When some questions are too difficult to ask, this chatbot is here to help
As part of UNICEF's COVID-19 emergency response, the winners of a hackathon for youth in Georgia are working hard to create a chatbot which answers all the burning questions kids may have.
Nutsa, 22-years-old, lives in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Tbilisi with her two sisters. Her youngest sister is almost a decade younger. But the sisters are very close. They tell each other everything. Well, almost everything. Sometimes, her sister asks her questions she doesn’t have an immediate answer for. And sometimes, Nutsa wonders which questions her sister is afraid to ask her. Personal questions. Questions she used to have at her age, but which she wouldn’t dare ask anyone.
“I was quite ‘nerdy’ growing up,” she says. “I was reading books non-stop, and I was quite shy.”
Nutsa, who is enrolled in an MA program on international development at Ilia State University, is one of the young women designing and developing a new chatbot for youth to help them find truthful answers to the questions they may have during these confusing times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been disconcerting for both young and old, partly because of the wealth of information floating around online. Researchers are publishing preliminary results of their studies without peer review - which are then picked up by the media, all the while nefarious actors are maliciously spreading disinformation and misinformation about the virus’ causes and cures. It’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t.
That is why UNICEF decided to accelerate the development of the chatbot, the winning idea of the Hackathon “Hack Outside the Box” back in December 2019. This is how it works: teens can ask the chatbot questions about any topic they might be confused about, can’t seem to find a reliable answer to, or are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask someone they know. And right now, the need for reliable answers is increasingly critical.
“Everyone gets their information online,” says 19-year-old Gvantsa. She’s working with Nutsa on the chatbot. “It’s so much easier to ask questions online, than face-to-face.”
Gvantsa got a message from DemLab, UNICEF’s partner youth organization, when she was studying at home during the lockdown for her BA in Business at the Free University. The lock-down has been tough for her, an outgoing young woman who’d loved spending time outside with friends. “It’s just me and my mom at home, so I’m going a bit crazy,” she explains. She was siked to hear that their project needed working on right now, something to keep her busy.
For Nutsa, who got the call when she was watching a masterclass on writing novels - something which she’d aspired to do herself for years - the acceleration of the chatbot project was also quite exciting.
“My sisters were in the room with me, we’re always together, so they also were really excited for me,” she says.
UNICEF works with children and teens to find new solutions to problems which they and the world face, it is aimed at both empowering young people and finding tools and techniques which can reach and engage them.
“Innovation for UNICEF is about doing new things to solve problems and improve the lives of children around the world,” said Ghassan Khalil, UNICEF Representative in Georgia. “It is important that the chatbot will be created with participation of young people, to answer the most pressing questions this generation has in these difficult times and beyond”.
That is why the chatbot was chosen the winner of December’s hackathon, and why it was decided right now to accelerate the development of it.
Nutsa and Gvantsa work with developers to have the chatbot ready in the next few weeks, but it will be - as they say in business jargon - a Minimal Viable Product: the young women are starting with 100 questions they have been researching the past months. And the answers will be in a “cool” format understandable and engaging for youth, from memes to movies, to relevant snippets from government websites and reliable news sources.
“I’m especially excited about the memes, but I still have to convince Nutsa of their awesomeness,” Gvantsa laughs.