[COVID Warriors] Meet CovidAsha, a chatbot that provides real-time verified information on oxygen procurement, refilling, and ambulance services
In April, Alysha Lobo received an SOS call from her friend in Bangalore airport who was flying to meet her father in Delhi, suffering from COVID-19. His oxygen level was low, and she was wondering if Alysha could arrange an ambulance with oxygen for him on standby as he had already got a bed in the Army Hospital.
“I gave her the number of the CovidAsha bot on WhatsApp and asked her friend to book an ambulance through it. Despite her initial scepticism, she went ahead, and by the time she reached Delhi, there was an ambulance on standby,” says Alysha.
The CovidAsha team
What the bot essentially did was to redirect her friend to StanPlus, who called her for more information on the urgency of her requirement.
StanPlus is one of my partners of the COVID Asha bot that has an army of volunteers that helps in oxygen procurement, refilling, and ambulance services.
“My friend later sent me a picture of her parents playing cards. Her father had pulled through. I was filled with immense joy,” she adds.
Quick and verified information
The CovidAsha bot
CovidAsha was initiated by Alysha in April this year as a chatbot platform on the Web, WhatsApp, and Telegram for accessing real-time verified information for essential services like oxygen supply, ambulances, and blood plasma, among others.
Alysha, who works for a Singapore-based startup, explains how the army of volunteers came together.
“I was working from my home in Goa when I had to look for a bed for my cousin who had COVID-19. That’s when I realised when it came to Goa, Twitter was not a solution. During the course of my research, I found patients losing critical time due to unverified information, increasing cases of scams and fraud, suppliers who were overwhelmed with calls, and little or no access to the information within the Tier II and Tier III cities because of language barriers.”
While Alysha is not a techie herself, she wanted to develop a resource to help COVID-19 patients and their families. “I was on the board of a few startups and wondered that while we have the best tech talent in India, why were we not ulitising it,” she says.
She posted a message on a group of startup founders and received two direct messages and thus, their first Telegram bot with three members kicked off. In 24 hours, it increased to 50 and has over a lakh members at present.
The next viable step was to launch a WhatsApp bot because it is a platform accessible to all, even in rural areas. As Alysha points out, “Not all people are website or Twitter-friendly. How can you download an app or open Excel sheets on your phone when you are in a crisis?”
Thankfully, WhatsApp came on board and helped them with the CovidAsha bot in a matter of a few days, even waiving off charges on its WhatsApp business account. The bot went live on May 5.
The CovidAsha bot
Soon, Alysha leveraged her personal relationships in the startup world and got on board PharmEasy, StanPlus, and others.
Speaking about how the bot works, she says: “It’s easy. You can chat with it. It will ask you what you need – oxygen refilling, oxygen suppliers, plasma (before the new rule), and ambulances. If you need oxygen, it will show the last verified supplier. Right now, we are fielding requests in 55 cities.”
“On the other hand, we have a chatbot for suppliers that pings them every few hours to ask if they have availability. If the answer is no, the pings stop. If two or more people mark a supplier as unhelpful, we send other options,” she says.
The CovidAsha initiative has partnered with companies like VMware, Google, HP, Engati, and other companies who have provided engineers, product and other experts who work tirelessly to make the bot process seamless.
Alysha says it was a class 12 volunteer who suggested the chatbot be made available in many languages, and thus CovidAsha speaks in eight languages. A chance introduction to Dr Vidhi Shah of RC Medicrew saw their 350+ medical and paramedical students and professionals across 65 cities in India join hands with CovidAsha to manually verify the information going on the bot.
Currently, CovidAsha has more than 3,500 active users and over 20,000 interactions since its launch. It provides relevant and verified suppliers in under two minutes of a conversation, and over 2,000 people have marked it helpful. It has a network of over 5,000 verified suppliers/affiliates on its platform. The team is also working on having the bot remove the inactive and unavailable suppliers to ensure the data is available for real-time use.
Talks are also on to include more partnerships to provide help to rural areas of the country where healthcare is needed the most. A tie-up with 1MG will now offer teleconsultation as well.
“We cannot and will not be able to solve the pandemic. But our army of volunteers will continue to focus to save as many lives as they can,” Alysha says.