Guest blog by Allison Fine and Beth Kanter

Scaling up

Taking a virtual walk with Yeshi may not feel like a workout, but it will stretch your mind and imagination. Yeshi is a Facebook Messenger bot created by charity:water to simulate the experience of many young Ethiopian girls who walk six hours a day to get clean water. The conversation with Yeshi is “smart,” meaning that she dynamically asks and answers questions with a variety of images, maps, text, and videos.
As of April 2017, Yeshi and over 100,000 other Facebook messenger bots reached over 2 billion Facebook messenger users. Yeshi is part of the family of technologies we call “bots,” which includes robots, artificial intelligence, cyborgs and virtual reality. These bots are drivers in the budding “Age of Automation.”

Yeshi is just one example of how leading-edge organizations are putting bots to work for social change. A recent report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies highlighted that humanitarian organizations are researching and testing how to use messaging and bots to better help refugees or those directly impacted by a natural disaster. Unicef also created its own bot, U-Report, to engage young people on a variety of issues via Twitter and Facebook Messenger. Its bot polls followers (called ‘U-Reporters’) on a range of topics and uses the data to influence public policy. It has had a bit of success; for example, in Liberia, the bot asked 13,000 young people if teachers at their schools were exchanging grades for sex. 86% said yes, uncovering a widespread problem and prompting Liberia’s Minister of Education to work with UNICEF on addressing it.

Innovations like these do not have to break the bank. In fact, by becoming experts at frugal innovation where technologies are stripped down to be very customer focused, nonprofits can make “bots” affordable and accessible. Climate Reality did this by building a Facebook chatbot designed to educate supporters and build the organization’s email list to sign up for action alerts. It is a much simpler bot, as compared to Yeshi, with only close-ended conversation options, rather than sophisticated artificial intelligence. The bot funnels supporters to different areas based on simple chosen responses.

Bots unlock many interesting use cases, but they also come with their share of challenges. Beyond bots requiring technology know-how, they also potentially pose ethical problems. We see Amazon and Netflix using algorithms to tailor delivery of product listings and movies, and bots can utilize similar algorithms to smartly engage us in ways that evoke our emotions — maybe even to the point of manipulation. Emotions always play a part in storytelling for fundraising, because we seek connection and understanding as empathetic beings. But what happens when bots offer companionship and empathy in order to optimize the delivery of a donation ask? Where is the line between cultivation and manipulation? And who determines the line?

Another area of ethical greyness is maintaining people-centered practices and policies. For instance, which jobs will be acceptable to outsource to bots and which ones, like, say, social worker, should never be substituted by even millions of lines of code? This is a real and current concern. Woebot, a therapy chatbot engages in 2 million conversations a week and has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, some experts have raised privacy concerns as robot to human conversations are not covered by doctor-patient confidentiality laws

We know from our experience (lots of experience!) that most nonprofit organizations are very slow to adopt new technologies but we cannot afford to dismiss or ignore both the upsides and downsides of the Age of Automation even though it feels frightening and overwhelming. Helen Milner, CEO of the Good Things Foundation, shared her constructive approach for moving addressing the bots saying:

“We don’t want to put our heads in the sand about bots and just think they are evil, but to embrace the idea of bots and see if it can help us to help even more people have better lives. It’s early days, it might not work, but I’d rather we try and fail than not try at all. . . We should begin by focusing the bots on tasks that can unleash trapped resources or free staff to pursue higher-level human contact.”

There a few simple applications for nonprofits to consider as they take small steps towards automation. Even a simple bot can yield significant benefits, like being able to offer 24/7 support to stakeholders or building contact lists without burdening staff.

Here are a few things to get started:

Understand the Adoption Trends. You do not have to be an expert in artificial intelligence or know chatbot programming code, but you do need to understand what a chatbot is and at a high level how works. More importantly, you need to understand the current usage trends. Luckily, the The ICRC, together with The Engine Room and Block Party, has produced a useful report on the current and potential uses of messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger in humanitarian situations.

Get Some Hands-On Experience With Chatbots Developed for Social Good Purposes. Visit the different chatbots referenced in this article or use this curated list that Beth put together of examples from nonprofits and beyond.Try to determine the purpose and intended audience. Does the chatbot use open-ended conversation or is it close-ended? Is it complex or simple? Is it a pleasant or frustrating user experience?

Design a Simple Pilot. We have written before that using new technologies is a contact sport, not a spectator sport. It is time to get in the sandbox and try it out for your own organization. Start by determining a measurable objective. Do you want it to assist in marketing to build your email list or delivery of services? Next, figure out who the intended audience might be. It will be very helpful to come up with one or two user personas and sketch out some potential conversation threads. Also, determine the cost. Do you have a budget to hire Chatbot programmer (you’d need this for a more elaborate chatbot) or will you use one of the free and low cost chatbot authoring tools, like Octiveai, Manychat, or Chatfuel. (You read more about designing a pilot here).

Evaluate and Iterate. Run your pilot for a few months. Gather data against your goals. You could also survey or interview some of the people that interacted with your bot and get their feedback. Based on this initial feedback, how might you improve your bot’s results? Is it ready to scale?

As with all new technologies, bots represent significant challenges to how we relate to one another and to society. In fact, it is not an understatement to say that our very humanness is at stake because of the power of bots to reshape our emotions. The age of automation is already presenting new and complex problems at breathtaking speed. Embracing automation and our empathetic, artistic, caring and curious selves simultaneously can be done! However, in order to ensure that we maintain — and even strengthen — the fabric of our society, we need to stay vigilant in being people-centered and make sure that we are in charge of the bots, not the other way around.

What other tech-enable solutions are helping you to succeed as an organization? Would you be interested in a course centered on social innovation? Let us know on Facebook.