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Can robots help us navigate the complex world of public services?

A few months ago, the Guardian reported on the story of 19 year old Joshua Browder, who had created ‘the world’s first robot lawyer’ to help people appeal against parking fines.

The robot is actually a chatbot - a computer programme that uses artificial intelligence to engage in a realistic human conversation. Joshua’s creation takes people through a series of questions to determine whether their appeal has merit and guides them through the appeals process. It has resulted in over 160,000 overturned parking fines in London and New York, which is about $4 million.

It’s been so successful that he has now turned his attention to homelessness.

Navigating public services can be a nightmare

His creations are solving a very real problem: how you can make the experience of using public services easier. It’s rarely a seamless process and the issue often starts at the beginning: where do you go to for help?

For simple things like complaining about a noisy neighbour, it’s usually fairly simple. You call up your council’s central number, answer a few questions, provide some contact details, hang up and wait for something to be done.

Services such as Fixmystreet and Love Lewisham - both now several years old - make the reporting of simple public realm issues such as potholes or fly-tipping easy.

Social media is also a useful channel. In the past I’ve used Twitter to report racist graffiti or ask whether children's play facilities are open. The response has often been timely.

But if your needs are multiple and complex you’ll need some well-honed investigative skills to find the right support. Many people don’t know where to start and go the wrong place. If they are lucky they get pointed in the right direction. If unlucky, then they are met with a deadend.

Will chatbots be the answer?

Services such as Citizens Advice and helplines such as The Mix, which helps young people understand their problems and find appropriate services, help people navigate this complexity. Many councils also have ‘one stop shops’ - physical spaces where you can go and hopefully be pointed in the right direction.

These are valuable, often oversubscribed services. But they are resource intensive for public and charitable bodies and time consuming for the user.

The ‘robot lawyer’ seems to point us in a new direction. If chatbots can help with parking fines and homelessness, can they help us with the other problems - including the complex ones - that rely on us finding and using an appropriate public service?

The Singaporean government is beginning to experiment and has signed a deal with Microsoft. It will start with chatbots answering simple factual questions but they aim to eventually have them responding to personalised queries from users.

This vision certainly feels possible. Organisations like Citizens Advice and The Mix, as well as local authorities and other public bodies, have lots of data about the needs of their service users. This data could be used to build the artificial intelligence that makes chatbots an effective option for at least a proportion of their service users.

Can we expect this to happen anytime soon?

Whilst it might be possible, our public services are rarely at the vanguard of technological development or deployment. Many back-office systems are still archaic and even those with the desire to innovate are often hamstrung by existing IT contracts or a lack of investment in transformation. We shouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

This leads us back to Joshua Browder. If our public services can only adopt technological innovations at a glacial pace, it will it be down to people like him to create the tools we need to navigate our public services in the 21st century.

Author

Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Senior Programme Manager, Innovation Lab

Manny worked on the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. His focus was on scaling digital ventures that get people involved in social action. He also led our work on Digital Pub...

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