Spanish- and English-language state chatbots target COVID misinformation

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The COVID-19 pandemic that took hold just over two years ago required an extremely heavy-handed response from state and local governments in the areas of IT and innovation. But at one state health department, officials were recently able to build on the work done in the early months of the pandemic to ease the lift in a later initiative.

Leaders at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) have identified a need in recent months to combat misinformation and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic — and to do so by reaching residents where they were. Over the past few months, staff members have led a three-party partnership to target residents with accurate information about the pandemic, vaccine safety, scheduling vaccine appointments, and obtaining digital immunization records. . The app of choice? WhatsApp, from Meta, parent company of Facebook. Among the takeaways:

  • Recognizing the need to combat misinformation, the CDPH struck up a conversation earlier this year with several tech companies in the state. “We were asking them to step in, ‘How can you help us…manage or combat this ongoing misinformation and disinformation?’ They talked about what they were doing, how to report ‘mistakes and errors,’” said Yurina Melara Valiulis, multi-ethnic press officer with the California Vaccination Task Force. Techwire. During that conversation, the state identified WhatsApp, Meta’s messaging app, as its platform of choice – and chose to work with a former partner, Accenture, on the build.
  • Specifically, Accenture helped create chatbots in Spanish and English that were deployed on WhatsApp – making California the first state in the country to launch such tools – using information verified by CRPD experts and with free promotion credits from Meta. “We need to make sure that different communities have the information they need in the way they need it, in the language they need,” said Melara Valiulis.
    “Since the start of the pandemic, WhatsApp has been a powerful tool for more than 150 health organizations around the world to share lifesaving information and fight misinformation. We’re excited to add the state of California, as the first state in the United States, to this effort as well, and in doing so, we’ll be offering even more tools to provide Californians with news, information, resources and accurate, authoritative guidance for staying healthy during COVID-19,” Mona Pasquil Rogers, California State Policy Director for Meta, said in a statement released Thursday.
  • The chatbot, capable of processing 500 requests per second, has generated more than 1,200 conversations since its deployment – ​​April 7 for Spanish speakers, April 21 in English. The information it provides to WhatsApp users who scan a QR code, or text “hola” for Spanish or “hi” for English to 833-422-1090, can also be found at . (This is the site the state rolled out in January 2021 in collaboration with Accenture, Salesforce, and Skedulo; and in pilots with Los Angeles and San Diego counties.) The tool will also build on “ other strategies to combat misinformation and disinformation, including the deployment of a strong network of trusted community messengers” who aim to “proactively” reach residents to ensure they receive vaccines and reminders. Discussions with partners began in January and the project took shape at the end of February. Construction followed, leading to launches this month.
    “So we want to make sure we’re getting information fairly to people and making sure we’re reaching them…where they are,” said Ashley Clark, press secretary for the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. Techwire. “I hope this inspires us to find more creative ways to make sure people have accurate and reliable information about COVID-19 and the vaccine.”

Edward K. Thompson