Chatbots in COVID response: Extending our reach with automated text messaging

by Ian O'Donnell | May 20, 2020 | Insights and Inspirations, Trends and Transformations


 We all want to be connected. During the response to a threat like COVID, the need for rapid information sharing and new forms of community networking requires that we adjust our tools and methods to best serve all of those at risk.

The Italian Red Cross is among several National Societies introducing chatbots – or automated messaging services – to expand engagement with communities and streamlining communication with volunteers, medical professionals, and staff. As the COVID response continues, chatbots can be essential tool for reaching large numbers of people, communicating consistent messages, and gathering and sharing messages.

These tools can also be easy to set up, especially in collaboration with partners that have the needed skills and experience. For the Italian Red Cross, this partner has been Kaleyra, an Italian company specialized in voice and messaging services. Together they rapidly created an SMS messaging service to facilitate contact with the public, volunteers, medical professionals, and staff.

Chatbots are automated services, usually embedded in applications such as WhatsApp, SMS, Skype or social media. A person can send a request for information, either by selecting from a menu of options or by writing a question, and they receive an automatic answer. Chatbots emulate human conversation and users may think they are speaking to a person, while an algorithm is sending messages or responding to questions.



 As lockdowns and social distancing been adopted in many countries to address COVID risks, National Societies in many countries have turned to digital tools to continue and extend their humanitarian services.

Hotlines and helplines have provided an essential bridge to people and communities isolated from normal forms of social support. These hotlines provide a chance for people to ask questions about COVID risks, learn more about protective measures they can, and learn the status of the restrictions in their own communities. National Societies have been at the forefront of providing these information services either themselves or in collaboration with national government. As the number of callers grow, National Societies have increasingly looked to digital tools to extend their reach.


The collaboration in Italy

The Italian Red Cross was facing high call volumes to its helpline with the rising number of COVID cases. Inspired by coverage of the response to COVID in numerous countries, Dario Calogero, the CEO at Kaleyra, had an idea to help the Italian Red Cross in a simple way.

Over a couple of days, Kaleyra and Italian Red Cross teams worked together to create a pro-bono SMS service to allow people across Italy to receive digital services from the Italian Red Cross (connect at 4353535 in Italy). Through a toll-free number supported by all local telecom operators in Italy, the service facilitates the booking of essential medical or relief services through text messages.

If a citizen finds the toll-free number to be busy, they can send a request via text-message. The text-message will be immediately processed by Kaleyra’s platform which can then direct the request to a relevant organization for assistance. The organization contacts the user as soon as an operator is available.

The Italian Red Cross is also using the service to support doctors, nurses, and health workers to communicate their availability to help the emergency response system in the Lombardy region. Doctors and nurses can send a simple text-message by typing “immediate doctor availability” or “immediate nurse availability.” The system will automatically send them instructions to follow-up further.

The service was activated on March 15th, 2020 and had more than 7,500 text messages in its first two weeks of operation.

In the future, the service also has the potential to send urgent messages instantly to all the Italian Red Cross’ 160,000 volunteers in Italy.


Other resources

 Other National Society have worked with similar services from Twilio or from RapidPro, an open-source software maintained by Nyaruka (along with its commercial twin TextIt) and used as part of the U-Report system of UNICEF. Twilio has partnered with the American Red Cross to use SMS and WhatsApp messaging to extend its dispatch services for volunteers responding to local emergencies.



The IFRC has also worked extensively with UNICEF to use RapidPro and U-report in the Ebola response in West Africa and the Zika response in Latin America.

Recently, Translators Without Borders (TWB) began using Rasa, an open-source platform for text messaging and conversation, to create chatbots that enable open-ended rather than scripted interactions. TWB has fantastic resources on the language side with its corps of volunteer translators and is particularly interested in enabling chatbots in diverse local languages. TWB is currently working with the Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA) team in Africa to engage NS to develop joint chatbot services in local languages, starting with the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


How to follow-up

 The companies mentioned above all have programs to assist National Societies and other humanitarian organizations in the COVID-19 response

Kaleyra has dedicated a set of resources to helping in the COVID-19 response

Twilio offers an Impact Access Program to humanitarian organizations

Nyaruka is offering Free RapidPro / TextIt Hosting for Coronavirus Projects


Further guidance

 Business Insider article on Chatbots for COVID-19



  1. Kazakhstan: IFRC and Red Crescent launch bot to counter COVID misinformation - Solferino Academy - […] 19 February 2021 – A social media chatbot has been launched in an innovative bid to share accurate, trusted information…
  2. Data & Digital Week - Solferino Academy - […] Solferino Academy about running virtual meetings Perspectives on Digital Transformation Chatbots in COVID response: Extending our reach with automated…

Leave a Reply