Chatbot helps refugees claim asylum

This article first appeared on The Guardian. theguardian.com

Robot lawyer chatbot

The creator of a chatbot which overturned more than 160,000 parking fines and helped vulnerable people apply for emergency housing is now turning the bot to helping refugees claim asylum.

The original DoNotPay, created by Stanford student Joshua Browder, describes itself as “the world’s first robot lawyer”, giving free legal aid to users through a simple-to-use chat interface. The chatbot, using Facebook Messenger, can now help refugees fill in an immigration application in the US and Canada. For those in the UK, it helps them apply for asylum support.

The London-born developer worked with lawyers in each country, as well as speaking to asylum seekers whose applications have been successful.

Browder says this new functionality for his robot lawyer is “long overdue”. He told the Guardian: “I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months – I initially wanted to do it in the summer. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue. I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it.

“That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right.”

Browder began working on this project before Donald Trump’s election as US president but he said he feels it’s more important now than ever. “I wanted to add Canada at the last minute because of the changes in the political background in the US,” he said.

The chatbot works by asking the user a series of questions, in order to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law.

After this, it takes down the necessary details required for the appropriate asylum application – an I-589 for the United States or a Canadian Asylum Application for Canada. Those in the UK are told they need to apply in person, and the bot helps fill out an ASF1 form for asylum support.

Browder says it was crucial the questions were in plain English. “The language in these forms can be quite complicated,” he said.

These details are used to auto-fill an application form for either the US, Canada or the UK. “Once the form is sent off, the details are deleted from my end,” said Browder.

The 20-year-old chose Facebook Messenger as a home for the latest incarnation of his robot lawyer because of accessibility. “It works with almost every device, making it accessible to over a billion people,” he said.

Browder acknowledges Messenger doesn’t come without its pitfalls. Unlike some other chat apps, it’s not automatically end-to-end encrypted. Browder says there is, however, end-to-end encryption between his server and Facebook. He added: “Ideally I would love to expand to WhatsApp when their platform opens up, particularly because it’s popular internationally.”

Once the application is sent, the data is destroyed from his servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot.

The next step is making the service available in more languages. Browder is currently working on translating it into Arabic.

Immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn welcomed DoNotPay’s latest venture. She said: “As an immigration attorney, I can see the major benefits that leveraging sophisticated chatbot technology will have in the asylum application process.

“It will be easier for applicants to submit their applications and it will empower legal aid organisations to assist a larger numbers of clients.

“Asylum seekers want to follow the laws and do everything properly, and this technology will help them do so.”

DoNotPay was initially a free service that guided people with parking fines through the appeals process.

The chatbot was later programmed to deal with other legal issues, such as claiming for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance (PPI). As of August 2016, it also helps with housing issues. The homelessness bot has had more than 3,000 users, with more than 240,000 messages sent and received.

Browder runs DoNotPay alongside his studies at Stanford University. He said: “My degree has become a bit of a side project these days.”

Your phone is now a refugee’s phone

Watch  it on your mobile phone.

If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?

This striking film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience with immediacy the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. Your phone is now a refugee’s phone. Text messages arrive from your family. Suddenly someone contacts you on WhatsApp warning you to turn back. But are they right? Your lifeline is a phone with no signal that’s rapidly running out of battery.
The film is based on research conducted by BBC Media Action, in partnership with DAHLIA, to help humanitarian agencies be aware of the communication issues of refugees in transit. It found that access to internet, mobile networks and social media are critical in helping people feel more informed and better connected. For more information, visit: http://bbc.in/2amio0P

This article first appeared on BBC. bbc.com

Mobile Bodies

“strange bodies are produced through tactile encounters with other bodies: differences are not marked on the stranger’s body, but come to materialise in the relationship of touch between bodies…. it is the very acts and gestures whereby subjects differentiate between others that constitutes the permeability of both social and bodily space”
– Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters (2000, page 15.)

IMG_0797

Emoji Gender Bender

This article first appeared on Tech.Mic, written by Sophie Kleeman. mic.com

female emojis

This year, Oxford Dictionaries got creative with its Word of the Year. Instead of picking an actual word, it chose a familiar little yellow face. Upturned mouth, tears of joy streaming down its cheeks, eyebrows tilted in laughter: an emoji, precisely the one you’d add to a retweet of something that was so funny you cried. The decision was yet another example of how commonplace the small digital characters created by Unicode have become in daily life.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, use of the word emoji more than tripled between 2014 and 2015. Their ubiquity is undeniable. They’re popular with grandparents and teenagers, in Bangkok and Bel Air. There are pages and pages of them on smartphones, enough to suit a broad range of everyday texting situations. Yet despite their abundance, there’s an area of life that isn’t properly represented.

Where the hell, we ask, are all the emojis for professional women?

What options exist? As it stands, women who want to use something other than a neutral female emoji have the following options to choose from: a princess, a bride, twins that resemble Playboy bunnies, a dancer in a red dress and a series of “information desk person” characters.

