⇓ More from ICTworks

Are Facebook Messenger Chatbots The Answer to Our Aid Questions?

By Jacob Korenblum on April 22, 2016


Last week, everyone’s favorite frenemy – Facebook – held its annual developer conference in Silicon Valley. Waving our ICT4D flag in the crowd, Souktel had a front row seat – and a first-hand look at the event’s key takeaways.

Between sessions on monetizing ads and optimizing Instagram, one topic kept surfacing: Chatbots. And, more surprisingly, open API chatbots. During his keynote speech, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would make the chatbot API tools on its Messenger platform open to the public. What does this mean for ICT4D? And should we care?

Chatbots for Development

Chatbots – applications that answer questions and hold human-ish conversations – are nothing new. They’ve existed in some form since the 1990s; most of us have had the awkward experience of “talking” to “personal assistants” on retail websites, or trying to start meaningful discussions with Siri or Alexa.

What’s significant about Facebook’s announcement, though, is the potential for massive scale: By embedding search engine functions directly into Messenger – whose 900 million users send 60 billion messages per day, more than three times the global daily SMS volume – chatbots may help link the world’s poor with life-changing content much more effectively.

“May” is the key word here. Connecting health workers with advice or farmers with extension support, through platforms which they already instinctively use, holds huge appeal: 2015 GSMA research predicts that by 2020, Africa alone will have 540 million smartphone owners, up from 160 million in 2015. Ericsson research adds that by 2020, between 70 to 90 percent of all mobile subscribers in Asia, Africa and the Americas will have 3G or 4G devices.

As text messages and voice calls decline, the use of mobile messaging apps is skyrocketing – making platforms like Messenger the leading option for delivering health, agriculture, education, or emergency response content. Chatbots could further enhance this content delivery – by personalizing information, offering recommendations, and learning about users’ behavior in order to offer better advice.

Chatbots for Good, or Not?

The key question is: What happens to all the user data? Who owns it? Will Facebook mine it to send personalized spam to millions of mobile users? David Marcus, Facebook’s Vice President of Messaging offered an initial response in an interview with Wired magazine:

“Unlike email, where there is no one safeguarding the quality and the quantity of the stuff you receive, we’re here in the middle to protect the quality and integrity of your messages and to ensure that you’re not going to get a lot of stuff you don’t want.”

These are still early days. Facebook’s move to open access to its chatbot API platform is likely a response to backlash against its Free Basics project – which, many argued, isn’t really free or open: It lets the digital giant dictate the terms of web access to the world’s poor. Now, Facebook seems to be taking a page from the Digital Principles, open-access to its chatbot offerings and open-sourcing its new virtual reality camera platform.

For all of us in the ICT4D world, here’s what really matters: Forget about Facebook per se; the world doesn’t revolve around Messenger and WhatsApp alone. Asia-based chat app Line counts 700 million subscribers. The Kik messenger platform has close to a quarter-billion users, and its own chatbot platform.

The main takeaway is that chatbots are here, their presence is growing, and as of this week we have new, open access to them. At Souktel, we’ve already launched messenger app-based content platforms. All of these tools are accessible to our community; let’s use them. And if we don’t like what’s on offer, let’s build a better version – or join forces and push for change.

Jacob Korenblum is the CEO of Souktel, and welcomes our new chatbot overlords.

Filed Under: Featured, Solutions
More About: , , , ,

Written by
Jacob Korenblum is CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions, a developer of custom mobile data solutions for the aid and development sectors.
Stay Current with ICTworksGet Regular Updates via Email

4 Comments to “Are Facebook Messenger Chatbots The Answer to Our Aid Questions?”

  1. Sean says:

    Interesting post, Jacob! Reading through this, I had a few questions/comments:

