Conversations with chatbots: helping people in the DRC access multilingual COVID-19 information

“How is coronavirus different from Ebola?”

“What are the symptoms of Corona?”

“How many times a day should I wash my hands?”

“How else can I protect myself from Corona?”

These are questions that people are asking in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Lingala, French, and Congolese Swahili. And their questions are being answered by a bot, in their own language.

The bot’s name is “Uji,” which is short for ukingo and jibu, which mean “prevention” and “response” respectively. Uji is TWB’s first multilingual chatbot and a key part of making sure people have the health information they want, in their own language.

Uji supports collaborative and two-way communication

Everyone has the right to access the information they need and want, when they want it, and in a language they understand. Yet frequently information is only available in global commercially-viable languages, or in the national languages of a country. Furthermore, this information is often only available in a top-down manner, with humanitarians and health agencies deciding what information people can and should receive.

TWB has long advocated for humanitarians and development professionals to integrate multilingual technology in their programs. This allows people living through crises to proactively and independently get answers to their questions. And with the COVID-19 pandemic related restrictions denying crisis-affected people access to humanitarians, new communication tools are needed.

Uji unites language and technology to bring us closer to this vision of truly equitable information access.

The development of Uji

Access to credible, multilingual COVID-19 information is a challenge in the DRC. “Many Lingala and Congolese Swahili speakers in the DRC are accessing COVID-19 information from different radio shows, websites, and posters,” explains Rodrigue Bashizi, TWB’s DRC Community Engagement Officer. “But the main challenge for accessing COVID-19 information is the cost of internet bundles in the country. Sometimes people receive videos talking about COVID-19, but they can’t open them due to a lack of good internet and the cost of bundles.”

People needed a better solution for their COVID-19 questions. Enter Uji. Rodrigue says, “Uji is a very important tool for people in DRC because they lack trusted information. Since Uji is on Telegram and WhatsApp, it will not consume a lot of internet bundles. It is easy to use. Once it is on SMS it will even be available for people in remote areas with no internet access.”

Rodrigue is from Bukavu in the DRC and speaks Swahili, French, English, Lingala, Kinyarwanda and Luganda. Before joining TWB, he worked as a trainer with refugees in Uganda. At TWB, he is a core member of the team developing our multilingual chatbots for two-way communications. Rodrigue is passionate about technology and says he loves working on chatbots, as he is learning something new every day.

Rodrigue and other TWB team members developed the tool in partnership with Kinshasa Digital, a DRC communication agency that was already working with the DRC Ministry of Health to develop a COVID-19 chatbot. By collaborating with Kinshasa Digital and bringing multilingual technology to the existing bot, we will be able to reach more people, in more languages.

TWB developed Uji in French, Congolese Swahili, and Lingala. The bot responds to a wide range of questions about COVID-19, from debunking popular rumors, to tips on how to help children cope with stress due to COVID-19. We are working on expanding its scope to also respond to questions about Ebola. The chatbot is available on WhatsApp and Telegram. By using existing messaging platforms people can access COVID-19 information wherever they are, whenever they want. Whether they are at home, on the bus, or at work, they can find the information they need, right from their phone.

To engage with Uji, users message their COVID-19 questions to the chatbot on WhatsApp or Telegram. They can ask their questions in French, Congolese Swahili, or Lingala. The bot automatically responds in the language in which the question was asked.

The questions were ready and the bot was developed. But before launching the bot fully across these platforms, we needed to test and perfect it.

Linguist-tested and approved

Uji is a work in progress, and it requires human testing in multiple languages to make sure it’s effective and useful. Rodrigue led the testing efforts with volunteers from TWB’s community of translators, IFRC, and other partners. At the beginning of the process, Uji had to learn to understand questions and match responses accurately. But with time and testing, Uji has improved dramatically. And feedback from our community of testers is positive:

“The bot is making great progress in Swahili.”

“It’s getting harder to get an answer that doesn’t match the question. Seems the bot is improving continuously.”

