In 2019 Vollar founder, Stellenbosch-based Kyle Ueckerman, won a development award at the SAB Foundation Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards.
Vollar is an online platform that allows organisations to incentivise and reward members of a community for doing volunteer work to help others in their area.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Vollar’s customer market disappeared as organisations could not run social development programmes due to the lockdown.
As a result, Kyle and his team developed a chatbot called Concorona that rewards people for doing daily Covid-19 symptom checks and for completing quizzes about the virus.
Concorona users can use their reward points on Vollar’s website to purchase discounts from participating businesses.
Bolander caught up with Kyle recently for a Q&A to find out more about Vollar’s initiative.
Bolander: Is Vollar and the Concorona chatbox national or local?
Kyle: The chatbot is national and we have users from all over the country.
Thanks to our partnership with Moya Messenger it is available completely data-free on all major cell phone networks.
This has allowed us to gain a lot of traction in the lower-income sector where the need is the greatest.
To date, we have over 32 000 users, over 25 000 symptom checks, and over 32 000 quizzes completed.
Bolander: How does the business model work? How do you fund the points that respondents earn to spend with participating businesses?
Kyle: It’s important to note that while Concorona is developed by Vollar and we repurposed some of our tech to do it, the rewards system doesn’t function the same.
Vollar has monetary backing and works on a customer model, where organisations are our customers and they fund the Vollar they use in their programmes.
Concorona’s rewards system, called Concora points, is non-monetary. Concorona partners with businesses who offer special deals and discounts in exchange for Concora.
We have had good uptake with small businesses who want to promote their products and gain new customers in this difficult time.
However, we have also found it difficult because small businesses generally don’t have the distribution networks of large corporates so it becomes difficult for users to actually access certain products without needing to pay shipping.
Where we have seen good uptake, is on discounts for face masks, which often sell out, and digital products like e-books.
To date, we have had over 800 deals purchased through our site.
Bolander: Is each symptom check unique, or are some of them re-checks by the same people?
Kyle: Of our users, 4 638 have done a checkup more than once, and 1 019 have done a checkup more than four times.
Our most active user has done 56 rechecks, with many others close behind.
Based on our volume of users, which is relatively small compared to what national initiatives have, we feel the number of rechecks is good.
This can definitely be attributed to our rewards scheme which drives the recheck behaviour.
We believe that rechecks are key to understanding the virus and being able to predict outbreaks very early.
This is part of our goal with the data. As proof of concept, Concorona definitely works.
We believe that with the right partners that can offer relevant deals in exchange for our Concorona points, we can drastically increase the number of rechecks.
For example, a lot of users request the ability to redeem their points for airtime. If we had a sponsor for airtime, the rechecks would boom.
Bolander: Has the data been offered to the healthcare sector, and if so, what has the response been?
Kyle: With regards to national and corporate response to the initiative, we are honestly very disappointed.
We’ve had personal introductions to individuals in the C suite of two major South African telecommunications companies, but both never responded to the introduction.
We have gotten personal introductions to heads of finance and social investment of a major grocery chain, and while I am appreciative that they responded, they were not willing to get involved.
We’ve had personal introductions to other corporates in various industries, including health, who have not responded or not shown interest to be involved.
We’ve even had two separate introductions to two different heads at the United Nations, who both never responded to the introductions.
From a government perspective, we’ve been even more disappointed.
Without naming names, I’ve personally presented over Zoom to one of the heads of a department in the Western Cape Government and one of the ministers in the national government, both never got back in touch.
I’ve written directly to another minister in national government and their team, as I have met the minister personally on more than one occasion and have interacted with the team on a project in the past, but I never heard back.
I’ve tried endlessly to get in contact with the solidarity fund, which has requested health data to help understand the spread of the virus, and which have wanted to drive a behavioural change campaign, but to date, no one has contacted us back.
The nature of how we have reached out has been to offer the data for free and to try to find partners for rewards.
It’s been very disappointing considering how great the need is, and it honestly boggles my mind.
I can’t understand whether people are just too busy or if the entities want to drive their own initiatives.
We’ve also struggled to get publications interested as it seems (they) were more recently only interested in covering vaccine trials.
Bolander: Do you keep any data which allows people who do the symptom check to be identified, or is the data anonymous, thus preserving the privacy of respondents
Kyle: Regarding data, our symptom check are anonymous, and we use the data to build aggregated statistics based on the location, age, and gender of the respondent.
Specifically, regarding location, we are only storing location information down to the area level.
Because we have rechecks as well as location information we can use this information to eventually predict outbreaks.
The hope is that we can assist the health sector to mobilise resources more effectively to at-risk areas. That being said, it would not be possible to personally identify the users.