Publications, reports, and articles.

Chatbots in humanitarian contexts - Learning from practitioner experiences (2023)

Posted on:
July 11, 2023

The goal of the report is to offer guiding questions and considerations for humanitarian organizations deciding if a chatbot is an appropriate tool to address program and community needs. It also contains
use cases highlighting the experiences of practitioners working in diverse geographic contexts and
issue areas.

Overview

In recent years, chatbots have offered humanitarian operations the possibility to automate personalized engagement and support, inform tailored program design and gather and share information at a large scale. However, adopting a chatbot is never straightforward, and there are many considerations that should go into doing so responsibly and effectively.

With some humanitarian organizations having experimented with chatbots for several years now, many are now interested in taking stock of their experiences and fostering greater awareness of how to design, budget for and maintain chatbots responsibly and effectively.

Responding to these priorities, The Engine Room has developed this report to explore the existing uses, benefits, trade-offs and challenges of using chatbots in humanitarian contexts. This research has resulted from a collaboration with IFRC, ICRC, and a research advisory board consisting of representatives from IFRC, ICRC, the Netherlands Red Cross and UNHCR.

This report:

  • Explores the types of chatbots used by humanitarian and civil society organizations, some of the rationales for their implementation, challenges faced, impacts and practical contexts.
  • Offers a set of introductory questions and considerations for humanitarian actors to assess whether chatbots are a fit for their program needs and the communities they work with. This information is rooted in the principles of responsible use of data and technology and considers both the benefits and the trade-offs of adopting chatbot tools.

Main findings

Always consider community needs, design limitations and responsible data practices

  • Before choosing to deploy a chatbot, it’s important for humanitarian organizations to properly understand what a chatbot can and cannot do, and to have a clear idea of the resources that will be needed for effective deployment and maintenance over time.
  • Chatbots should be designed around the priorities and communication practices of the people humanitarian organizations are trying to reach. Where possible, chatbots should be designed together with communities, local humanitarian actors and technologists.
  • The use of chatbots brings up several responsible data concerns, with a need for more comprehensive risk assessments before chatbot deployment, better safeguarding of vulnerable users, the development of best practices around training data collection and holistic data minimization strategies.
  • Automation does not inherently lead to greater efficiency. Any gains presented by chatbots should be considered alongside ethical imperatives that come with a humanitarian mandate and affected populations’ specific communication needs.

Chatbots work best when they are integrated into existing community engagement approaches and communication channels, and when adequate resources are planned for

  • Rather than replacing human contact, chatbots can be understood as a complementary component of a larger ecosystem of tools, services, and communication channels. They may support the effective provision of basic information, serve as a “triage” mechanism to aid information provision, or steer people to specific services and human assistance. Successes with chatbots have come from the development of “hybrid” communication channels that incorporate chatbot interactions but are also clearly linked to services staffed by people.
  • Chatbots have varying degrees of sophistication, and managing user expectations around what the chatbot they are interacting with can (and can’t) do is essential for transparency. People interacting with humanitarian organizations should always know when they are talking to a bot, and it should be clear how they can contact a human for further support.
  • Though chatbots can enable humanitarian organizations to collect useful information about the needs of people in touch with them, it is important for organizations to understand that digitally collected feedback in general represents only a small sample of the full spectrum of needs of the people that humanitarian organizations might be trying to reach.
  • To successfully integrate chatbots within humanitarian operations, chatbots should be seen as a long-term investment: the resources needed to successfully deploy a chatbot will depend on the type of chatbot rolled out and how many people are expected to interact with it. However, any successful chatbot will require at minimum some degree of continued investment and maintenance, alongside dedicated staff time for design, deployment, and ongoing maintenance.

Summary

The goal of the report is to offer guiding questions and considerations for humanitarian organizations deciding if a chatbot is an appropriate tool to address program and community needs. It also contains use cases highlighting the experiences of practitioners working in diverse geographic contexts and issue areas.
arrow-circle-upenter-downmagnifier