Not only is this individual feedback important, but nearly 70% of users who participated in our satisfaction survey about the bot report that they find the information useful. The chatbot also allows TWB to gather insights about what questions are asked most frequently and what languages are used most often. Humanitarian and health organizations can use this data to tailor their communication strategies, to better provide the information that people want.

We will continue to improve Uji in the coming weeks and months, and welcome additional feedback from users.

The future of TWB chatbots

We hope that Uji is the start of a global restructuring of how multilingual conversations happen. Our aim is to demonstrate Uji’s value as a successful multilingual two-way communication channel in the DRC, and then expand the model into additional countries and for additional uses.

We encourage humanitarian and development professionals to consider incorporating chatbots and other language technology into their programming.

To learn more about incorporating chatbot and language technology into your programming, email [email protected].

Written by Krissy Welle, TWB’s Senior Communications Officer

In the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Communicating in the languages of affected people is a priority for the latest Ebola response plan, and beyond

On 2 March, the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that the last Ebola patient had been discharged from a treatment center. The epidemic isn’t over yet. But, after 18 months during which more than 3,400 people have been infected and over 2,250 died, the relief is palpable. Looking ahead, the Congolese government and its humanitarian partners turn their attention to implementing lessons from this 10th Ebola outbreak. In a country where more than 200 languages are spoken, prioritizing communication in the languages of affected people is one key lesson to help address the next emergency faster. The latest Ebola strategic response plan (SRP 4.1) points the way.

DRC Ebola response plan

The languages of affected people are finally a priority

The plan highlights the importance of improving risk communication and community engagement by using the languages and the formats preferred by people at risk. This includes developing communication tools and feedback mechanisms in appropriate languages, formats, and channels. The plan also emphasizes the need to equip health communicators to relay accurate information in local languages and with culturally acceptable wording.

For the first time since the beginning of this outbreak, the SRP mentions these issues. This is a key advance in adopting insights highlighted by health professionals, anthropologists, and communication specialists. It addresses three key factors TWB identified as critical to the effectiveness of Ebola-related communication: the languages that responders use; the content that responders deliver; and the way responders deliver that content. It also acknowledges the importance of feedback gathered from affected people by linking it to follow-up actions. People continue to have concerns and questions around Ebola and response efforts. Their concerns must be heard and their questions answered as the current outbreak draws to a close.

This is an important lesson that matters beyond Ebola

In multilingual DRC, to help people protect themselves responders need to listen, understand, and provide information and services in the languages of those at risk. Improving communication cannot alone guarantee better outcomes. But unless language is built into risk communication and community engagement strategies, response teams are unlikely to be effective.

Ebola DRC response plan

Recent actions by the risk communication and community engagement working group provide a case in point. Rumors and confusion have impeded efforts to contain the outbreak. So the group developed a multilingual tool to address the 25 most frequently asked questions. They collected the questions through the response-wide community feedback mechanism. The group members jointly drafted answers, and TWB supported with plain language editing to ensure accuracy and clarity. The group involved Ebola survivors to ensure the wording did not stigmatize them. Questions and answers were then translated into local languages for the widest possible reach and understanding. This tool equips responders to prevent the spread of misinformation and keep people safe.

Health professionals, social researchers, communication experts, and affected people worked together to provide and disseminate accurate, understandable information. This should be standard practice in mitigating the consequences of this outbreak, preparing for future health emergencies, and addressing wider humanitarian needs.

It is high time to turn evidence into action

The Congolese government and its humanitarian partners have a crucial role to play in implementing the latest response plan. And it seems they finally intend to give affected people’s languages and communication preferences the attention they deserve. TWB will work closely with those who are committed to a more language-aware approach. By proactively developing field teams’ capacity and resources, we can lift the language barriers to effective and accountable risk communication and community engagement.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer and Laure Venier, Community Engagement Program Coordinator for DRC, Translators without Borders.