TWB develops language technology to improve humanitarian communication in northeast Nigeria

News and Press Release
Originally published

Multilingual chatbot will respond to people’s health questions in three languages

DANBURY, CONN., USA – 7 APRIL, 2021. Translators without Borders (TWB), in partnership with Mercy Corps, has developed a chatbot in three languages to improve COVID-19 understanding in northeast Nigeria. The chatbot will allow people to message questions in their language and receive answers immediately and conversationally. This tool will help people receive credible information more quickly, and insights from the chatbot will help humanitarian responders understand what information people need and want and in what language.

The chatbot will communicate in English, but importantly it will also communicate in Hausa and Kanuri, languages commonly spoken in northeast Nigeria. The chatbot can address rumors related to the pandemic and provide actionable advice. It will respond to questions such as, “How can I catch COVID-19?“, “If I feel sick, what should I do?”, and “Can vaccines prevent me from infecting others with Covid-19?”

The chatbot is named “Shehu“, a word that is used across all four languages in the region. Formally, it is an official title for a scholar, and refers to someone learned and knowledgeable.

“We are excited to launch Shehu in northeast Nigeria. We hope that this tool will help people better access information they need and want, immediately and in their language,” says Ibrahim El-Yakub, TWB Chatbot Engagement Officer. “We want to encourage humanitarians to incorporate multilingual conversation tools into their programming, to improve two-way communication and accountability, ensuring people in northeast Nigeria have better control of the information they need and want.”

Data and insights gathered anonymously from chatbot users will inform humanitarians about what kinds of questions people have about COVID-19 and gaps in information. These insights will be available on a forthcoming dashboard that will monitor what questions are being asked, what languages are being used most often, and what topics are asked about most frequently. Humanitarian organizations can use this information to plan their communications―proactively addressing rumors about COVID-19 and providing information that is relevant and needed.

TWB developed Shehu in partnership with Mercy Corps, and through this partnership the chatbot will initially be deployed among host communities and internally displaced people in Damboa and Maiduguri, Nigeria. TWB and Mercy Corps will use a hyperlocal approach, starting small and adapting the content and rollout based on insights gathered with the chatbot.

To use the chatbot, text +2347034146757 or click here to use WhatsApp in any of the four languages. Shehu will respond in the language that was used.

Shehu joins other language technologies developed by TWB to improve multilingual humanitarian communication and accountability. The organization has also developed multilingual glossaries, machine translation and translation memories for marginalized languages, and a chatbot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These language technologies are part of TWB’s language equality initiative, Gamayun, which uses advanced language technology to increase language equality and improve two-way communication in marginalized languages. The ultimate goal is to enable everyone to give and receive information in the language and format they understand.

This project is supported by Creating Hope in Conflict: a Humanitarian Grand Challenge; a partnership of USAID, The UK Government, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, with support from Grand Challenges Canada.

About Translators without Borders
Translators without Borders believes that everyone has the right to give and receive information in a language and format they understand. We work with nonprofit partners and a global community of language professionals to build local language translation capacity, and raise awareness of language barriers. Originally founded in 1993 in France (as Traducteurs sans Frontières), TWB translates millions of words of lifesaving and life-changing information a year.

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About Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps is a leading global organization powered by the belief that a better world is possible. In disaster, in hardship, in more than 40 countries around the world, we partner to put bold solutions into action – helping people triumph over adversity and build stronger communities from within. Now, and for the future.