Male emojis, on the other hand, have the following non-neutral forms: Santa Claus, a man wearing a turban, a man wearing a gua pi mao (a type of hat), a policeman, a guardsman, a male detective, a male construction worker and a male angel. There’s also a series of male athletes: a male horseback rider, a man bowing, a man walking, a man running, a man golfing, a man swimming and a man floating.

Ambiguously gendered figures with long hair and visible sideburns can be found playing basketball and surfing.

Besides the sheer difference in numbers, the occupations of these characters is telling. Men get the “serious” professional roles, and women get the “girlie” ones. Even the “information desk person” emojis have become better known for their seemingly sassy behavior: The woman holding out her hand, for instance, has been re-imagined as the hair-flip emoji.

“Every day we’re seeing this subtle message that there are these emojis of men doing jobs, but women are just dancing and getting their hair cut,” Niniane Wang, CEO of Evertoon and a former engineering manager at Google, told Mic. “It [has] an effect.”

Before men’s-rights types start screaming about political correctness gone haywire, no, this isn’t the most pressing feminist issue of our time. We shouldn’t necessarily throw all other causes to the wind and spend their days and nights fighting for equal emoji representation. There are myriad problems for women around the globe – violence, sexual assault, pay inequality and access to reproductive services, to name a few — that are far more threatening to women’s lives.

The lack of emoji options for the working woman is worth examining because it’s a small yet clear example of a social scheme that still manages to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes at every turn — even when the issue is as seemingly innocuous as a tiny digital face.

“I think it’s a symptom of a detrimental system — the patriarchy — that reinforces stereotypes (the bride, the princess, the dancer) that don’t represent the many layers of what it means to identify as female,” Kendall Mackey, 28, told Mic. 

Wang first noticed the lack of professional women emojis while developing Evertoon, an app that allows users to create avatars. “Emojis are a huge part of our product, and I’ve spent many hours of the last year of my professional life staring at [them],” she said.

Kelly Byrd, 29, theorized that the lack of emoji ladies in professional roles comes from a fear of representing women badly.

“They didn’t want them to come across as being totally stereotypical,” Byrd told Mic. If Unicode had chosen traditionally female-dominated — and thus easily identifiable — jobs, like nurses, teachers or secretaries, the backlash likely would have been powerful. Wang agreed, noting that it was possible Unicode didn’t want to do “the wrong thing.”

Still, both said they were dissatisfied with the emoji universe’s inadequacies.

“I’m definitely disappointed that there’s a big discrepancy,” Byrd said. Though she said she won’t be beating down the door of her local congressperson over the issue anytime soon, she emphasized that it’s still important to see herself represented properly.

“[Emojis have] become part of our cultural language,” Wang said. “That’s why I don’t think it’s silly. Lots of people communicate with emojis, and texting is such a pervasive part of how we communicate with each other. If we’re all texting, and all using emojis, then doesn’t it make sense that they should represent us?”

It doesn’t have to be a giant shift right away. Unicode can’t represent every single profession out there. But it should be aware, as Mackey put it, that there are different layers to what it means to be female — and that means acknowledging that women make up roughly 40% of the global workforce.

They could start, for example, by adding female versions of the male professions, and vice versa. That means including female construction workers, grooms, male information desk people, and so on. (They could also stand to experiment with more genderless figures.)

Eventually, other occupations — businesswomen, doctors, housekeepers, scientists, singers, cooks — should have a place. (As well as some other key roles.) Wang said she’d like to see a female engineer or a female CEO.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Though Unicode can seem like an impenetrable and distant fortress from the outside, recent updates to the emoji catalog have proven that change certainly isn’t out of the question. Although BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel describes Unicode as “a deeply technical and somewhat secretive organization.” (Unicode has not responded to a request for comment for this story.)

Racially diverse emoji finally made their way into Unicode’s updates in 2015, and on Friday, a Kickstarter campaign to add a dumpling emoji surpassed its goal. Jennifer Lee, the co-creator of the campaign, previously told Mic that beyond getting the dumpling emoji approved, she wanted to use the Kickstarter funds to help diversify Unicode’s voting bodies and make the proposal process more inclusive to the public.

The organizing body she intends to use to see this goal through, Emojination, will help tackle problems like the lack of professional women emoji, and it will start by adding to the ranks of people who participate in the process in the first place. Emojination is a “nonvoting associate member” of Unicode.

Engineers, for example, make a good portion of the membership, which Lee believes needs to change. “The skill set of engineering is not robust enough to address the demands the emoji world is putting on the system,” she told Mic earlier this week. “You need someone, ideally, who understands how to plug in to systems to gauge desire. The emoji subcommittee itself would benefit from a richer range of skill sets.”

Then again, there’s a much simpler solution to all of this. As Mackey put it, “Can’t we just have an emoji that’s of a woman smashing patriarchy?”