Joshua Browder is a 19 year old Stanford University student described by his Wikipedia page, presumably contributed by himself, as ‘a British entrepreneur and public figure’. He is best known for having invented DoNotPay, a website sometimes described as a ‘chatbot’ or just ‘bot’ that allows motorists to contest parking tickets.
Mr Browder is clearly a dab hand both at coding and marketing. His work has been widely covered in the media – specifically the Huffington Post, the BBC, Daily Mail and the Guardian. 160,000 people are said successfully to have used his site, saving around £2m and he has followed his parking venture with content that deals with homelessness, delayed flights and PPI claims.
Less hip readers may be unfamiliar with the concept of a bot. Wikipedia defines it as ‘a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet’. Apple’s Siri is a good example. You ask a question in normal language and it replies. Bots are the latest thing. According to the Guardian 18 September) senior staff at both Microsoft and Facebook see the bot as the ‘new app’, the next big thing. The clever thing about a bot is that it can interpret ordinary language and reply in kind so the experience of communication is more like with a human. Bots can also be integrated into a messaging service which is why Facebook likes them – you don’t have to access them through an app or a website.
You can ask the DoNotPay bot a specific question within its competence or you can ask generally what it does. If you say that you want to appeal because the signage telling you that you could not park was inadequate then it prompts you for detail and encourages you to input photos. It then generates a letter of appeal. The software purports to work for the UK and New York. So far, so good. Some users will find this exactly what they want.
The deficiencies become clearer if you start to look at more prosaic (but more thorough) sites that deal with parking disputes. In England, you generally have a right of ‘informal challenge’ to the relevant local authority over a parking ticket. You can then, if still dissatisfied, appeal to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal whose Chief Adjudicator, Caroline Shepherd, has taken a lead in using online procedures. In other words, much of the process is already online with some guidance already there.
The best independent site on parking disputes in England and Wales is probably moneysavingexpert.com. Which, the Consumers Association, also has a useful site, These are linear, descriptive and lack any element of interactivity. But, they have the smell of authenticity. You feel that the writers have really dealt with cases of this type and know the issues that come up. They give major prominence to the difficulties, for example, that arise when private contractors mimic public authorities and seek non statutory compensation. Both sites cover this issue well and have good illustrations of dodgy tickets and information on how to detect them. These are the type of cases likely to give more difficulty than those where, to take an example covered by the bot, your car gets a ticket after you have sold it. In other words, a site – even one as potentially exciting as a bot – is as good as its substantive content.
It would be possible, on this basis, to be somewhat critical of Mr Brouder’s product. Start to get a bit sceptical and you might begin to ask a number of other questions. For example, just how are numbers using the site are known – or, more likely, estimated. Surely, every successful user does not all report back to HQ. And, anyway, the really important figure – which must remain unknown – is how many additional parking tickets were challenged that otherwise would have been the case without the bot. So, old timers in the advice field might shake their heads at proof that these fancy new bots won’t beat good old advice from deeply experienced advisers.
However, the reason why Mr Browder is onto something is not really about the content that a university student was able to get together from a pretty cursory examination of the web. It is the method. Imagine how advice provision could be transformed if you could just chat with a bot on Facebook or any other form of social media about your problem and it’s possible solution. You could even think of adding this content to a general facility like Siri. That is what Mr Brouder has seen. Once he or others start to upgrade the content then we would have something interesting which would really justify widespread media interest.