A team that has never met each other, builds a chatbot, saves lives

Available in seven languages: English, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil, CovidAsha helps beneficiaries find oxygen, medicines, ambulances, and now, vaccines.  

CovidAsha, a chatbot that guided caregivers to oxygen and medicine suppliers, and ambulance service providers in May, is now providing information on the availability of vaccines as well.

The chatbot registers your preferred language and city to get you a list, in real time, of all centres where vaccine shots are available. The list can be filtered for age, dose, vaccine type and district. The page refreshes every 45 seconds and sends browser notifications when a previously unavailable slot opens up.

CovidAsha chatbot links

This vaccine notifier bot was a personal project of two CovidAsha volunteers — 19-year-old Avichal Jadeja, a software intern at Engati (the platform that the bot is built on) and Vishwakarthik Ramesh, UI developer for Razorpay — who integrated their service into the bot.

Helping survive the second wave

CovidAsha is a story of the coming together of many such efforts, born out of urgency and necessity, sustained through the benevolence of volunteers and partners.

The volunteers behind CovidAsha.

The volunteers behind CovidAsha.  

As inadequacies in the country’s healthcare system unravelled during the second wave of the pandemic, Alysha Lobo, senior marketing manager with a company in Singapore, asked herself one question: “How would my parents manage a COVID-19 emergency at home?”

Alysha Lobo

Alysha Lobo   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Alysha currently lives in Goa with her parents. “Unlike in bigger cities like Bangalore, services here aren’t online yet. I have booked a water tanker on an app in Bangalore. Here, you need to know an uncle, who will know a friend, who might point you to a helpful contact. Posting an emergency requirement for Goa on Twitter is meaningless, because Goa is not on Twitter,” says Alysha.

To cater to the needs of Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, Alysha realised, an intervention had to happen on WhatsApp. “That’s where a lot of India is at. Developing more apps wouldn’t work, because you need more data and space for them on your phone, both scarce in these cities.”

She voiced her concerns on a community WhatsApp group and asked if anyone would like to join her in doing “something” about it. Delhi-based Krishna Vatsal Tyagi, an M&A manager with KPMG India, who had been volunteering and fielding requests for plasma and oxygen beds for a few days already by then, immediately reached out to Alysha and asked, “What can I do?”

Krishna Vatsal Tyagi

Krishna Vatsal Tyagi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The answer, they discovered over a call that weekend, was a chatbot — CovidAsha. Available in seven languages: English, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil, CovidAsha helps beneficiaries find oxygen, medicines, ambulances, and now, vaccines.

Since its launch on May 4, CovidAsha has had over 1.5 lakh interactions cumulatively on WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram and web browsers.

“We spent that first weekend like a hackathon. From putting together a team of volunteers, to figuring out logistics, we slogged away,” recalls Krishna, the driving force behind the strategy. Alysha and the volunteers leveraged personal relationships and got some partners onboard. Tamaghna Basu, founder of DeTaSECURE, volunteered to head the tech team.

CovidAsha currently has partnerships with 1mg and PharmEasy for pharmacy needs; and VMEDO and Stanplus for ambulance. WhatsApp, Freshworks and Engati are its platform partners; Exotel and Textlocal its telephone and SMS partners. It also uses RC Medicrew’s COVID-19 resources database and volunteer network.

It takes a village

Syed Sadiq Khadir from Bengaluru, a senior compliance associate with Amazon and a CovidAsha volunteer, recalls helping a caregiver find an oxygen cylinder: “Manually, it took me three days to find them the cylinder. The same person later found a refilling service on the bot within minutes.”

A user, on average, takes less than two minutes to find what they want, explains Akanksha Sharma, UX designer and marketing consultant volunteering with CovidAsha. She helped design the website, making it intuitive across platforms.

“We built the bot to accommodate two floors, one for the suppliers and another for the customers,” Avichal explains. Every few hours, the bot asks the suppliers if they want to be shown as having stock, or if they want their listing taken down. “Vendors are part of the same crisis. Their families and friends are as affected by the pandemic as any of us looking for information on resources. We noticed a lack of vendor sympathy and wanted to give some control back to the suppliers. We wanted to humanise the process. On our bot, vendors can switch off and not be bothered by calls if they choose to,” says Alysha.

Dr Vidhi Jitendra Shah’s RC Medicrew provides the supplier data for the bot. Every day, information on suppliers gets updated on the bot at 2pm, 6pm, and 9pm, courtesy, volunteers of RC Medicrew. A physiotherapist by profession, Dr Vidhi founded the medical non-profit in August last year, as a one-stop destination for verified leads and information regarding COVID-19 with 30 students and paramedic volunteers. It now has 2,100 volunteers across the country.

“Alysha and I realised that a collaboration could plug a lot of gaps in both CovidAsha and RC Medicrew — we had data but no tech capabilities, CovidAsha had tech but no data and manpower,” says Dr Vidhi.

The team behind CovidAsha has never met each other in person. “We all came together serendipitously. A part of every volunteer has gone into the making of CovidAsha. This selfless bunch has a friend for life in me,” says Alysha.

The CovidAsha team is mooting options for the bot’s future. “We have a system up and running. If and when a third wave hits us, especially in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, we will be ready,” Krishna says.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 11:40:30 PM |

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