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How WaterAid Messenger Chatbot connects supporters with communities - Customer Showcase

March 07, 2018

WaterAid has developed a chatbot to help bring its supporters closer to the people they are helping.

We recently sat down with Dan Gray, WaterAid’s digital engagement manager, to chat through their recent successful chatbot, and asked him a few questions about their chatbot, the successes and his overall thoughts on bots in general.

In your words what does your chatbot do?

WaterAid’s bot, which we’ve dubbed ‘Talk to Sellu’, is a tool for our supporters to immerse themselves in a community deep in the Sierra Leone jungle where there’s no clean water. Sellu, a father, farmer and carpenter, offers users a chance to see life from his perspective, with photos, videos, gifs and a nifty 360 tool. 

Subscribers are sent updates on the progress of WaterAid’s project installing decent toilets and clean water in Sellu’s community as they happen, bringing them closer to the change that our donations make happen.

What was the problem that needed to be solved?

We are always trying to strip back WaterAid’s role as the mediator between supporters and the people around the world they’re helping access clean water. When that relationship isn’t established, people can feel like their donations are disappearing into the ether, particularly in a climate where charities and institutions are losing public trust. 

Creating an actual one-on-one relationship for everybody isn’t viable, but we figured that bot technology would be a radical way to really abbreviate the distance.

Why did you choose The Bot Platform?

We approached several developers and The Bot Platform’s track record, easy-to-use interface and end-to-end service really stood out.

How has The Bot Platform helped you solve that problem?

The Bot Platform’s staff offered capable project management to help us at every stage, from strategy, through content design and to reporting. We had regular support on optimising our bot and meeting our objectives for it. The platform itself is intuitive and nicely-designed, including a nifty analytics dashboard to help monitor performance easily.

What was your approach towards building the bot?

It was all about empathy for us. What questions would a supporter have about Sellu’s life? And what were the kinds of stories that Sellu would want to share? We created a long, long list of all the types of information we thought would be relevant to different audiences, which our content-gathering staff collected on a trip to Sellu’s community.

After this initial trip, we mapped out the various different journeys users could take through the bot, breaking it down into sections that we thought would feel like natural paths for the user to take.

Sellu and his neighbours were trained to use cameras, which created a flow of new content that we continued to add to the bot, broadcasting to subscribers to keep them abreast of developments. We devised a schedule of updates that would progress the subscriber’s journey in as close to real time with Sellu’s as possible.

We kept a watchful eye on ‘ignored comments’, those messages that the bot couldn’t understand, and plugged in responses to make it more responsive over time.

What does the future of your chatbot look like?

‘Talk to Sellu’ was part of a finite campaign (#Untapped), and that narrative journey has ended with the arrival of clean water in Sellu’s community. We would love to keep our supporters in touch with the incredible changes that will happen there over a longer period, but we have to let Sellu get on with his life a little bit!

We found the bot a powerful tool for supporter engagement, and are exploring ways to use the same technology in a way that offers our donors even more direct involvement with our work on the ground.

What do you think about the future of chatbots?

For me, there is a broader question around how humans relate to machines that will take a while to settle. Do we want robots to emulate humans? Are we comfortable with voice assistants eavesdropping on us if it makes our lives more convenient? 

These are themes that will play out across automated communication in the coming years as the tech behind it develops. We found that as well as some super-engaged and positive interactions, that there were some pretty distressing racist and abusive comments in the log. Are people more comfortable expressing hate to machines? And do we need to take precautions as to how much we cultivate spaces where people are unaccountable for abhorrent expression?

My feeling for the moment is that the relatively limited capabilities of bots make them all the more fun to design for – whether that’s for service delivery, fan engagement or storytelling. Restrictions always help to bring out the most creative solutions. By experimenting now, you’ll equip yourself with skills that will no doubt become more and more useful as the technology behind automated communication progresses.

Thanks Dan, we are looking forward to continuing to work with you to engage with your donors.

Check out the bot for yourself here:

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"The bot deconstructs what we know and what we don’t know, cutting out the political jargon and putting things in simple terms."

Mark Frankel

Social Media Editor @ BBC News