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Boston’s Latest Chatbot Fights Food Insecurity One Text at a Time

A new SMS chatbot launched by the Mayor's Office of Food Access aims to help connect residents to resources that can help combat food insecurity. The tool is part of Boston's larger food access agenda.

Closeup of a person tapping two chat bubble icons.
Boston Mayor Kim Janey and the Mayor’s Office of Food Access (OFA) have launched a SMS chatbot to combat food insecurity in the city by connecting residents to services and resources.

In 2020, the public sector saw the rise of chatbots as government agencies looked to them as a tool to educate people in a period of virtual service delivery. In the past year, use has matured to better serve constituents.

The chatbot was created by OFA and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), the mayor’s civic research and design team, to be an educational platform.

Although getting to this point took about a year, the latest version of the chatbot was developed in about a month, said MONUM Program Director Michael Evans.

While the tool was first announced in September, the origin goes back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Evans. At that time, the city built a prototype of an SMS-based chatbot to help with food delivery services.

Catalina Prada Valderrama, communications director of OFA, said that prototype was received positively by members of the community — both old and young. Prada Valderrama was also a fellow through MONUM's Fellows Program in 2020.

Building the initial prototype familiarized MONUM with the process of creating a product like this, Evans said, which ultimately allowed this latest chatbot to be built in a matter of weeks.

Following the success of that project, the vision for this tool was to create an easy-to-use chatbot with a menu of accessible information. It is intended to organize the resources and information regarding food services in the community in a way that allows residents to simply and efficiently navigate this space.

A critical component of this project was increasing accessibility, and as such, the chatbot can be accessed using eight languages — a feature Prada Valderrama said the team deemed necessary from the start.

“[SMS] is easier for a lot of people,” Evans said. “It’s more accessible, especially when you think about issues around the digital divide.”

In addition, having it accessible through SMS rather than being an Internet-based tool helps those who may not have reliable access to broadband. It also offers a 24/7 option for those who need to navigate this information but cannot communicate with OFA during traditional hours.

“We are not able to answer calls at 11:00 p.m., but the chatbot can help us bridge that,” Prada Valderrama said.

In addition to being accessible for residents, the no-code design of this product allows for more members of the internal team to access it, Prada Valderrama explained. This means that if a message in the script needs to be changed, it can be done by individuals that do not have a coding background.

Some of the affordable food access options are offered through local partnerships with community-based organizations, noted Prada Valderrama. The options they provide can change or additional options can be added, so it is important that adjustments to the dialog offered by the chatbot can be made instantaneously to provide accurate information to residents.

Those who text the SMS chatbot can learn about a variety of things, like OFA’s benefit programs and where to get affordable food or delivery, Prada Valderrama detailed.

OFA traditionally serves the city in several main ways, such as their program offering which includes the Farmers Market Coupon Program, the Healthy Incentives Program for SNAP recipients and the Boston Summer Eats program to offer free meals for youth. The OFA also aims to connect residents with other programs and resources at the local, state and federal level.

In addition, the office just launched an online food donation platform for the city to help forge connections between those who have food to distribute and those who need it.

The platform creates a direct connection between organizations or individuals donating and those picking up. The announcement noted that while OFA does not offer assistance with logistics, it does approve listed food donations.

Both of these initiatives are part of a larger goal through Boston’s Food Access Agenda, which includes strategic goals developed through a needs assessment. This assessment, among other things, underlined the inequities that exist in food security.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.