directly with WFP and they really liked that the bot allows them to speak to WFP without intermediaries. They had lot to tell us particularly through the open-ended question where they typed out detailed responses.

In Nigeria, they did tell us that our (somewhat wordy) English-language demo should be translated into Hausa because it would make it easier for everyone to use. Our first group of testers were young people who were already Facebook users and so were familiar with Messenger. It was therefore no surprise that they were interacting smoothly with the bot and able to go through our questionnaire in minutes.

WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

Testing the bot in Nigeria – WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

In Haiti, people started interacting with the bot as if it was a human rather than an automated questionnaire so they got stuck pretty fast when it wasn’t as naturally responsive as they’d expected. This means that either we give clearer instructions to people or we add Natural Language Processing capabilities to our bot.

There are of course other barriers. In both countries women appeared to be less likely to own a smartphone. This means that bot users will likely be overwhelmingly young, male and better educated than other people – hardly ‘representative’ of WFP’s target affected population. The free version of the bot is also not always available: in Nigeria only Airtel subscribers can access it, while in Haiti the free service doesn’t exist yet.

This means that the bot would need to be a complement to the other tools we have. We might use data from the bot to obtain a quick situation update, but we will continue relying on other sources for more representative data.


Also published on Medium.

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