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Estonia rolls out hacker innovations in virus fight

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A passenger of a truck with a face mask waves at the Ikla crossing point between Estonia and Latvia on March 14, 2020 as the government has declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Raigo PAJULA / AFP)

Estonia has begun piloting tech innovations designed to help handle the coronavirus crisis after the government asked hackers to join the fight against the pandemic.

The government is rolling out a chatbot — a programme that answers questions with web users in real-time — across its websites this week to answer questions about the virus, Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital advisor, told AFP.

“Right now, Suve chatbot can answer about 200 questions, but I hope that by the end of the week it will reach 900 to 1,000,” Kaevets said, adding the goal is for the bot to deal with up to 85 percent of queries to “alleviate the pressure on information hotlines”.

Although health experts have already publicly responded to the most common questions, the answers are not always easy to find online, prompting people to flood government call centres.

Frequently asked questions include, “What are the coronavirus symptoms?” and “Where can I get tested for the coronavirus?”

A group of hackers known as the eeBot team were commissioned after they developed the bot during a hackathon on March 14.

“The idea of a nationwide chatbot had been in people´s minds already before the crisis, but the hackathon gave us a real chance to bring it to life very quickly,” Michaela Snopkova, eeBot team chief said in a statement.

The hackers are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimise the chatbot’s understanding of differently worded questions, she said.

Suve can respond to questions in Estonian and English, with a Russian option coming soon.

The hackers are also looking into a range of other IT tricks, including a time-management app, to help people cope with self-isolation as hundreds of millions are confined to their homes to stem the spread of the virus.

Dubbed “e-stonia”, the EU member of 1.3 million people is known for being a trailblazer in technology. It pioneered e-voting in 2005 and plays host to NATO’s cyber-defence centre.

The country has seen 369 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date, including seven recoveries.


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