The landlord-tenant relationship has always been an awkward one. Half the time you’re wondering “can my landlord do that?” And the other half you’re thinking, “can I do that?” As a student, it can be particularly difficult to find answers when things turn sour. Luckily for us, the folks at Citizen AI have come up with a handy chatbot to answer all of your tenancy law-related questions. I spoke with Joshua Barlow, a fourth-year law student at Victoria University and a third of the Rentbot team.
“Rentbot is a chatbot made by Citizen AI, founded by Geoffery Roberts and Matthew Bartlett. It provides information on tenancy law on a Messenger-type platform. It’s important to distinguish between information and advice because things could go to sh*t if we say we’re giving out legal advice.”
A user might type in a question like ‘can my landlord show up at my flat unannounced?’ And Rentbot will spit out an answer almost immediately (answer: they can’t. However, a landlord can come onto the exterior – lawns and paths – without giving notice.) “We’re currently trying a new approach for Rentbot,” says Joshua, “so rather than just providing information, we’re trying to provide resources on the tenancy tribunal process and how to navigate it.”
The bot is available for anyone to use, however students are a huge part of the target audience because they tend to rent or flat. “The motive behind Rentbot was to democratise information a little bit more, and to have the law in plain English in a way that everyone can understand, rather than it only being accessible for people who have legal training.”
So how does the bot work? Artificial Intelligence, on a basic level, is something you feed information to. The AI then learns from that information and uses it to develop better problem-solving capabilities. RentBot in particular learns from the repetition of legal phrases. None of the RentBot team are trained in computer science, so the process has been a lot of trial and error.
“It started off with us just re-writing the community law manual. We’d watch for when it didn’t understand somebody’s question and then teach it that question. We feed it information and training phrases, but it has been super hard to train it to understand colloquialisms and misspelling of words. Giving it the ability to break down long paragraphs has also been a challenge.”
Citizen AI are funded by Community Law and the Borrin Foundation, which is a foundation set up to provide legal resources and education for the community. In terms of the grunt work – putting in legal terminology and training the bot to answer accordingly – most of that comes from Joshua. “We use the community law manual a lot, the Residential Tenancies Act, all the recent cases and tribunal hearings, and we get it all legal checked by Chapman Tripp pro bono.”
I ask Joshua what the appeal of a chatbot is when compared to something more traditional, like a book. “A book’s great, but it can be a bit intimidating when you’re just looking for the answer to one specific question. The bot takes your question and immediately finds an answer in the right area of law.” It can also find answers people didn’t know they were looking for – “not everyone knows they have rights as a tenant, not everyone knows their landlord can’t just walk onto their property.” Unlike the arduous process of legal research, RentBot can teach users their rights in a matter of minutes. There’s also the added advantage of RentBot being a conversation-based platform. “We’re trying to make it as human as possible, so it almost feels like you’re chatting to a real legal expert.”
Citizen AI has a couple of other projects in the mix. One of these is called WorkBot, the employment law chatbot. “That one is huge,” says Joshua, “employment law is a little bit more complicated than tenancy law. We’re always looking for testers, so if anyone wants to be a tester they can hit us up on Facebook at Citizen AI.”
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I think we’ve had roughly 4000 chats so far, so a lot of people are using it. It’s really cool to see how it allows people to actually access their rights. It’s also quite nice to have a break from law school and reading about the law, and to instead be using the law to help people out.”
While RentBot started out through Facebook Messenger, Citizen AI has recently launched the web chat model, which means you don’t need Facebook to use it anymore. “We’ve had a huge amount of people use that because we’ve been able to promote it with Google AdWords . It’s definitely helping quite a lot of people, which is great to see.”
While RentBot can’t be classified as ‘legal advice’ per se, for people who just have one or two questions about tenancy law, it’s a hell of a lot easier than going to a lawyer or community legal services. Users can have their queries answered without paying any money or even leaving their house.
You can access RentBot through rentbot.nz