It must have been above 40 degrees Celsius that afternoon in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Hundreds of people were waiting to cash the mobile money they receive from the World Food Programme (WFP), sitting under tarps that provided some protection from the sun – in other words, the perfect time to sit and chat.
“How many of you have smartphones?” we asked. We waited for the question to be asked in Hausa, and out came mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. “How many of you have Facebook accounts?” Even before the question was translated, we saw nods all around.
“Of course we’re on Facebook – it’s the way we can message friends and family”
Displaced people in Nigeria, even those facing famine and urgently need aid, are connected and rely on messaging apps.
A leap of faith: from SMS to chatbot surveys
Collecting information in communities on the humanitarian frontline is dangerous, cumbersome and expensive, particularly in conflict settings. In north-east Nigeria, our assessment teams travel by helicopter or in convoys, and some locations are simply too insecure to visit at all. This means that decisions about emergency food assistance are sometimes made with very limited information.
But increasing access to mobile phones is changing this. WFP’s mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) project has adopted SMS, Interactive Voice Response and call centres to collect food security information from communities enduring crises like Ebola or the Syrian civil war. Nelsen, a global information and measurement company, found that using SMS we are able to run our surveys 50% cheaper and 83% faster than we would have for face-to-face surveys, while putting no enumerators in harm’s way. The system’s success means we’re now using mobile tools to collect and share information in 33 countries.
Our successes with automated surveys meant we were keen to look into using chatbots (automated assistants that are programmed into messaging apps) to collect food security data. We were especially curious about the fact that a bot could help us ‘chat’ with thousands of people simultaneously and in real-time, like others have.
To reach as many people as possible, we decided to create a bot that would operate on a popular messaging app, like Facebook Messenger or Telegram, so people could take our surveys on a platform they already use.
You might think it’s unreasonable to expect people in conflict settings to be connected at all. But, as our Nigeria example shows, their connection is a lifeline to normality. We also found that in many countries operators sell ‘social bundles’ that offer unlimited Facebook, WhatsApp or other social media for a single low price.
Where ‘Facebook Lite’ is available, people can even connect for free. All this means that communicating with vulnerable communities could happen in real time and at little to no cost to the respondent or WFP.
Introducing Food Bot
Last summer, we decided to try it out. InSTEDD developed a chatbot prototype that we demoed with Sub-Saharan African migrants in Rome. The demo asked the respondent to share information about food security in their community and allowed them to look up updated food prices.
Our testers liked the fact that talking to our bot felt like having a conversation with a real person. We felt like we were on to something! Earlier this year, Nielsen helped us further develop a chatbot design that calls for multiple gateways, natural language processing capabilities, and a reporting engine.
The current version of Food Bot is programmed to ask a predefined set of questions to the user – it does not rely on artificial intelligence yet. Food Bot goes through a simple questionnaire and saves the answers so that our analysts can process them.
The chatbot format also lets users ask us questions and is a channel for us to give useful information we’ve collected back to these communities. These include messaging on WFP programmes, food prices, weather updates, nutrition and disease prevention. The version we are using for testing currently runs on Facebook Messenger, but we want to make sure it works on all the relevant messaging apps.
No walk in the park
Before we get carried away, we need to consider some of the very real challenges. A timely report by the ICRC, Block Party and the Engine Room emphasizes the new responsibilities that humanitarian agencies assume as they make use of messaging apps to communicate with affected populations. Notably, the use of chat apps to collect information from people who have fled their countries or home raises the important issue of responsible data practices. If we are ever hacked, people’s personal details could be put at risk, including names and pictures. We will certainly have to review our existing data responsibility guide and continue obtaining advice from the International Data Responsibility Group (IDRG), as well as build an understanding of data responsibility principles in the field.
We also suspect that the audience we reach through Food Bot will be younger, better off, more urban and more male than the general population. The convenience of collecting data through a bot does not dispense with the hard task of seeking out those who are not connected and who are probably the most vulnerable. We want to explore ways to make our bot as accessible as possible like translating text into local languages, using more icons in low literacy settings and working with civil society organisations that specialize in digital inclusion.
Finally, we realize that we must prepare to manage all of the unstructured information that Food Bot will collect. Colleagues in the field are already weary of collecting yet more data that won’t be analysed or used. As a result, the team is working on setting up the infrastructure that is needed to process the large volumes of free text data that we expect the bot to produce. This is where our work with automated data processing and dashboards should pay dividends.
This post was originally published on ICT Works as part of a series on humanitarian chatbots.