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The State of Washington had the unique distinction of reporting the first active COVID-19 infection in the United States. Accordingly, it was up to officials in the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to respond quickly and decisively with containment efforts. That meant ramping up support for the state’s medical infrastructure and providing accurate data and insights to state officials and the public.

To facilitate the dissemination of information throughout Washington, the Department of Health took up an offer of support from Microsoft to build and deploy a chatbot network on Azure to immediately respond to questions, provide answers for frequently asked questions, and ensure that accurate information was reaching people efficiently.

This intuitive self-service chat bot that allow citizens to answer important questions like “what are the symptoms of Covid19?”, and “how many cases are in the State of Washington?”. The Azure chatbot framework leverages AI to improve accuracy over time.  This was important during a period of rapidly changing information and circumstances.

The importance of information and scaling delivery

COVID-19 struck Washington and rapidly spread throughout the population. As such, the Washington Department of Health needed to move quickly to address containment issues while interfacing with public inquiries regarding preventative measures and updates.

“As the pandemic has spread, the need for fresh data to drive policy decisions has been incredibly high,” said Jennifer McNamara, CIO of the Washington Department of Health. “This includes audiences like governmental agencies, the media, and the public. The existing infrastructure was not suited to meet that demand rapidly and at scale.”

Any kind of hold up could cost citizens precious time to respond to the disease while weakening trust in the government. However, the DOH was receiving data from local sources as well as federal and global agencies. It was simply too much for a single state department to process.

“The volume of the data we received was massive,” she said. “And it completely overwhelmed our systems to the point that we had to pause our system, which was a huge cause for concern. We were under pressure to create a system that could proactively answer questions directly. That’s when Microsoft stepped forward with an offer to help.”

The DOH recognized that Microsoft, headquartered in Washington, could provide the support they needed right out of the gate at no cost to the Department. So, when Microsoft offered infrastructure and technical support, they accepted.

Work began immediately between Chuong Nguyen, Application Development Supervisor at the DOH, and Julian Soh, a Microsoft Data and A.I. Architect. They quickly realized that the Azure Bot Framework would be a timely answer to the DOH scaling issues.

“Chatbot technology was new to us,” Nguyen said, “and at first I was worried whether we would be able to use it and expand it. I appreciate that Julian came in and walked me through step by step, including how to ingest data from the local DOH and CDC, using Q&A Makers, and other functions.”

Together, Nguyen and Soh were able to get their chatbot functioning within three hours and a little over a week to fully deploy it into production.

Using chatbots and AI to push accurate information to the public

With the chatbot in place, the Washington State DOH was able to provide the kind of up-to-date information that the public needed. McNamara said that initially, the goal was to reduce calls into the State Department of Health call centers and provide relief to the overwhelmed system.

They found that machine learning capabilities helped improve their knowledge base to provide more intelligent insights and answers for the public every day. More importantly, it reduced barriers to up-to-date information by providing around the clock access to anyone in the state.

“In the middle of the night, people could go online and ask chatbot a question when they needed it, wherever they were,” said McNamara.

While she admits that it is difficult to quantify the impact that chatbot has had on individuals, it has helped the department stay ahead of misinformation. Nguyen noted that the chatbot answered more than 10,000 questions in the previous month, which averaged out to over 330 questions answered per day.

Conclusion

The use of the Azure Bot Framework was such a success with the Washington State Department of Health that several associated agencies began to use it as well, thanks to the partnership with the Washington State Department of Technology (WaTech) and executive sponsorship by State CIO, Jim Weaver. Nguyen said that as of the end of May, she had been contacted by the Washington Office of the Governor, the Washington State Employment Security Department, the Georgia Department of Health, and the Wyoming Department of Health to discuss implementing their own versions of chatbots on Azure.

These tools, McNamara said, are crucial in a time when misinformation is widespread and transparency helps diffuse that bad information with real-time insight. The support of Microsoft helped her, Nguyen, and the Washington State DOH mobilize information in a way that supported residents no matter where they are.

“I don’t know what we would have done without that offer,” McNamara said. “Microsoft is from Washington, and we all live here, and we all care a lot.”

Learn more about Crisis Response for State & Local Government here