Saving the world – Watson Guild, NSPCC and Friends of the Earth use AI to envision a better tomorrow

By and Philip Graham | 4 minute read | October 14, 2019

Watson Guild is an initiative in the UK driven by IBM and IBM Business Partners* with the objective of developing AI solutions for social good.

What makes this program special is that it’s a community of practice where people from the IBM Partner Ecosystem come together as a group to decide on the themes, the not-for-profit organizations and the projects that will deliver back to society, all while leveraging IBM Watson AI technology to solve a specific challenge. Parties contribute as equals – including the chosen charities – with one vision, one team and all sharing a single common purpose.

In 2019, Watson Guild supported two organizations – The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and Friends of the Earth.

Designing AI solutions for social good

Following initial discussions, IBM hosted Design Thinking workshops back in March with our Business Partners and the two not-for-profit organizations to get the project development underway. Design thinking methodology helped the teams to get in the mind-set of the user to understand what the beneficiary of these solutions might do, say, think and feel.

The next stage took place in June at the IBM Research and Development Labs in Hursley near Winchester. As part of a “hackathon”, the two teams worked with experts from IBM’s Ecosystem Advocacy Group to produce the bones of a proof of concept (PoC) using IBM Watson APIs. The teams then took away the draft PoCs, and in July, after fine-tuning, they presented their work as a protype solution, handing over the IP to both charities.

Helping kids one chat at a time

For NSPCC, Watson Guild particularly focused on its Childline initiative, which was started in 1986 by TV personality Esther Rantzen. Childline is a free, private and confidential service where children can talk about any issue they’re going through – to help them with anything from abuse and bullying to exam stress and relationships.

Using IBM Watson Assistant technology, the team worked with Alex Gray, Childline Project Development Manager at NSPCC, to develop a prototype chatbot platform. With this tool, rather than the young person having to wait in a queue to a speak with someone, the chatbot can answer the majority of the child’s most immediate questions such as “I’m struggling to do my homework” or “I can’t sleep.”

The solution can also filter out more high-risk questions which could be linked to an abuse situation. And as part of the design, trigger-words were included so that a Childline counsellor could intervene for these high-risk situations.

After evaluating this PoC, Alex Gray offered feedback about the project:

“This feels like a defining moment in Childline’s history, and you have played a massive part in kick-starting it. We are hugely excited thinking about our next steps and the difference it could make. We’re in the process of regrouping and designing a phased project that will bring the proof of concept to life.”

“A massive thank you to the IBM Watson Guild from the team here at the NSPCC for your hard work, time and enthusiasm during this amazing project. And much more powerful than my thanks, is a thank you on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children and young people that your work will benefit.”

Don’t recycle. Re-use.

Every year we throw away a vast amount of plastic, and the majority, perhaps 70%, is not re- recycled. Moreover, a lot of it ends up in landfills, is burned in incinerators that contribute to climate change or escapes to the environment where it can reportedly take up to 1,000 years to degrade.

Taking the above as the starting point, Watson Guild worked with Julian Kirby, Lead Plastic Pollution Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, to investigate how AI technology could be used to encourage people to re-use (rather than recycle) plastic and other materials. Homing in on a specific problem, the team looked at a solution to encourage the re-use of take-away plastic food containers. 

The project involved two phases. The first phase delivered a prototype chatbot with the aim of both encouraging and helping consumers (as they order a takeaway meal on-line) to select a food supplier that offers re-usable containers. The second, longer-term phase investigated the use of AI image recognition to pick up bar codes on takeaway containers – with the aim of creating an ecosystem for the collection and re-use of the container.

There’s something of a “wow factor” about both phases, which was expressed by Julian Kirby when he stated, “Huge gratitude for bringing us all together and to all you wonderful Watson Guilders who’ve given so much time, enthusiasm and ingenuity to our cause over these last few months.”

*Partner members of Watson Guild in 2019 are Ammeon, Arrow, Barrachd, Cognition Foundry, Ensono, Filament, IBM, Meridian IT, Persistent, SCC, TechData and TES.