La Bot, Chile’s first conversational news bot, wins thousands of followers during country’s elections

Inspired by the power of messaging applications to create personal relationships with news readers, a trio of veteran Chilean journalists set out this year to offer a news bot that would keep voters informed during the country’s upcoming elections.

La Bot, Chile’s first conversational bot specializing in news and journalistic analysis, was launched on Oct. 30, just three weeks before the first round of the South American country’s presidential and parliamentary elections. To date, the platform connects with thousands across Chile over Telegram and Facebook, and has gained more than 7,000 Twitter followers.

The project was created by three recognized Chilean journalists, Paula Molina, Francisca Skoknic and Andrea Insunza.

"The three of us are very interested in innovation, and part of the need for La Bot came after we attended various conferences (on digital journalism), such as that of the University of Texas (ISOJ 2017), where we saw the logic of the new journalism projects, which have to do with connecting with the audience, with establishing different relationships with the audience, and part of La Bot works from that standpoint," Paula Molina, host of the program ‘La historia es nuestra’ from Radio Cooperativa and 2013 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, told the Knight Center.

Inspiration for the Chilean trio’s La Bot came from Politibot, a platform that functions as a content management system, which was created by Spanish journalists María Ramírez and Eduardo Suárez. The Spanish creation had also been created to cover an electoral process –the 2016 elections in Spain. And Politibot was also inspired by ideas presented in a panel at lSOJ 2016 that looked at journalistic projects using instant messaging applications and artificial intelligence.

The creators of the Chilean bot partnered with the Spanish team at the end of August 2017 and they began to devise La Bot’s profile starting in September. It took them about three months to "Chileanize" the platform for La Bot, and to create the language it would use with the new audience. Currently, Politibot provides the platform and gives them remote technological support.

"We wanted to combine that capacity to provide data, that analytical capacity, with a heart that wants to connect with people, that wants to put itself in the position of those who read it and receive it," Molina said.

The journalists aimed to innovate in terms of how journalistic information and analysis concerning the electoral process was delivered to citizens, especially considering that this year’s elections would be very particular; the entire legal framework was changed for the country’s 2017 elections.

"There is a new electoral system, there are new districts, there is a new financing system, there is a new auditing system, etc. So, we started at the beginning, with being able to explain all these things well as the first goal, and then what we did was add the analysis of all the data about the elections and the influence they have on the results and on the citizens,” Francisca Skoknic, Master in Public Administration from Columbia University and former deputy director of CIPER, explained to the Knight Center.

Additionally, the creators of La Bot thought that in a country where there is great access to technology, the best way to inform people about the elections would be through a friendly platform that can be viewed from a mobile phone. The consumption of news on the internet through smartphones is a growing trend worldwide.

"In Chile, media outlets are still very resistant to incorporating innovation in how they deliver information. It seemed to us that it was very important to do this soon in Chile. So, it was like a significant drive in the launch of La Bot," Andrea Insunza, director of the Research and Publications Center of the Faculty of Communication and Letters of the Diego Portales University in Chile and a Master in Political Journalism from Columbia University, told the Knight Center.

La Bot works through Telegram and Facebook Messenger, from which anyone can start a conversation with her about the elections using a menu of options with predetermined answers written by the journalists.

Its first entry was about the wealth of the presidential candidates. The team has since published stories about how the new legal framework defined new guidelines for financial contributions to candidates’ campaigns. They’ve also analyzed the impact of voluntary voting on the inhabitants of areas farthest from the capital, to the south and north of the country, which saw a greater number of abstentions than in previous elections.

According to Insunza, what they are interested in showing with the news bot is that it is possible to use the platform to address very complex issues, which require reporting and data journalism, while at the same time making the information super digestible.

"Therefore, La Bot has language used on any chat app where we mix short texts, with gifs, with emoticons, and we make sure that the stories are suitable for that language. Therefore, the complexity is somewhat blended in the story, which is much more friendly, close,” Insunza explained.

La Bot can also be accessed in other ways, including via Twitter. "Twitter has helped us to measure the interest, reception, to have some kind of feedback regarding a group of users, regarding how they use it, and in that sense it also helps us to develop questions," Molina said.

Through Twitter, where the news bot has more than 7,000 followers, users can ask La Bot more direct questions. The "cost of voting," or how much a candidate invested for each vote obtained, for example, was one of those questions asked by some Twitter users prior to elections.  Coincidentally, it was also one of the stories the journalists were already working on for La Bot.

For Skoknic, taking into consideration how conservative the Chilean media are, La Bot has two levels of innovation. The first level is the nature of their platform as a conversational bot. And the second level are the stories that La Bot writes, 90 percent of which are based in data journalism.

"We are experimenting every day, looking for raw information, databases to work with and also talking with experts who help us think about what information can be obtained from public data," Skoknic said.

Insunza also stressed that an important feature of La Bot's personality is her sense of humor. "For us it is very important that La Bot has humor and that it is witty in some cases. She is very cautious about the information she gives, she is very transparent, (...) but we cared a lot that this scholarly side was not the only one that stands out and that her humor was also very present, and also the language that is used, the gifs you choose, the emoticons that are given as options, and so on. "

Therefore, the creators of La Bot think that this friendly platform was established very quickly as a reliable conversation space that not only delivers news, but also analyzes it, and highlights the most important, based on information derived from data.

La Bot will take a vacation in February, after the second round of voting on Dec. 17 in Chile, but will return with post-election data of interest to the public, according to Molina, Insunza and Skoknic. The creators of La Bot confessed that the journalistic potential of the platform has exceeded all their expectations and that from now on they will focus on developing a financing model that allows them to continue and to diversify it.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.