In June, at the height of the national lockdown, citizen engagement platform GovChat stepped in to help the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) manage the millions of Frequently Asked Questions that resulted from the R350 grant.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, GovChat now receives millions of messages per day, peaking at a staggering 14.2 million.

This is according to Eldrid Jordaan, founder and CEO of GovChat, who points out that the chatbot, which is run off Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure, has processed in excess of 95 million messages since 11 May 2020. But how does GovChat manage to process so many requests and manage to ease the minds of so many understandably desperate South Africans?

“This activity was handled by AWS’ natural language software, Lex,” says Jordaan. “Once Lex was upgraded to handle the unexpected volumes which initially overwhelmed the chatbot, this unprecedented activity was handled with no latency or backlogs.”

Amazon Lex is a service that helps migrate conversational interfaces into any application using voice and text. It takes the advanced deep learning functionalities of automatic speech recognition for converting speech to text, and combines it with natural language understanding to recognise the intent of the text. This enables users to build applications with highly engaging user experiences and almost lifelike conversational interactions.

GovChat was appointed as the official citizen engagement platform by the South African government in 2018 in terms of an Open Government Partnership (OGP). Since then, it has been active in developing its digital platform, both as a citizen communication tool and as a government reporting tool.

Adapting technology to suit various needs

Accordingly, when the COVID-19 crisis arose, GovChat was well-placed to adapt its technology to provide several services and features to assist all arms of state with various needs for COVID-19 management.

For example, GovChat is currently assisting the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs with the provision of broad citizen feedback with regards to local, provincial as well as national service delivery and performance.

Through an integrated ICT partnership between BCX/Telkom, GovChat and the National Dept of Health are providing an end-to-end symptom tracking, testing and information-dissemination digital platform.

The chatbot is also being used by SASSA to facilitate digital applications from all South Africans and permanent residents for a COVID-19 Special Social Relief of Distress grant. In addition, the platform is also being used to answer frequently asked questions about the social grants.

Jordaan says, “AWS makes it really easy to build a scalable platform without the need to invest in any hardware or any other physical infrastructure.”

He notes that 100% of GovChat’s systems are hosted in the AWS cloud. “When a new business is scaling at the speeds that we have seen, but also requires vastly different capacities through any given period, serverless infrastructure is a huge commercial win.”

Jordaan firmly believes that the opening of the AWS (Cape Town) Africa Region was a boon for GovChat. “Our partner, the South African government, has a requirement that all sensitive data be hosted within the borders of South Africa. The opening of the AWS Cape Town data centre region was indeed timeous on this front – coinciding with the ramp up of GovChat activity and feature expansion.”

“We will continue developing products in the citizen engagement space with Government, NPOs and selected interested private sector enterprises and institutions,” he concludes.

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