A 19-year-old made a robot lawyer that helps the homeless get free housing

For the homeless, applying for government housing can be a complicated process. Even if they do everything right, housing is not guaranteed. They need a strong case.

Depending on the case and lawyer, legal aid for a government housing application (a legal process where lawyers argue for free or low-cost accommodation) can cost between $65 to $200 — money that applicants don’t necessarily have.

But with the help of a bot made by 19 year-old British programmer Joshua Browder, the application costs nothing and takes only about 30 seconds.

The online bot handles questions about government housing in the UK, where an estimated 185,000 people become homeless every year. Since the bot launched August 10, Browder tells Business Insider that several hundred people have used it.

Homeless bot 2Joshua BrowderA screenshot of Do Not Pay Housing.

When someone
signs in, a chat screen pops up. To learn about a case, the bot asks questions like, “Why were you made homeless?” and “Do you have a legal right to live here?”
After it confirms the user is eligible for government housing, it takes down personal information, including marital status and age.

It then spits out a housing application letter that can be mailed to a local court. If the robot gets confused, it tells the user how to contact Browder, a Stanford University freshman, directly.

Browder programmed the bot according to UK law. He requested access to previous application letters, and he and a team of volunteer lawyers identified trends in the accepted ones. The team then drafted their own application letters based on those trends, and programmed the bot to customise the letters to each user’s case.
The bot is based on a conversation algorithm, meaning it uses keywords, pronouns, and word order to understand a user’s issue.

Browder says that the more people use the robot, the more intelligent it becomes. The algorithm can quickly analyse large amounts of data while improving itself in the process.

Homeless botJoshua BrowderA screenshot of Do Not Pay Housing.

Browder’s previously created a bot that can appeal parking tickets, called Do Not Pay. Since launching in late 2015, Do Not Pay has successfully appealed over $5 million worth of tickets, he says.

Browder isn’t the first person to create a lawyer bot. The startup Acadmx’s bot creates perfectly formatted legal briefs, while Lex Machina sifts through judges’ records and makes predictions on what they will do in the future.

Most of these bots are tools that can rapidly crawl public records and serve up legal information. While they can’t provide full legal counsel, the bots can aid those in need — sometimes at little to no cost.

“I think bots can simplify these systems by imitating a human who can explain the law,” Browder says. “The rich already have expensive lawyers and advisors to help them, but bots can help everyone for free.”

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