New digital tool with ‘sass’ helps wāhine Māori ditch the smokes

Kuīni is a new digital tool for young wāhine who want to quit smoking. She is a chatbot with a personality, face and attitude that is all about young, dynamic and diverse Māori women.

“That word Kuīni is so special to me,” says Ngā Puhi/Samoa artist Coco Solid AKA (Jessica Hansell) who led the concept of Kuīni with Te Hiringa Hauora | Health Promotion Agency.

“It flips what we, as Māori women, are constantly told about ourselves – which is that we’re the bottom rung of the ladder. We’re saying ‘you are the centre, you define what this is, the vernacular is yours, the world view is yours’.”

A chatbot lets people interact with digital devices as if they are communicating with a real person. Kuīni runs through Facebook Messenger, checks in three times a day and is available 24/7. Women are supported for the first 30 days of their smokefree journey for free. They get encouragement and distraction through quizzes, tips and video –- much of which is infused with mātauranga Māori.

Users select an avatar (a graphical representation of themselves) to bring Kuīni to life. They are designed by Kāi Tahu artist Xoë Hall and range from a barefoot, horse riding, hunter to a piercing-laden vet, driving a hot pink chev. A vivid animation(link is external) introduces the six avatars and immerses users in the hyper-colourful world of Kuīni.

The smoking rates among Maori women aged 18 to 24 years are high compared to others. Kuīni offers a contemporary and technical solution to a persistant challenge. It offers immediate support on the women’s terms and can also be adapted quickly for other kaupapa in future.

“A.I. [artificial intelligence] is fascinating. It’s bizarre but it’s everywhere. It has a lot of potential. We could see this [working with] our tāne, with our tamariki, our elders… as long as it’s controlled, aided and created for and by our people. I think the sky’s the limit really,” says Coco Solid.

Pilots have already shown positive results. However as chatbots are relatively new across the international tobacco control sector, user feedback will help to asess Kuīni’s impact and relevance to New Zealand.

The development of Kuīni has been a collaborative effort starting in 2018 and involving a range of supporters, including passionate wāhine Māori, along the way.

“I don’t think people realise what a Lord of the Rings journey of self, kicking that habit is,” says Coco. “That’s all I want to offer my sisters. The option of trying. And giving it a go. Because even just being in the headspace of giving it a crack, is something you should be proud of.”