How an industry collaboration created a friendly face to help in times of need.
Partnership at a glance
- La Trobe’s Centre for Data Analytics and Cognition (CDAC) has partnered with St John Ambulance to design Bunji, a personalised chatbot and app to help users manage anxiety and depression, and access mental health resources.
- Using AI technology, Bunji – meaning ‘critical friend’ – helps users recognise what boosts their mood and encourages them to take part in uplifting activities.
- Charity St John Ambulance has backed the Bunji project as a partner, keen to support an affordable, confidential tool to promote positive mental health and ease stress on the healthcare system.
- The Bunji project began in late 2019 but most work was done during the COVID-19 pandemic, with several researchers themselves stranded far from home because of international travel restrictions.
- The team behind Bunji believe the backing of trusted healthcare first aid charity St John Ambulance will generate interest and confidence as they seek funding to enhance their work.
With its cute smile and thoughtful suggestions, Bunji is every inch the helpful chatbot. But its friendly exterior belies a serious intent. The La Trobe research team behind Bunji – now an app and website – want to help ease the pain of anxiety, depression and loneliness in the community.
“We work on great projects all the time, but this was really meaningful,” says Donna Burnett, Senior Manager, La Trobe Business School and one of the chief investigators for the Bunji project. “During the COVID lockdowns, it gave us all a sense of purpose. We felt that we were contributing to society and to humanity.”
Burnett was senior research centre manager at La Trobe’s Centre for Data Analytics and Cognition (CDAC) when the team devised a “non-judgemental” chatbot to assist with the milder forms of anxiety, depression and loneliness. They deployed human-centric AI technology to create an app that tracks users’ moods, offers uplifting ideas and schedules activities that promote positive mental health.
The charity St John Ambulance, a trusted provider of first aid services for more than a century, joined as a Bunji project partner. It saw potential to reduce psychological distress in the community, but also ease the stress on the overburdened healthcare system.
But just as work began, COVID-19 struck and plunged much of the community – and the researchers themselves – into the very circumstances that Bunji was devised for. Several of the PhD researchers involved found themselves stranded, in Australia or another part of the world, far from loved ones, living and working in relative isolation.
“We really connected to our researchers’ own personal stories and their own psyche to think about what would help in this situation,” reflects Burnett.
Together we worked on the sort of empathetic language modelling that would resonate in an international community as well.
Bunji – an Aboriginal word meaning ‘critical friend’ – uses behavioural activation therapy, which focuses on the way behaviour influences emotions. Created with input from a clinical nursing professor, it incorporates features common in counselling sessions.
Linking to a dedicated website offering additional resources, Bunji went into the App Store for evaluation last year. La Trobe’s Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students), the project’s internal partner, invited students to trial the app and provide feedback and St John Ambulance staff provided valuable advice based on their experience.
Burnett stresses that Bunji is a bot, not a substitute for medical practitioners: it recognises trigger words and phrases to quickly direct users to emergency services for serious conditions. The research team is surprised and delighted that, even in development, Bunji has attracted over 300 users from as far afield as Kenya, Sri Lanka and the US.
Burnett and team have ambitious plans to refine their friendly chatbot to boost the contribution it can make to improving mental health.
“Our partnership with an organisation like St John Ambulance, trusted and valued in the community, will help with future development and grant applications. They have played such an important part of the Bunji story.”
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