A novel virus calls for a novel chatbot

By | 4 minute read | April 16, 2020

It all started with a Friday morning commute in early March.

While on his way to work, Pete Kemp found himself reflecting on the growing threat posed by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which was at the time disrupting lives in East Asia and beginning to spread out to other geographies. Kemp had been working for IBM Business Partner Filament for less than a year, acting as the Head of Product for the company’s EBM solution, a chatbot management platform.

As part of this role, Kemp is responsible for developing new and interesting ways of using EBM to solve customer challenges. And while watching the scenery pass by that Friday, he turned that focus toward the growing pandemic.

Pete Kemp, Head of Product, EBM, Filament

“Pete’s instinct was to find a way to help,” chimes in Phil Westcott, Chief Executive Officer at Filament. “He felt a need to contribute to this COVID crisis that we’re currently all dealing with. And he was figuring where the Filament team could best help in this fight.”

In particular, Kemp began envisioning a publicly available chatbot that could deliver useful guidance around COVID-19. And over the course of that workday, he began considering how he could convert this idea into something truly useful.

Working weekend

“This was back when you could still travel about,” explains Kemp. “I spent the next few nights over the weekend working at a colleague’s house, spinning up an instance of EBM. We connected it with Watson Assistant, and then built out an FAQ and conversation flow based on information made available for the World Health Organization (WHO) website.”

“We’ve all been subject to a deluge of information around the virus, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily verified” explains Kemp. “And there are enormous challenges and complications that could come from falsified information. As an AI agency, we’re not best placed to provide guidance, but the WHO is. And that was certainly behind my thinking in the initial conception of the bot.”

Hi, my name is Iris

Launched on March 2, 2020, Iris, the new chatbot, lets users ask questions — and receive vetted, reliable answers from WHO-backed sources —surrounding COVID-19, particularly regarding symptoms and how to protect themselves.

Even questions that might be unexpected.

“I have an eight-year-old son,” recounts Kemp. “And the first thing he asked the chatbot was — can you get the virus from poo? It’s a question you’d expect from an eight-year-old, but it’s also a question that anyone caring for an older parent or ailing family member might ask. We had to quickly retrain Iris to be able to give an answer. Fortunately, the WHO already had one we could give.”

And being able to regularly update information is one of the key advantages offered by this chatbot backed by EBM and IBM® Watson™ Assistant technology. As we continue to uncover and learn more about this novel coronavirus, our behaviors, treatment strategies and even social interactions must change as well. So each day, Filament updates Iris with the latest information being released by the WHO.

The good fight

Since its launch, Iris has fielded queries from more than 1,000 unique users, reflecting over 1,500 conversations and 5,000 messages. Of course, Iris is doing more than just answering questions.

“The biggest threat to health systems right now is too many people coming into the hospital, overwhelming their ability to cope,” explains Westcott. “That means their telephone service needs to be a first line of defense, but those can be quickly overwhelmed too. We wanted to provide another line of defense built on verified, accurate information that can ideally be partially personalized.”

Bearing in mind that personalization, Filament is taking the next step to roll out new Fast Track COVID-19 Response Chatbots to charities and businesses. These solutions will empower users to not only disseminate Coronavirus-related health information, but also curate and control their own content that might relate to the pandemic — such as helping at-risk citizens find details related to specific support options. Or allowing businesses to communicate updated policies and guidance.

“We have clients who are being inundated with questions from their employees and customers,” adds Westcott. “What’s going on right now? What is the policy on visiting stores and customers? Are locations open? Can we buy specialist equipment if we’re working from home? Can we travel?”

These questions need to be answered quickly, but the answers may change from day to day, or even hour to hour. And the correct answer might be different depending on who is asking the question.

“We’re all learning to cope with a degree of uncertainty, but by sharing the right information, we’ll be in a better position to combat this pandemic,” concludes Westcott. “And that is exactly the use case that EBM and Watson excel at solving together.”