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AI4GOV: Small Giants in COVID-19 Response

By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab

AI4GOV Co-founder, Lei Motilla. Picture: AI4GOV

MANILA - Less than a year into business, one startup went from streamlining local governance processes to connecting a national government to its people during COVID-19.


AI solutions not-for-profit, AI4GOV entered 2020 with modest goals.


“At the beginning of the year [2020], our goal was to generate a revenue of at least $US 30,000 and create a platform that was scalable, “ said Co-founder, Lei Motilla.


Fast forward three months and the small team found themselves working alongside companies like Viber and Facebook, on a COVID-19 digital triage and information system project for the Philippines Department of Health (DOH), titled, KIRA KontraCOVID.


Born out of UNDP Philippines and Youth Co:Lab’s #Hacksociety event in September 2018, from a desire to implement frontier technologies into public services, AI4GOV has transformed into a small giant of the Filipino tech industry.

AI4GOV team. Picture: AI4GOV

The young startup might seem like an overnight success story, but their achievements were earnt through sleepless nights, initiative, and a passion for helping their communities.


Six months after officially launching, AI4GOV faced their first challenge in crisis response, when on January 12, 2020, the Taal Volcano erupted in Batangas, a little over 100kms from Metro Manila.


“The Taal eruption was close to us, we could feel it in the capital region, we saw the ash falling into our faces, it was very tangible,” said Lei.

The team felt a responsibility to their local government partners, with whom they were already engaged, to supply digital solutions during the disaster. Within three days of the eruption, AI4GOV had a prototype emergency response chatbot ready to deploy.


The usability testing of the Taal chatbot in evacuation centers was slated for the third week of March 2020.


“We were supposed to go to an evacuation site to deploy our Taal chatbot, then suddenly in the second week of March, COVID blew up in the Philippines,” said Lei.


Until that moment, the team hadn’t been thinking about the virus, but they knew from their experience in quickly building a digital solution for Taal, that they could pivot to start responding to COVID-19.


“We went through the Department of Health algorithms, and then in one night started deconstructing the algorithm and how it would work in a chatbot.


“Messaging over the group chat we knew we had to do something for COVID, this is how we can help our fellow Filipinos,” said Lei.

Days later, AI4GOV was pitching to the DOH, alongside developers with almost a decade of experience like AIAH, and in meetings with tech giants like Google.


The feelings of doubt many young startups face in their first year of business were compounded for AI4GOV by the scale and significance of the project they were undertaking.


“Can we really do this, do we have the capacity to do this, maybe we shouldn’t lead this development, maybe we should hand it over,” Lei recalled thinking during the six-week development of the project.


Despite fears and reservations, slowly the project began to take shape, and for AI4GOV, its partners and the DOH the systems they developed have exceded expectations.


“They [DOH] saw how we worked, spending late nights coordinating with them, we feel that sense of trust,” said Lei.


“When we remind ourselves how lucky we are to be in this situation, it’s something we don’t neglect.”


"And, we are grateful to collaborate with organisations like AIAH, who felt like our big brother in creating KIRA KontraCOVID with DOH. You don’t always have to be the best; you just need humility and motivation.”

KIRA Kontra COVID Chatbot. Picture: AI4GOV

KIRA KontraCOVID launched on April 23. The service facilitates remote self-risk assessments based on approved triage algorithms through AI-powered chatbots deployed via Facebook and Viber. Filipinos can send videos for consultation, access important information and have queries related to COVID-19 answered. The self-reported data then links to local governments for case management and monitoring.


The project has already generated millions of interactions nationally. AI4GOV and its partners are still working on developing their service, now working with the WHO to integrate data systems.


The team is now also a tech partner for UNDP Philippines, developing chatbot surveys and employing social media listening techniques to assess the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 to households.


“After COVID there is no going back, working with DOH built our credibility, and that led us to other clients and other projects,” said Lei.

AI4GOV will have made it through their first year as a startup come July 2020, few other businesses will have met the scale of challenges this small team of young entrepreneurs has endured. Lei and her colleagues will likely face many more emotional rollercoasters and challenges in their entrepreneurial journey.


Although, “At this point, I think we’re happy,” said Lei.


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Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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