Chatbots: The New Government Official in the Fight Against Coronavirus


Even though there’s a deluge of questions from thousands of people, many of these questions are the same.

In one of the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis alone 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits after losing their jobs because of the pandemic. The deluge of new claims have caused websites across the country to crash or experience technical problems. 

Other government offices are in crisis-mode, with officials and administrators inundated with calls from concerned residents asking about shelter-in-place and other directives, as well as questions about where to turn for assistance. Added to this, many government offices are operating with skeleton crews as they work to keep as many workers home as possible. 

Technology is being used as a critical weapon in the fight against COVID-19. Artificial intelligence is helping to track and predict outbreaks, robotic process automation is helping to process health claims, and supercomputers are busily crunching data to come up with a treatment. Yet, there’s another easy-to-implement and inexpensive solution that can help address the barrage of questions: chatbots. 

One Answer Can Address a Thousand Questions 

While there’s a deluge of questions from thousands of people, many of these questions are the same: How do I know what symptoms to look for? What stores are open? How do I file unemployment claims? Why is the website down? How do I report large gatherings of people? Think of the human resources that are being saved if answers to these questions are provided by a robot. 

Chatbots are being used to filter and answer information and then pass on tougher questions to humans. Chatbots can be up and running in a matter of one-to-three days, at costs ranging from $5,000 to $20,000. 

Chatbots are able to step up and meet the need because they combine natural language processing with machine learning capabilities. This allows them to understand and communicate in a free-flowing, conversational discussion. Because of the benefits it provides, market opportunities for the technology is growing rapidly: the global market for chatbots is predicted to reach $15.7 billion in 2024, up from $4.2 billion in 2019. 

Microsoft and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention built a chatbot, called “Clara” that can help you determine if you need to go the hospital because of coronavirus symptoms.  The chatbot poses key questions regarding location, age and symptoms and then offers advice. This tool is key since it helps to triage people before they flood hospitals, potentially exposing themselves to the disease or infecting others. 

Knowledge is Power

Below are the steps considerations and steps required to get a chatbot up and running to field thousands of calls, email or online queries: 

  • Field the questions. Once you’ve identified the most common questions, as well as answers, they can be fed into a chatbot algorithm for either online or voice responses. With fluid situations like the coronavirus, information can be constantly updated to provide the most accurate responses.
  • Use the data to anticipate issues. As you feed questions into the chatbots and track the questions coming into various agencies you begin to see patterns emerging that can indicate clusters of potential hotbeds or industries being impacted. 
  • Reduce the essential staff headcount to handle exceptions. Once a chatbot is up and running—ideally a different one for different government functions—you can reduce headcount and have only essential staff available to handle questions that the chatbot has not yet been trained on.
  • Keep teaching your chatbot. The more questions that a chatbot is trained to address, the smarter and more productive it becomes. It’s important to keep chatbot developers in the loop constantly to update information and new situations that arise.

Chatbots are the logical solution to overburdened government officials, inundated agencies and desperate citizens with no time or patience for delayed information. They’re affordable, quickly deployed and able to meet residents wherever they are –on the phone or online. While there are many things that can’t be controlled during a pandemic, providing basic information doesn’t have to be one of them.

Carlos Meléndez is chief operating officer and co-founder of Wovenware