Online bots can often be a negative experience – whether it is bots that automatically tweet to disrupt human interaction, or overly-transactional shopping bots. But what if bots could be used to encourage people’s interaction and collaboration for a social cause?

The construction of a new international airport in an at-risk ecosystem in Mexico (Texcoco) was cancelled by the new president. After, a public consultation started on what to do with the land. But many people struggled to come up with good ideas or collaborate around a unified campaign.

Anyone can start a petition on, but sometimes the best petitions do not get a lot of signatures and can be ignored. Instead of many conflicting petitions being made on this subject, we wanted to see if we could encourage our users to collaborate around the best ideas.

Meet Coco the Facebook Messenger bot: users who had shown an interest in the Texcoco issue were given the opportunity to talk with Coco, put forwards proposals for petitions and vote on other people’s proposals. They could also comment on why they liked or disliked an idea:

We found that interacting with Coco was a fun and dynamic experience for people who wanted to do something beyond sign petitions. 1,127 people voted for different proposals, 200 different petitions were started about this issue and 194 comments were left on other people’s proposals.

What did we learn? From this initial experiment, we found that people are very willing to engage more with a social change issue if we make it more dynamic and interactive. Bots can lower the barriers to stepping up on a campaign by making the process more fun and less transactional. People participated more when they are interested in a specific topic or when it’s in response to a popular or trending issue.

As we look to expand this work, we’re dreaming big. Can we design bots that not only help people start petitions but also connect people to plan campaign strategy together? Or alert people to unfolding media engagement for a campaign? How about a bot that helps people develop an offline event or crowdfunding opportunity?

Bots, AI and new technology deliver exciting new opportunities for social change. Here at the Foundation, we’re pushing to understand the best possible ways to leverage this potential so that anyone can become a powerful changemaker.