It’s only by prioritizing two-way communication tools that we can create more equitable communication and access to the information people need to stay healthy and informed.
“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 in due course will learn more languages so others in DRC too can communicate with it.
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. That 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.
We developed Uji in French, Congolese Swahili, and Lingala. The bot responds to a wide range of questions around COVID-19, from symptoms and 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 around 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.
Uji uses natural language processing technology to allow people to ask questions in their own words.
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.
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 that Uji provides 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 better to what communities actually 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