This chatbot fought parking fines and now it's helping refugees

DoNotPay is a chatbot built in Facebook's messenger interface.

Rob Price
Technology Reporter, Business Insider
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Refugees can now use a Facebook chatbot to apply for asylum in the US, Canada, and the UK — helping them navigate unfamiliar legal systems and avoid exorbitant lawyers' fees.

It's an update to DoNotPay — a Facebook chatbot that assisted 250,000 people in challenging parking fines, and has since been expanded into multiple other sectors, from claiming compensation for delayed flights to providing HIV legal advice.

"Ultimately, I just want to level the playing field so there's a bot for everything," Joshua Browder, the Stanford student who created DoNotPay, told Business Insider. (The Guardian first broke the news of the update on Monday.)

The bot is trying to solve a 'huge problem' for lawyers

DoNotPay is a chatbot built in Facebook's messenger interface. It talks to the user and asks them questions, just like a real person, and records their responses.

"There's this huge problem among immigration lawyers where the majority of their time is spent filling out forms rather than actually challenging the legal complexities of the case," Browder, whose grandmother fled the Holocaust, said in a phone call from California. "So what this does, it takes down hundreds of details from individuals and automatically fills out" the necessary forms.

Built with the help of various lawyers and non-profits, the chatbot will ask everything from the applicant's age and nationality to whether they are "afraid of being subject to torture" in their home country.

In the US and Canada, it will help fill in asylum applications, while in the UK — where you have to apply in person — it assists in filling out asylum support forms. The student says he's also looking at expanding the bot to include Germany "if I have time."

DoNotPay is moving beyond 'trivial consumer rights issues'

DoNotPay began by challenging parking fines, but has since expanded into multiple other areas, including delayed flights, PPI, homelessness in the UK, and HIV legal advice.

"I originally started with parking tickets and delayed fights and all sorts of trivial consumer rights issues," Browder said, "but then I began to be approached by these non-profits and lawyers who said the idea of automating legal services is bigger than just a few parking fines. So I've since tried to expand into something more humanitarian."

Donald Trump's recent ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries has highlighted the plight of refugees and migrants, but Browder says the bot isn't a response to the new US president's actions. "This was so long overdue. I started in the summer [of 2016] and although it seems more important now than ever it's actually not a reaction to recent political events."

The chatbot is launched in early March 2017. It's free to use, and will remain that way, Browder said. "It's completely free as a public service, I don't want to make some quick money."

Even though DoNotPay has gone far beyond its original intentions, Browder said he has no plans to change its name. "I think for better or worse, it's a brand everyone seems to know now," he said.

"I want to make it as recognisable as possible so people understand that they don't have to pay lawyers huge amounts of money for just copying and pasting documents."

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