    – Facebook has not open sourced anything – they opened access to an API, which is an important distinction. They’ve opened access, meaning that people can build things on their platform and feed them data – but if Facebook decides to shut the whole thing down tomorrow (as it recently did with Parse), then it’s gone. It’s important from an ethical perspective and from a risk management perspective for development organizations to understand the differences between open source software and open access to an advertising service’s API. Organizations need to consider what could happen to their project if Facebook shuts down their bot platform? What happens when a stakeholder is forced to make the choice between healthcare and giving personal data to Facebook, an advertiser, in another country who can do whatever they want with it? Neither question is meant to criticize Facebook – but it’s important for the people who read this blog to understand that choosing any advertising-supported chat platform comes with trade-offs, and those trade-offs are important for this industry in particular. Here’s a list to Facebook Messenger alternatives that are open source: http://alternativeto.net/software/facebook-messenger/?license=opensource

    – What are you defining as a “chatbot”? I think in one form or another, we’ve both been building “bots,” for a long time – though the terms is just the newest version of recipes, automations, and workflows. Is there something unique to the term “bot” or the way it’s being used that the development community should focus on or recognize?

    – I’m not sure I understand the focus on “new” OTT and 3/4G platforms – is the idea that we’re all going to end up using one messaging platform? You know far better than most that the distance between ~1.6B users and 4.2B users is enormous – and there is almost no likelihood that Facebook Messenger becomes “the leading option” to deliver the vital services you list for most people until it has a crossed much, much more of that gap.

    – The rise of messaging apps, while impressive, is not actually diminishing voice or SMS (more from Safaricom’s Bob Collymore here: http://www.theafricareport.com/East-Horn-Africa/innovation-we-dont-sell-technology-we-sell-the-application-bob-collymore.html), it’s just providing additional channels. SMS has held pretty steady at 20B for years now. The increased volume (60B) of platforms like WhatsApp and Messenger is truly impressive, but is the goal of development organizations to send a lot of messages, or to reach a lot of people? Because, again, while 900m people is impressive, it’s far more likely that those who need development assistance are the 4.2B monthly active users of SMS, than the 900m with one or more chat apps. My hope, of course, is that development communities will find ways to use lots of platforms – but I also think its important for us to be more explicit about our priorities as a community. Historically, those priorities have been to reach the most vulnerable, not adopting the newest name for old products “launched” at F8.

    – To me, the most valuable part of the “bot” conversation is work that you and I have been doing for a while now – it’s re-architecting services so that they reach users where they are, with information that’s relevant, timely, and actionable using mobile. The design process is – and always has been – the substance inside the Trojan of technology driven hype. I was surprised that you hardly touched on the design side.

    – The platform that has bridged the utility/VAS gap the best is WeChat, who Facebook is, in some ways, chasing. WeChat, with its huge userbase, strong local business models, and open-access messaging, would at least be a good example, if not a better comparison, for development workers.

    – Lastly, I’d love to join forces – but what kind of change are you suggesting we should push for? I’m not sure I understand the objections you’re referring to – is it to using Facebook? Or “bots”? Or Facebook’s bots? There’s a good argument to be made that the development community, (mostly) by focusing on mobile because of who they’re trying to reach, has already invested more in messaging and automation than most industries.

    What we still haven’t seen is a way to build, replicate, and scale those interactions that are open, cost-efficient, and don’t raise huge ethical issues about data use. Facebook’s Messenger bots, while solving the cost problem, aren’t close to solving the scale, system design/scaling issues, or data ethics concerns – let alone the local content issues that have plagued mobile networks. In fact, cost is really the only (major) problem they solve.

    New tools are always exciting, but when we’re talking about reaching people in an equitable way at a scale that reaches beyond urban centers and developer conferences, we have a long way to go to realize the potential of the tools most people already have, let alone new platforms where we have less control or equity. Maybe we should start there?

  2. John DeRiggi says:

    I agree with Sean’s first point. It’s important to be clear about the difference between APIs and and open source. If we start blending those terms then it will become more difficult to have meaningful discussions about software.

  3. Kristen Roggemann says:

    +1 to John and Sean’s point. This is a persistent inaccuracy in ICT4D dialogues and this blog is too widely-read to be confusing these terms.

  4. Jacob Korenblum says:

    Thanks for the feedback! I’ve updated the post to indicate that these APIs are open-access, rather than open source.