Facebook today announced a program to support government health organizations worldwide in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning this week, the company’s developer partners will provide free services to health organizations and UN health agencies to use Messenger — Facebook’s messaging service with over 1.3 billion users — to scale their response to the crisis.
The apps that emerge could help direct volume away from state and federal call centers, some of which are experiencing hold times in excess of several hours.
Facebook’s initiative is international in scope, and it aims to connect government health agencies with developers who can help them use Messenger to share timely and accurate information about COVID-19. The tech giant says that several of its partners have offered to provide services free of charge, and that they’ll assist with things like automating responses to commonly asked questions.
According to Facebook VP of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky, as a part of the program, developers will also show health organizations how to share updates with audiences and transition from automated conversations to live agents when necessary. “Communities around the world are dealing with quarantines and other disruptions to daily life because of the coronavirus outbreak,” Chudnovsky said in a statement. “As is common in any crisis, people are using digital channels like Messenger to stay connected and get information from trusted health authorities that are on the front lines fighting this global pandemic.”
Organizations such as UNICEF and Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination (NHSRC) are already using Messenger to ensure people have the latest information about COVID-19. So is Argentina’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Innovation, which is launching a Messenger experience to answer questions from the public about the coronavirus, and to provide official advice 24 hours a day.
Facebook also announced that it is partnering with Devpost to host a Messenger hackathon around COVID-19 issues, like social distancing and keeping people educated and informed. Participants will receive access to unique Messenger-related content, including Facebook Live tutorials with product experts and a range of educational materials, and winners will get mentoring from Facebook engineers and receive invitations to attend Facebook’s F8 2021 developer conference. They’ll also be given the opportunity to participate in the upcoming F8 hackathon.
Separately, to limit the spread of misinformation with COVID-19, a Facebook company spokesperson tells VentureBeat that it is exploring options like testing stricter limits for how many chats Messenger users can forward a message to at one time. The limits on message forwarding, which were uncovered by app researcher Jane Manchun Wong over the weekend, is still in development and not testing externally yet.
In January 2019, Facebook limited the number of messages WhatsApp users can forward to five in order to fight “misinformation and rumors.” Previously, a WhatsApp user could forward a message to 20 individuals or groups.
Facebook Messenger is working on limiting the amount of threads a message can be forwarded at a time, in order to add frictions on misinformation pic.twitter.com/qRZcE0t4w6
— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) March 21, 2020
Facebook’s stepped-up Messenger efforts come after the company took steps to help small businesses, to tamp down on misinformation, and to supply users with reliable information during the ongoing pandemic. It banned ads for hand sanitizer and COVID-19 test kits, and it said it would roll out a $100 million grant program to assist 30,000 eligible small businesses in over 30 countries. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however — last week, as Facebook increasingly leaned on AI to make up for a shortfall in human content moderators, its systems began flagging and taking down legitimate news content.
Facebook’s Messenger division isn’t the only one deploying chatbots to keep folks informed of COVID-19 developments.
Building atop Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a COVID-19 assessment bot that can assess symptoms, provide information, and suggest next courses of action. Elsewhere, startup Quiq collaborated with the city of Knoxville to deploy a chatbot via its website and a mobile app, and Jefferson City, Missouri announced that it’s working on a bot that can answer questions online.
Overseas, the Indian government teamed up with Facebook’s WhatsApp to launch a COVID-19 informational chatbot called MyGov Corona Helpdesk. The U.K.’s National Health Service is also in talks with WhatsApp to set up a dedicated chatbot. And Pakistan collaborated with startup Botsify to create a bot that connects users with the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination in Islamabad.