The DotModus team has focused their solution-focused and people-centric skills to help meet a growing need in the mental wellbeing of students, through the design, development and delivery of a mental health chatbot for the University of Pretoria.

DotModus specialises in data analytics, machine learning and custom software, and in this instance utilised their app development expertise to create the university’s Student Counselling Unit bot (SCU-b), appropriately named ‘Scooby’, which is a first-of-its-kind in South Africa. The app has been up and running since March 2021 with positive responses from students.

Dr Wimpie Beeken, Senior IT Project Manager: ICT Capability Development Management at the University of Pretoria, who worked with DotModus on the project, says, “It’s  great to see how students are now using the SCU-B resources.”

The Scooby app is part of the SCU’s efforts to provide primary mental healthcare to the university’s 48,500 students, to help  obviate mental health issues, some of which are  a result of pressures and demands faced by university students.

The need for mental health support for students is intensifying. In April 2020, a national survey was launched to assess the mental health and support needs of South Africa’s undergraduate students, initiated by Universities SA and funded by the SA Medical Research Council. The survey is a response to studies that show that as many as 31% of students had reported a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, with the most common being depression, anxiety, and attention difficulties.

Prof Jason Bantjes, from the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Psychology, and principal investigator of the national student survey, said the initiative is a response to the growing awareness of the need for campus-based programmes to promote the psychosocial health of students, and close the treatment gap. “Data from a recent South African study shows that in the past 12 months, 20.8% of first-year students had clinically significant problems with anxiety, and 13.6% had problems with depression. These mental health issues have a range of adverse effects including impaired social functioning, academic failure and suicide.”

The DotModus chatbot is designed to supplement rather than replace SCU’s traditional one-on-one counselling services, providing students with immediate and ready access to resources through technologies that are “in their pockets”. The app features a range of self-help topics that students can explore, and enables them to build their own personal toolkits from multimedia resources, tips and guides. Scooby can also facilitate the student to receive one-on-one help.

One UP student’s  response to the AI (Artificial Intelligence) communication bot is that the range of available resources is valuable. “Scooby’s mixed media resources are pretty good – with podcasts and videos, and not just long articles. It’s also useful that you can save resources so you don’t have to go through the whole chatting process again.” She adds that another positive feature is that if students have a friend who has a problem, the chatbot can provide advice on supporting someone who has, for example, depression.

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 as low as possible, while still remaining accessible.

UP’s Dr Beeken says highlights of working with DotModus on the project included the quick departure point from concept to bringing the first skeleton together. “DotModus also allowed us the luxury of carte blanche on our ideas and a ‘let’s build it’ approach. The openness of engagement was excellent.”

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 a plethora of 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 wellbeing.”