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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and global vaccination effort, Microsoft Research assembled a team including GenUI to create a conversational chatbot that provides location-based vaccine eligibility information across the entire US that serves diverse audiences often left out by technology.
Microsoft Research has the goal of transforming technology into innovative tools that solve global problems. Its Societal Resilience Project started in 2021 with the mission of building a more resilient society through mission-driven research and applied technology. “We look for opportunities to create value at the point where new science and technology meet our most urgent challenges,” says Ed Doran, Senior Director at Microsoft Research. “We need people who can work across boundaries. That means different disciplines collaborating as dynamic teams that can adapt quickly in response to vital challenges such as wildfires, floods, and pandemics.”
The COVID-19 pandemic clearly fit the mission. Although the rapid development and rollout of vaccines was a major breakthrough, getting them to people posed significant challenges. Eligibility rules and phases were changing quickly and differed among jurisdictions and even individual pharmacies. Additionally, the vaccination effort had to overcome language and cultural barriers and varying levels of comfort with technology.
These challenges risked creating disparities in care. Doran and his team immediately saw the utility of a chatbot to overcome this barrier. “Our goal was to allow anyone to get a clear answer about eligibility with a short, simple series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions ,” says Nathan Evans, Principal Software Architect at Microsoft Research. “We also knew it was a race against time to get vaccinations to the people who needed them most.”
Microsoft Research needed to deliver a solution quickly. Based on past successful collaborations, they selected GenUI as a key part of the team. “We’d recently worked with GenUI on two complex, high-value projects,” recalls Doran. “Their team was creative, collaborative, unflaggingly upbeat. They lead from the front, providing pragmatic and valuable solutions and keeping team morale high.” The team also included healthcare research organization MITRE and a coalition called The Fight Is In Us.
“We’d recently worked with GenUI on two very early high value and complex projects. Their team was creative, collaborative, unflaggingly upbeat. They lead from the front, providing pragmatic and valuable solutions and keeping team morale high.”
Ed Doran, Ph.D, Senior Director, Microsoft Research
The team quickly agreed on their initial goal: to develop simple eligibility verification tools that could take in data on a large scale and accurately share it through the chatbot. First, the group needed to build a portal for the massive amounts of data on eligibility rules from around the nation. They also had to verify the information on a user’s vaccine eligibility in as close to real-time as possible.
The team decided to build on the existing Microsoft chatbot platform, which had already been used to direct Seattle residents to COVID-19 testing early in the pandemic. Starting from a proven solution saved time and allowed them to focus on the unique challenges of the project. Chief among these was the need to create a user experience that worked for people from diverse backgrounds, speaking different languages, with varying degrees of technical ability. This was necessary to meet the goal of helping reduce inequity in vaccine access for underserved communities.
At the same time, the team needed to create a portal that made it easy for health agencies to share and update eligibility information. Using a design-thinking approach, GenUI mapped out the flow of a medical expert in the field logging in to change information about a region’s vaccine availability and submitting that to the national data set.
The solution also needed a way to exchange information between regions where the vaccine was being deployed. The team chose to use GitHub to centralize eligibility information. Starting with the nested file system model of GitHub, they built a simple data schema to represent the hierarchy of regional policies. The data management portal uses GitHub’s API to interact with the knowledge repository, eliminating the need for partners to be familiar with GitHub’s specialized tools. Using GitHub also fit the goal of keeping the project and data open source. “I wanted transparency for all the data so it can be reviewed by anybody for accuracy,” says Trevino. “We also wanted anybody in the world to be able to roll out this infrastructure to serve similar phased eligibility rollouts or other purposes in the future.”
Thanks to a tight feedback loop between GenUI and Microsoft, the team was able to iterate quickly and test the validity of ideas. The first version of the chatbot was ready for evaluation within a month. This teamwork extended to MITRE, which was responsible for deploying the product. The group even consulted the White House COVID-19 task force.
By late March of 2021, the team had a minimum viable product (MVP) that could be launched in time for the newly released vaccines. Microsoft’s Bing search engine also made the Vaccine Eligibility Bot available on its COVID information dashboard.
Microsoft Research and GenUI’s team effort contributed to a high percentage of vaccinations in the US. “One of the reasons this team was successful is because it was drawn from and serves diverse communities,” says Doran. He also credits their ability to ship a first version and iterate quickly to this unique collaboration. “Contracting teams usually work independently with limited communication. Our relationship with GenUI felt like a natural team extension. We communicated through frequent meetings despite everyone working in different locations. We would code review across boundaries so ultimately it felt like an integrated team and not two distinct entities.”
While this cross-organizational team created a tool to meet a specific time in history, they didn’t stop there. Microsoft Research, MITRE, and GenUI created a free tool that people in any country can use as a data-driven communication resource in times of crisis.
Future problems can now be met by people on the ground sharing accurate information through the chatbot. “We're looking at other data analytic approaches to understand how supply and demand affect critical resources,” says Trevino. “Right now, our template is being used for the COVID ventilator marketplace in India.”
The project’s success, particularly with ESL speakers within the US, led to an internationalization effort. Today, the chatbot tool can be localized to different languages through a translation file.
“Let’s say a hurricane hits and people need to find out how to get food,” says Evans. “We can send an SMS campaign [with the chatbot tool] to everyone in the region to find out what they need most. This is just one piece of what ultimately can be a larger crisis toolkit.” Moving forward, because that vaccine bot is fully open-source, there is no barrier to getting these crisis-mitigating tools into the hands of those doing the work to help others.
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