A new "chatbot" feature built on top of the U-Report mobile engagement platform has proven to be a major asset to the global coronavirus response effort — facilitating the exchange of lifesaving information for millions of young people across 42 countries, and saving precious time in the process.
In 2011 UNICEF introduced U-Report, an innovative mobile engagement platform designed to amplify the voices of young people, providing an opportunity to weigh in on issues that affect their lives.
With the global humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic ramping up, UNICEF USA connected with key staffers from the UNICEF Office of Innovation in New York — Innovation Specialist Hira Hafeez-Ur-Rehman and Emergency Specialist Fatou Wurie — to learn more about how UNICEF and partners are leveraging U-Report to assist in that response, turning an everyday tool — the cellphone — into a powerful weapon in the fight against the coronavirus. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
For those who may not be familiar, what is U-Report?
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN U-Report is a mobile, digital youth empowerment platform created to gather opinions from young people on the issues they care about, from education to discrimination to child marriage.
We wanted to create a way for kids, adolescents and young adults from countries all around the world to report on what was happening in their communities, to give them a direct line to decision makers — to amplify their voices and make them active participants in matters that directly impact their lives. In an emergency, the information coming in from U-Reporters helps direct relief efforts, and often U-Reporters will act as first responders, or community volunteers.
Reaching young people where they already live — on their mobile phones, via popular messaging apps
As we all know, the mobile phone has become the young person's medium of choice. And by making U-Report interoperable with popular messaging apps — SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Telegram and LINE — we're reaching them where they already live. I should add that U-Report is a free service and all communication is kept anonymous and confidential.
You recently reported a huge spike in activity due to U-Report's role in COVID-19 response efforts.
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN Yes, we've hit a major milestone, with over 10 million users now across 68 countries. We saw a significant jump after we released the COVID-19 chatbot — over 1.3 million new users have been added in just the past two weeks. The chatbot function answers users' questions, for a more personalized experience. Even if you’ve never engaged with the platform, you can send through a keyword — 'coronavirus' — and the interaction begins.
In Indonesia, back when the threat of a pandemic was still looming, the country office put out a quick poll to see the level of awareness among young people about symptoms, transmission and prevention. The local media picked it up and the government started promoting it and before we knew it, 500,000 young people had responded. It was from the results of that poll that we created the COVID-19 chatbot that is now being scaled up in 42 countries.
FATOU WURIE What is really super cool is the speed at which all this is happening — how quickly we've been able to innovate, and how fast information is being exchanged. For the most vulnerable children and families, access to this information can mean the difference between life and death.
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN Yes, and the fact that we're able to localize the content according to the needs and priorities of a particular region or country. Soon we hope to be able to do that at the community level.
Why might the content need to vary country to country?
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN While there is a level of uniformity across some of the messaging — wash your hands, etc. — there are different considerations for different contexts. For many vulnerable populations, handwashing and social distancing is difficult if not impossible. We can tailor the information depending on who's receiving it. And there is a lot of misinformation and rumors out there.
Spreading facts, not fear
How are you handling myths and rumors?
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN We have started using U-Report to counter the potential harmful effects of the misinformation that is circulating, but we need to know about it so that we can respond appropriately with factual, verified information.
So, we ask our U-Reporters what they're hearing — to share with us the information that is coming their way, rumors they may even be passing along themselves to friends and family — and they are telling us. We're getting hundreds, thousands of responses, which are being analyzed. We have whole teams of people working on this. Right now, we're focused on countering the most common myths. Developers are working to strengthen this mechanism in the chatbot's next iteration, to keep us on top of it.
So the technology is always evolving.
HIRA HAFEEZ-UR-REHMAN Yes. The U-Report team is also working to expand the scope of issues that the COVID-19 chatbot can cover, to include secondary impacts of this pandemic. For example, U-Report is starting to connect users with online learning, and job skills training programs for adolescents. In Jamaica, the government hosted a special digital town hall meeting for children and youth, for which it collaborated with U-Report to solicit questions from across the Island. Questions from U-Reporters were answered by the Prime Minister and other government officials.
I think PM Andrew Holness captured it when he said, "What we want is free flow of correct information that empowers reason and changes behavior. So we are enlisting our young people in the fight against the epidemic by empowering you with information, so that you can use that information in your household, to have your household change behavior." That pretty much sums up U-Report's role in this crisis.
FATOU WURIE Where U-Report really adds value, I would say, is how it helps ensure that the response to COVID-19 stays people-centered. The data that is coming in through the platform can directly inform and enhance that coordinated response. There's higher accountability.
Learn more about the U-Report COVID-19 chatbot and how to access it. Here are three ways:
- via Facebook Messenger, send keyword 'CoronaVirus'
- on Viber, go to Discover, follow the ‘U-Report’ Public Account and send the message ‘CoronaVirus’
- using WhatsApp, text 'CoronaVirus' to +66 80 024 9442
Top photo: In Cote d'Ivoire, U-Reporters consider themselves part of a movement. © UNICEF/UN0161093/Diarassouba