The idea started with a desperate email from a woman in a UK hospital. She was afraid of being discharged at the end of her treatment because she had been evicted from her home and had nowhere to return to while in recovery.
The email landed in Joshua Browder's inbox. He's the creator of DoNotPay, an online robot that has successfully challenged more than 160,000 parking tickets for drivers in London and New York City. Following the success of the DoNotPay bot, whose services are free, Browder began to see his inbox fill up with questions and requests related to a wide gamut of legal issues.
DoNotPay is a chatbot designed to provide legal assistance. Users visit the website and "chat" via text message with an automated service that asks them relevant questions. Once completed, the bot translates the user's information into a legally sound document that can be used to appeal parking tickets. The chatbot's services have also been expanded to allow users to file for flight delay compensation.
Browder, whom the BBC dubbed the "Robin Hood of the Internet," has now turned the bot's attention to homelessness.
"I started to receive a large number of messages about evictions and repossessions," he said. "I felt bad that I didn't have the knowledge to personally help people, especially since they were being made homeless."
In Browder's native Britain, government housing is available for the newly homeless, but people such as the hospitalized woman are required to file their own application letters.
Without deep knowledge of laws or the money for legal assistance, people like her are left with few resources to help them get temporary shelter.
Browder decided to extend DoNotPay's services and offer a way to easily file for government housing without paying a cent. Users visit DoNotPay.co.uk, register and answer questions related to their circumstances, such as the reason for homelessness or critical medical conditions or disabilities.
The bot automatically generates a completed application designed to maximize an applicant's chances of getting housing. For example, if a person reports to the bot that they have a mental illness, the bot will rearrange the claim letter to focus on that.
Automation can be helpful, but it can also be incredibly flawed. A lot of our clients don't fit into cookie-cutter situations, and I'm afraid of vulnerabilities that could rise from a bot handling applications and other legal issues.
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According to the Guardian, evictions are at a record high in Britain, the only country where DoNotPay's housing feature is available. Welfare cuts and rising rent costs led to a 53 percent increase in evictions in the country between 2010 and 2015. Last year, 42,728 tenants in rented homes were evicted.
In the United States, foreclosures and repossessions soared after the 2008 financial crisis and have had a slow recovery. Browder, who moved to the United States last year to attend Stanford University as an undergraduate student, hopes to soon expand the housing bot to New York City. Housing applications are already available online there, and Browder hopes to make his bot available to assist and educate tenants facing eviction or repossession. "Every jurisdiction is slightly different," he said.
But Shelly Nortz, a policy specialist for the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York City-based advocacy group, is not sure that a chatbot is the best solution for New Yorkers facing homelessness.
Ironically, these sorts of 'partnership requests' have made me realize just how much I need to replace these lawyers for free.
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"Automation can be helpful, but it can also be incredibly flawed. A lot of our clients don't fit into cookie-cutter situations, and I'm afraid of vulnerabilities that could rise from a bot handling applications and other legal issues," she said, adding that nuanced issues such as immigration status, mental illness, criminal history and many other eligibility factors might not be addressed by a chatbot.
Nortz said tenants often need in-person legal assistance to help them fight eviction from landlords armed with their own lawyers.
Nortz believes there are better solutions to the problem of homelessness in New York, citing more government funding to build housing as the top priority. "These issues are a lot more complicated than a parking ticket," she said.
But Browder regards bots as one way to level the playing field for low-income and disenfranchised groups. Since 2014, DoNotPay has helped overturn $4 million worth of parking tickets, according to the Telegraph. Browder says that since the success of the bot, he has been courted by bankruptcy firms across the country wanting to use his technology to find and assess potential clients and to automate the filing process. Many have told him they could profit from these cost savings.
"Ironically, these sorts of 'partnership requests' have made me realize just how much I need to replace these lawyers for free," he said.