An important part of our job at mVAM is to stay tuned into the developments in the rapidly evolving mobile technology sector. Lately we noticed two main trends: first, more and more people in the places we work are using smartphones and chat apps to communicate, leading us to think about how to better reach out to this segment of the population. Second, chatbots, robots that live in chat applications, are all the rage and have a big potential to contribute to our work.
What is a chatbot?
A chatbot is a computer programme that uses artificial intelligence to interact with users through a messaging service in a way that is designed to seem like a conversation. We’ve been experimenting with ways to expand our capacity for two-way communication, i.e. contacting local communities but also hearing back from them. A chatbot provides a friendlier, more responsive way to interact with people by letting them communicate more naturally, in a “chat” as the name implies. As well as answering the chatbot’s questions, users can also ask the chatbot simple questions.
Since we piloted mVAM in 2013, we’ve collaborated with InSTEDD, a nonprofit design and technology company that develops innovative open source tools for social impact. For three years, we used their SMS and IVR software to collect food security information. So when we wanted to delve into using chatbots, it was only natural that we reached out to them. Of course, not everyone we want to survey will have access to a smartphone. A large proportion of people using messaging apps at moment are young, urban, and male, introducing a bias to our surveys. But as smartphone ownership becomes more prevalent this won’t always be the case. This technology is really promising so we want to stay on top of it and see how it can be used for humanitarian purposes. As a first step, we want to use a chatbot to conduct a mobile food security survey on a messaging app. At the moment we are using Telegram because they have an API, which allows developers to easily build customized tools, but we are designing the bot so that it can be used on other messaging apps.
Here’s what our chatbot with InSTEDD would look like. Respondents are contacted on Telegram via their smartphones and asked a series of questions, about their food security and livelihood situations just like they would be by phone, SMS, or on our other mVAM modalities.
Check out our chatbot demo:
Why are we so excited about chatbots?
Chatting on a messaging app lets us collect new types of information. People can send our chatbot pictures, voice notes and geolocations that would enrich our food security analysis. As part of our analysis we ask people socio-demographic questions about things like their roof type, which give indications about a household’s economic status. Using the chatbot we can actually get pictures of these answers! We’ll literally see and hear about the situation on the ground and get to double check where these pockets of food insecurity actually are.
It’s cheap! Not only does the chatbot have the potential to reach more people, the format is also cheaper than SMS, IVR and Live Calls.
It’s way more fun. The chatbot can process more complex sentences and respond more dynamically, letting the user drive the conversation. There’s a whole spectrum of things a chatbot can be programmed to do anything from a stilted, regimented conversation where users can only answer in a certain way, to natural language processing where users can chat as they would with a human. We think the technology just might not be there yet to meet our needs for a completely natural chat- we followed the Microsoft chatbot problem closely. However since we are only focusing on a specific topic we are opting for something in the middle- that allows us to get the food security information we need but also give users a natural, fun experience.
It lets us share more information. The chatbot can automatically read WFP’s food price database and tell people about the food and commodity prices where they live and give information about any big changes in the last few months. This database is so detailed that we can actually provide this information down to the market level in many countries! Every time a new dataset is added to the original database, the chatbot automatically updates its price information, ensuring that local communities can access the latest information.
It’s flexible. The chatbot doesn’t have to just be used for prices. Users could ask WFP questions about our food distributions or programmes – whatever information we are able to insert in our database. This way we can provide a great incentive for people to complete our surveys, giving our beneficiaries a chance to give us feedback on the services we provide, and sending them a variety of information at a low cost.
Our chatbot is still a prototype, but we will let you know how our testing goes before we roll out our first pilot.