The Facebook chatbot here to solve your renting woes

Don Rowe speaks to the founder of a new chatbot connecting tenants with the rental information they need. 

In a world where Facebook is culpable in genocides, sham elections and the corrosion of trust in the media, it’s nice to know it can be used for good, too. 

Rentbot is a new chatbot from Citizen AI, a Wellington-based not-for-profit which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to bridge the gap between information and the uninformed. Their projects include Wagbot, a help service for high school students, and an upcoming Workbot, for employment issues. The bots live on Facebook and are interacted with through the Messenger platform like any other conversation. 

Joshua Barlow is a fourth year law student at Victoria University and a third of the Rentbot team. He says accessibility is at the heart of everything they do, and that means catering to both varying levels of English and fundamentally different cultural reference points.

“We wanted to make a tool that would be accessible to all kinds of people,” he says. “Many diverse people are renting and all of them can face tenancy issues so we need information that is accessible and in plain English. We want people to have a form of guidance for tenancy disputes that is less arcane.

“One of the problems we have is that the bot is only accessible in English, and so we’re training it to understand less conventional English – so things like the wrong grammar or spelling. It’s never going to be perfect because how we write is so different to how we speak, but while it doesn’t natively handle slang it’s still doing really well at the moment because we train it to recognise errors.”

Citizen AI are bankrolled by Community Law and the Borrin Foundation, which funds charities, education and legal research in New Zealand. Creating the Rentbot is an open-ended process, Barlow says, as the bot learns through use and repetition of legal terms. 

“We started by gathering questions that can’t be answered on Facebook and researching the answers. For example we had someone ask about pet bonds and the bot didn’t know the answer, so we researched, found the answer and trained the bot to pick up key words – it’s never fully done, its iterative.”

Rentbot is programmed by a team of two self-taught developers, says Barlow. Their work is checked for accuracy by lawyers at Chapman Tripp, Russell McVeigh and Bell Gully, with Chapman Tripp taking the lead on the Renbot project. 

“None of our team are trained in computer science, and neither of them are lawyers either but we saw a hole in the market and tried to plug it. We have so many advisors and we get quite a lot of our legal information checked pro bono, which is really great,” says Barlow.

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“We’re just trying to focus on the pros of Facebook,” he says. “It’s a great tool to democratise information and we really want to use the social side of social media. It can be hard to break out of the bubble but Facebook, used the right way, can be really useful to our target demographics that otherwise might not have access to legal research.”

Barlow points to the recent healthy homes legislation as a key area of success for Rentbot, saying the bot has been instrumental in informing Wellington tenants of their rights concerning the July 1 insulation deadline. That success has provided a proof of concept for the chatbot model. 

“It’s had hundreds of messages from hundreds of people, so it’s already helping people. It’s not a lawyer – it can’t represent you – but it can point out where something might be going wrong. The Rentbot has been live for a while and it’s now at the stage where it’s learned enough that it’s functional and useful. When you look for example at employment rights and employment law, there are so many areas where we could help people. It’s really exciting.”


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