TiHS Episode 12: Marc-André Séguin – so you want to immigrate, there’s a chatbot for that!

In this episode, I spoke with Marc-André Séguin, an immigration lawyer with the firm Exeo, in Montreal. Earlier this year, Marc-André and his partner Francis Tourigny, launched the first immigration chatbot in Canada. Immigration Virtual Assistant, or IVA, is a Facebook Messenger-based chatbot.

Why IVA? Marc-André says he was interested in providing a different experience, to offer free information and make sure the information is accurate, updated, that the line of questioning would be proper and complete, and available to clients at any time.

It’s an interesting time in Artificial Intelligence and chatbots. You’ve probably interacted with chatbots in your personal life. There are examples of human service nonprofits using chatbots (see below), but they are fairly few. It’s an emerging field, with lots of potential and pitfalls.

My conversation with Marc-André was illuminating, both in terms of what you need to consider when creating a chatbot, and where they’re useful. This was a fun and informative conversation. I hope you find something useful in it.

What is a chatbot?

According to Wikipedia “A chatbot (also known as a talkbot, chatterbot, Bot, IM bot, interactive agent, or Artificial Conversational Entity) is a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods.[1] Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner, thereby passing the Turing test. Chatbots are typically used in dialog systems for various practical purposes including customer service or information acquisition. Some chatterbots use sophisticated natural language processing systems, but many simpler systems scan for keywords within the input, then pull a reply with the most matching keywords, or the most similar wording pattern, from a database.”

Where can chatbots be useful in human services?

I think Marc-André put it best: “one thing that immigration law tends to lack is transparency. There are countless stories of people not being able to find the right information about what they need to come to Canada – even on government websites. Those can be very hard to navigate. Then you have private websites which may be incomplete or outdated, and would expose individuals to mistakes. Add to that a number of dishonest and sometimes fraudulent or unlicensed advisors into the mix and you find yourself with a great number of non-Canadian, vulnerable people essentially rolling the dice on how to proceed with the information they can manage to find.

And Canadian immigration authorities can be quite unforgiving, even with honest mistakes. So people may be at risk of making mistakes that could cost them their plans or their future.

That is why we came up with IVA: we wanted a tool that could help people navigate Canadian immigration to figure out if an option was good for them. By making information from the public domain more accessible, we believe that we could improve the level of transparency in the industry and benefit the general public. And we decided to keep it free so that as many people could use it. No matter whether they want to work with us or not in the end, we felt it was important to give people this tool to at least have a better clue of what is a viable option for them, and what is not.” (bold by me)

Marc-André’s IVA meets the CRAP test, so essential online, but especially in critical human services. The CRAP Test looks at four major areas:

  • Currency
  • Reliability
  • Authority
  • Purpose/Point of View

When determining whether a website (or information) is credible or not, evaluate it on those four areas. Marc-André’s goal is to ensure that IVA continues to be clear in those areas, and useful to anyone seeking authoritative, up to date, accurate and timely information to help them make decisions about immigrating to Canada.

Some of the questions I asked Marc-André

  • Why IVA – an immigration chatbot?
  • How does AI technology like chatbots fit into the immigration information process?
  • Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating a Facebook Messenger chatbot? What resources were required, what was the process like to create it?
  • How has it been received among potential immigrants? How many interactions has IVA had?
  • Do you see chatbots or AI as having potential to do even more when it comes to immigration and settlement?
  • What advice do you have for nonprofit human service providers thinking about creating a chatbot to support their work with newcomers?

Useful reads:

 

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