Using automation to fight misinformation, starting with a menstrual health chatbot

Swapneel Mehta is the founder of the Simppl research collectivea group of students and professional programmers working on automated social media tools. The group’s first product, a WhatsApp chatbot called Sakhi that answers questions about menstrual health in both Bengali and English, is currently in beta mode. It might seem like a strange place to start in the fight against misinformation, but Mehta sees it as a crucial first step in building a system that works for the global majority.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve described Simppl as a project to fight misinformation broadly. So why start with menstrual health and why start on WhatsApp?

We needed to demonstrate that the intervention method works to start with. And we wanted to build for the global majority. What we’ve seen in India and Bangladesh is that even people who might not have access to clean drinking water, they have access to smartphones. We can adapt the same system to teach about public health or about elections — and more importantly, we’ve built out an entire monitoring infrastructure so we can intervene on these conversations down the line. But our first job is to deploy it and test it.

Your team is split between the U.S., Bangladesh, and India, correct? How did you end up with such a spread-out workforce?

The most important part of it is the on-the-ground team. We’re deploying this in Bangladesh, where the nonprofit that we work with runs six different public health centers. The tech team is undergrads from various Indian institutions. Some of them are from Mumbai. Some of them are from other parts of India. We have native Hindi, Bengali, English, Gujarati, and Marathi speakers, and we have a healthy mix of men and women. Because we’re tackling public health issues, it helps to have representation.

How do you coordinate work across that kind of distance?

We use GitHub projects and use Notion to do sprint management. Our entire organization, even pre-Covid-19, was built on the idea that remote collaboration should be prioritized. A lot of times, people are systematically disadvantaged against taking in-person opportunities. And that’s a big problem. Something as simple as traveling a few hours to get to college — that can hugely impede your ability to contribute.

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