Robotic Process Automation RPA

A Robot To Feed The Hungry – Automation for the Common Good

By DAVID Jenness posted Mon October 04, 2021 10:46 AM


IBM launched its first Build-A-Bot Challenge in 2021 to see what new use cases might evolve for Robotic Process Automation.  We announced a 30-day challenge in June: to use IBM Robotic Process Automation to address a workplace problem or a social problem.

Wei Lai is a Solution Architect for Perficient, an IBM Business Partner. Perficient passed along news about the challenge and Mr. Lai had some extra time available over the July 4th holiday and he started sketching ideas. With 20 years of experience in business process design, he knew how to conceive a solution, but he had never worked with RPA before.  “I learned it in a weekend,” he said.  “Probably in about eight hours total. The documentation was good and it wasn’t hard to figure out.”

     Wei Lai from Perficient

He didn’t have a problem finding problems to fix.  In fact, he was the only Build-A-Bot contestant to submit an entry for both categories, Workplace Improvement and Social Challenge.  His Workplace Improvement entry found a way to automate the submission of time cards at Perficient, but it was his Social Challenge entry that won him the $10,000 prize.

Mr. Lai’s wife is a schoolteacher in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. “We often helped out the school with food drives, over the years,” he explained. “Especially around the Holidays. But the problem with food drives is you end up with a lot of cans of food from the back of the pantry, not necessarily what people actually want to feed their family.”

Many grocery stores and restaurant chains offer coupons for food if you take the time to fill out their customer survey. The link is usually printed on your receipt. What if there was a way to automate the processing of store and restaurant surveys to create a “bank” of coupons that needy people could redeem for food? 

All the donor does is take a picture of the receipt with the survey link and selects one of three survey replies: Poor, satisfactory and excellent.  If the user selects excellent, the robot gives high marks to each survey question. He tested the concept with a few restaurant chains and got the RPA to successfully fill out a survey and obtain a coupon.  He knew he could amass a collection of coupons to offer needy families, but his wife suggested that he go one step further.

“Not everyone is digitally savvy or has access to the Internet or a Smart Phone,” he said. “So I added a way to generate cash.”  Some chains, like Home Depot, will enter customers into a raffle to win a $500 gift card if they fill out a survey. If donors submitted a winning receipt, he could offer the gift cards to bargain hunters, who could buy them at a discount, say pay $250 for a $500 gift card.

It’s an elegant solution, where everyone wins and it’s exactly the kind of innovation and creativity we were hoping to see when we launched the Build-A-Bot Challenge. Mr. Lai is in discussions to see if he can evolve the solution further with some AI and actually put it into practice.  In late September, Wei Lai appeared on the Agenda for Fall User Group Day and talked about the solution. You can watch his interview here: