Chatbots in humanitarian settings: revolutionary, a fad or something in-between?

‘Hi, can I speak with UNHCR?’

Mobile messaging apps are the fastest-growing digital communications phenomenon to date. Today, more than 2.5 billion people around the world use messaging apps, a figure that is expected to rise to 3.6 billion by 2018 – that’s almost half of the world’s population. The world is concurrently seeing unprecedented numbers of people forcibly displaced from their homes, people who are often separated from the families and communities they once had close to them.

For UNHCR, this is changing the dynamic of how we’re engaging with refugees. With a presence in over 140 countries, UNHCR plays a critical role in supporting and facilitating community building -traditionally engaging with refugees face-to-face on a daily basis. Given this technological and social shift, humanitarian responders, including UNHCR, are realising that using multiple channels – including new technologies – are part and parcel of how we need to approach to communicating with communities moving forward. Through engagement with refugees via digital platforms, humanitarian responders can provide not only relaying critical lifesaving information to refugees, but also establish a dialogue in which refugees can provide their insights, feedback and priorities. In turn, this will result in more effective, better-targeted humanitarian programming.

Often the scale of resources required to adequately deal with, address and refer issues raised through these platforms has limited the level of use, or priority they have been given.  Additionally, each request’s own uniqueness, complexity and sensitivity requires that UNHCR invests adequate time to deal with it appropriately – people are looking for more personalised service provision. Nonetheless, the humanitarian community is beginning to realise that as technology is advancing, they represent an opportunity to engage at scale, ensure that data is adequately captured, securely stored and shared with front-line staff, who are currently wading through ad-hoc unstructured requests for support.

One example of this is the I am a Syrian in Lebanon Facebook platform which is a large Facebook group run by volunteers who inform and support the group members. These volunteers have a direct support line to UNHCR staff in Lebanon to ensure they are able to provide up-to-date information and that any serious concerns can be raised to UNHCR or authorities.

Lines are open between 08:00 and 16:00.

The advent of artificial intelligence presents an opportunity. The capacity for technology to navigate human speech and text has evolved to such an extent that it is become ever more possible and plausible to create dialogue and understanding to the level where – at its most powerful – users cannot discern between a human and a machine.

Practically speaking though, the artificial intelligence used in commercial chatbots has a long way to go before it can replace all human aspects of dialogue, or create a seamless interaction with a user. For example research by the International Committee of the Red Cross in their Report Messaging Apps for Humanitarian Futures highlights the potential opportunities and risks of using messaging apps and chatbots in humanitarian response but is relatively muted about the potential of chatbots:

“Despite mixed reviews for the first generation of messaging-app bots, which users often described as glitchy or limited in their ability to understand users’ intent, other major messaging apps are expected to support similar technology by the end of 2016. For the foreseeable future, the landscape is likely to be dominated by simple, functional bots that stick reliably to a pre-defined script.”

And there are others that are claiming that Chatbots are not going to be the next big thing. Nonetheless, we are also seeing reports that chatbots will help businesses save billions in the near future through their automation and efficiency gains vis-a-vis customer service.

Whichever side of the fence you might be on, there remains an opportunity in seeing how artificial intelligence can operate in place of a human to undertake certain simple tasks. Through the effective use of a chatbot, it may be possible to triage and refer requests, saving the human time required to deal with each and every query. In the face of the aforementioned challenges, combined with an increasingly challenging funding environment for humanitarian organisations, chatbots have become an avenue for scale and efficiency in ways difficult to establish with traditional channels of communication.

I didn’t understand your query. Please try again.

Given this context, UNHCR Innovation Service wanted to start experimenting with chatbots to see whether they were a suitable tool for UNHCR operations. UNHCR has had a strong level of collaboration with Facebook on numerous projects throughout the years and Facebook was eager to see how UNHCR could start experimenting with chatbots.

Facebook funded a small pilot test to see what could be established and whether it might be something that can support UNHCR meet the information needs of refugees. Facebook and a sub-contractor worked with UNHCR Innovation Service to determine how to kick this off within UNHCR.

The UNHCR office in Jordan has been operating a call centre for a number of years. Through brokering a partnership with Mobile Network Operator ZAIN, the call centre has become one of the most well-utilised channels of communication between refugees in Jordan and UNHCR. With 14 agents on staff, the centre handles thousands of calls a day. Yet due to the cost, and increased popularity of the hotline, the call centre is seeking new ways to make efficiencies in their operation. Currently, the centre is on the cusp of a technological advancement linking the Interactive Voice Response system that triages call with the refugee assistance database. This allows for simple call requests such as regarding the office opening/consultation times.

Given the conducive environment created by the operation already having protocols for keeping information up-to-date for the call centre staff, UNHCR Innovation Service approached the Regional Office and Branch Office in Jordan and they illustrated their interest in being part of the experiment. Subsequently, UNHCR defined user stories (working out what different users would like to achieve with the tool), high-level requirements and then worked with Facebook and the subcontractors to start developing an experimental bot. We utilised call centre scripts to help develop the content and linked in with different UNHCR staff from technology roles to community-based protection staff to ensure cohesiveness with the ongoing call-centre operations. Further, into the development process UNHCR undertook some scenario-based user testing of the bot from both an end-user and system administrator perspective.