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Wagbot uses chatbot technology

01 December 2017 - By Angharad O’Flynn

In May 2017 Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley, along with tech developer Matthew Bartlett, launched Wagbot: a natural language interface, or ‘chatbot’, designed to provide information on several school-related legal and societal subjects.

Mr Bartlett began developing Wagbot over the 2016 Christmas break, but had worked with Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley for five years on publishing-related jobs before working on the Wagbot technology.

At Loomio [a company building an open source group decision-making platform] I explored natural language interfaces to make the software more accessible,” he says.

“I built a barely-working, but promising, prototype and pitched it to Community Law. They agreed to fund it for a few months to find out if this was an area worth seriously investing in.”

Community Law saw the benefits of the system and it has been running ever since.

Interface and delivery system development

Wagbot’s delivery system is through Facebook Messenger, an instant messaging service, and a favourite of chatbot designers.

Facebook’s network has an extensive reach with more than 1.2 billion users; as of April 2017, the Pew Research Centre noted that Messenger accounts for 79% of the world’s internet users.

“The latest stats I have for New Zealand say that around 85% of students are on Facebook daily, and about 80% of mothers of schoolchildren do the same,” says Mr Bartlett.

Screenshot of chat

These statistics come from a 2015 survey conducted by First Digital New Zealand; a media research analytics and strategy company.

Mr Bartlett says while there are security issues about the use of social media, it has wide appeal.

“There are platforms that do a much better job of protecting user privacy, but none have the reach of Facebook.”

Accessibility and a user-friendly platform is key so that Wagbot is easily navigated by those who wanting to use it.

The age group most acquainted with social media are digital natives – those born after the introduction of digital technology. Most of Wagbot’s users fall into this category and are aged between 13 and 17.

Facebook Messenger is the most widely-used platform by high school students, and is secure enough for chatbots to use as their delivery system.

Wagbot’s knowledge base was designed around Community Law’s Problems at School book.

“The content is relevant to a demographic who are likely to be open to this new form of delivery… making it more straightforward to convert into chatbottable content,” says Mr Bartlett.

“It occurred to me that some of Community Law’s amazing plain English legal resources would be ideal ‘raw material’ for a chatbot interface.”

Wagbot can provide answers and information on a variety of subjects; the most common topics people want help with are about bullying, wagging, and sex and relationships.

Communication and learning

Wagbot learns how to communicate through a natural language processing (NLP) model.

Screenshot of chat

This model starts with a basic understanding of the English language. Over time it is gradually trained to match the thousands of different ways people ask questions with the answers it has in its knowledge base.

Staff at Community Law can review the responses Wagbot is giving and give it suggestions for better matching questions to answers. Where there are gaps in its knowledge, staff can research and write new responses, so that the next time Wagbot can be more useful.

That said, the system is still in its infancy and doesn’t have all the answers.

“When Wagbot gets beyond its areas of usefulness, the bot will suggest other subject relevant services providing contact details to helpful organisations,” says Matthew.

Wagbot has had a lot of usage since its release in May and its development team has received plenty of feedback.

“We have had positive messages coming through about Wagbot on the associated phone centre, Student Right Line, and see a steady stream of teens recommending it to each other on Facebook.”

More in the works

The Wagbot team are currently in discussions with a potential funder for producing chatbot interfaces to other Community Law publications. “Most likely, the next bot we release will be based on the resource Lag Law: Your rights inside prison and on release,” says Mr Bartlett.

Another, somewhat complex, possibility is a chatbot capable of providing answers found in The Community Law Manual. “At this stage it looks like the most promising approach will be to build bots covering particular subject areas (eg, employment, immigration, renting).”

If this chatbot technology can be developed further, to the scale of the 900-page Community Law Manual, then it may become one of the earliest versions of a robot lawyer in New Zealand.

This kind of technology can provide many benefits to caregivers seeking answers to school-related questions, or students who might need guidance on a problem but don’t feel comfortable talking to an adult.

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Last updated on the 1st December 2017