Facebook Messenger provides governments, agencies with free developer tools to combat Covid-19

Big tech has been making a huge effort to mobilize its power to help people work better together to battle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — whether it’s creating search and information portals or making sure the most authoritative voices are surfacing above the noise, or gathering compute power to supercharge research efforts to find vaccines.

Today, it is the turn of Facebook: the company announced a number of initiatives around Messenger, its messaging platform with 1.3 billion users, to help use the service to facilitate better communication around the coronavirus outbreak. It is now partnering with developers to provide free services to government and UN health organizations to create better information tools for people to use; and it’s launching a virtual (online) hackathon to see how developers can create messaging solutions to help promote some of the important aspects of fighting the  virus, such as social distancing and more general information services.

The moves come at a critical time. Facebook hasn’t had the best couple of years when it comes to public opinion — with many users increasingly concerned about their privacy and data protection on the platform, and getting more aware of how it can be used as a tool for manipulating public opinion. But for now, there’s been a stay put on that whole mess.

Facebook has identified and been working hard to battle misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic on its site, and it has also emerged as a helpful platform when it comes how ordinary people are using it to manage  communication during the coronavirus pandemic. Many communities are turning to Facebook, and other tools that it owns like WhatsApp, to coordinate communication to help those who are self-isolating, or simply people looking for advice as they start to figure out how to work, live, educate and take care of themselves in these unprecedented circumstances.

The distancing measures that are getting put in place in many cities and countries — which include things like closing schools, restaurants, theaters, and other places where people congregate, and extend also to fully locked-down quarantines with people staying in their homes — are an unprecedented disruption of our daily lives, and that’s putting a lot of focus on communication platforms like Messenger and the internet to keep us connected.

“As is common in any crisis, people are using digital channels like Messenger to stay connected and get information from trusted health authorities that are on the front lines fighting this global pandemic,” writes Stan Chudnovsky, the VP of Messenger.

While there is no charge to put such services on Messenger at the moment, developers might normally charge organizations to build these experiences, which could include bots with automated responses to questions, or guidance on how to use Messenger to broadcast information and updates more effectively, or how to switch from automated response bots to direct conversations with live people when needed: that is the part that Facebook has now negotiated to be done for no charge.

The services are already being used by UNICEF, Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination (NHSRC), and Argentina’s Ministry of Health, which is working with Botmaker.com to answer questions from the public about the coronavirus, including advice.

As for the hackathon, it’s being organised with Devpost, and while it may sound like fun, these are often amazing testbeds to surface innovation. Yes, you might think that the most important innovation right now has to be on the drug research side, but innovation in messaging is also of huge importance as we look for ways of both keeping people informed and calm.

“Participants will be encouraged to build both global and local solutions and will receive unique access to Messenger-related content, including Facebook Live tutorials with product experts and a range of educational materials to support innovation,” Chudnovsky notes. Winners will get mentoring from Facebook engineers to help make these solutions a reality. They’ll also receive invitations to attend F8 2021, including flights and accommodations, and will be given the opportunity to participate in the F8 hackathon, he added.

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