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.”