Johannesburg, 02 Jun 2021
A South-African first-of-its-kind mental well-being chatbot for the University of Pretoria’s 48 500 students has been designed, developed and delivered in a collaborative project between leading data analytics and cloud infrastructure firm, DotModus and the university.
Early response from students has been positive, and the university’s Student Counselling Unit (SCU) is actively encouraging usage of SCU-B, known as ‘Scooby’.
DotModus, a Dynamic Technologies group company, developed the app as part of an initiative to provide a primary mental healthcare resource for students that supplements the SCU’s traditional one-on-one counselling services. The app gives students immediate access by using technologies that are in students pockets and available at any time. Students can explore self-help topics and build their own personal toolkits from multimedia resources, tips and guides. In the case of a crisis, SCU-B can also facilitate the student to receive one-on-one help.
Scooby is powered using the Google Cloud platform as the university has been using Google Workspace for the past four years. This has enabled seamless integration of the bot with various departments, while also providing opportunities for the bot’s continued growth.
Google services used by the chatbot include Dialogflow, which enables SCU-B to interact with students accurately and recognise intent and context efficiently. It also utilises Google Kubernetes Engine, Cloud SQL, Google App Engine and Cloud Scheduler. The app incorporates the in-browser text-to-speech and speech-to-text function, which allows DotModus to keep overhead data use for the students as low as possible, while still remaining accessible.
Dr Wimpie Beeken, Senior IT Project Manager: ICT Capability Development Management at the University of Pretoria, who worked with DotModus on the project, says some of the highlights for him were “having a partner that allowed us to build the bot from the perspective of our own requirements, and the quick departure point from concept to bringing the first skeleton together. DotModus also allowed us the luxury of carte blanche to our ideas, and a ‘let’s build it’ approach. The openness of engagement was excellent, and every one of us on the development team knew what we wanted to do.
Chris Swanepoel, Python Engineer at DotModus, says an inspiring aspect of the chatbot is that it is not a full and final product. “This is a core MVP (minimum viable product) that has been custom-designed and is sufficient to be of practical use and a boon to students from the outset. However, it is also intended as a solid and expandable foundation for further resources and features. As usage and helpfulness of SCU-B increases, there are likely to be future phases that add greater value to the service – and have a bigger impact on student well-being.”