The Children’s Law Centre and its chatbot, the REE Rights Responder

The Children’s Law Centre was established in 1997, as a legal advice centre for children and young people founded on  the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child It is based in Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. This has a population of just under 2m (of which about 400,000 are under 16). The province has, of course, a troubled history of intra-communal conflict. This has had, in the not for profit sector, the positive effect of encouraging the funding by public and other sources of  a  range of province-wide, non-denominational bodies in the legal services. These include bodies like the Law Centre NI, The PILS project as well as the Children’s Law Centre (CLC).

The CLC, as a result, is relatively well resourced for a UK body of its kind. It has 13 staff. It has long assumed a role in the provision of legal information and assistance to children in the province. It runs CHALKY, a free legal advice line, and  has a youth advisory panel called youth@CLC. The centre has now extended its advice provision with a chatbot, REE Rights Responder, on which you can watch a short presentation by the CLC’s youth participation and advocacy worker, Sinead McSorley. As she says in the video, ‘REE is a chatbot designed for young people under 18 to ask questions about their rights and it can also help you to get legal advice if you need it’.Funding for both REE and the development of a new web based Child Law Hub came in part from the Legal Education Foundation. 

The CLC is about to expand further. It has been successful in a bid for a three year grant from the digital fund – part of the national lottery community fund. This will involve three more staff and a drive to redesign of services to put, as the digital fund describes it,  ‘good user-centred design practice at the heart of what they do, making better use of data and evidence and fundamentally changing how they work. The work will continue to develop a free, easy-to-use, mobile friendly digital information service that can be accessed 24/7, privately and anonymously to both inform young people of their rights and to help them access support in vindicating their rights.’

In that context, the REE project is to be seen as a gateway into a new live chat service and information historically offered to young people by phone towards a wider digital platform for providing legal information and advice, designed specifically with young people in mind.  This article is based, to a large extent, on an interviews with the two people most closely associated with the project: Emma Campbell (Emma)  Chatbot project manager and Damien Caldwell (Damien), developer, DAMGEO.

This is Emma’s take on the establishment of REE, ‘Our advice service has been running since 1997. It is run as a free phone advice line and was originally set up for young people but we became increasingly more aware that  in the digital era, most young people prefer to seek information they need online and not through calling advice lines. Over 95 per cent of calls to CHALKY are from adults on behalf of children – mainly parents, carers, social workers, lawyers and others advocating on their behalf.  We know from research there are young people out there especially teenagers who need legal advice, but aren’t reaching us because they don’t know CLC exist for them or don’t have adults in their lives advocating on their behalf.  Our challenge was how to reach and engage these young people.

We heard about Techies in Residence, a Northern Ireland programme which “brings together social challenges from charities and social enterprises with digital technology professionals to produce innovative digital products and services that have potential for deep social impact”. We thought, “OK”. We knew a digital solution. could helping us to reach more young people. We knew that there were young people who needed help to access their rights and that whilstYoung people know about CHALKY they don’t see it as a service they could directly access themselves.  We also knew that accessible information on NI specific Child Law is not readily available to young people either offline or online.

‘We felt we needed a tool that would increase awareness of rights and give instant access to bite size answers to specific questions on legal rights. Initially, we thought about an accessible website. We still think we need that and are planning the development of a new child Law resource hub foryoung people But a website , alone, was not going to be the complete solution. We  drew on evidence provided by young people for the NI Young People’s Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2015 on the UK’s compliance with the UNCRC.

‘One of the big headline findings from our research – and we surveyed more than 1000 young people – was that they were saying,  “We don’t know our rights. We are not getting educated in schools. And we want information in a form that we can use. We want it online. Don’t just give us leaflets.” We got our youth advisory panel to work on that idea and to refine it.  They came up with the idea of a non linear chatbot that could provide instant answers to legal questions in youth friendly language.

‘The Techies in Residence programme took us up to November 2018. We worked with tech developers Damien and Chris from DAMGEO and had a prototype chatbot which we tested with over 250 young people in 2018/2019.’  

Damien is the founder and CEO of DAMGEO – a tech development company from outside the not for profit sector, but specialists in the digitsiation of knowledge, ‘We came on board to provide the engine to steer a chatbot. We eventually went with Google. It was probably the most flexible solution. A lot of it was open source. You were not signing up to anything with large financial liabilities. We looked at alternatives. There was not a huge amount of difference in functionality. But, because you could use a lot of the Google product without paying, it was brilliant. The other reason was the flexibility of the product which is easily exportable to other platforms.’

‘We set up a chatbot user research group or CURG’, says Emma. ‘The idea was that the group would provide a way of co-designing the chatbot with young people; a cross section of staff (lawyer and youth participation officer); and some volunteers with an interest in children’s rights. We had a dedicated Youth Participation Officer to provide the link between our legal team and young people. We also reached out to other groups of young people whom we thought would benefit from the service most – for example, homeless young people, those in the care system or in  juvenile justice or LBGTQ young people This very much helped us to prioritise key areas of law to focus on.

We decided we wanted a sort of level one information system for young people. We wanted to give enough information so that users could decide whether that was sufficient or if they needed more specific information and advice on something more complex. Damien added, ‘The database is not overly complex. We have started to put in information from other services. We can bring in data like phone numbers. We now cover in total around 600 ‘intents’ or subjects, both primary and secondary.  

‘We began the design process thinking we could do one map for legal advice. But the answers became less reliable as the information goes across too many areas. So, we broke the information up into themes. Once you get into the right theme, each one has a ‘start off intent’, at the first level and then leads on other intents or answers from database. 

‘We could grow the system with AI. One big existing feature is automatic correction – for example over the name of a place if it is mistyped. The system will learn key words and be increasingly able to put combinations of key words together so that it will become more accurate.  We use Google’s Dialog Flow as a natural language processor.’

‘It is still a bit too early for proper figures on use,’ as we only launched REE on 5 November 2019 and we are still in the marketing and promotional phase with the aim of making the tool salient in young people’s lives and therefore get them to trust it and use it . … We are 110 per cent confident that we have chosen the right platform to connect with young people. Use of REE will just take time to grow organically.  Every time you talk with young people they love it. It is potentially a fantastic resource for young people.  We need to keep young people aware that it is there so marketing will be on an ongoing activity for us and we are mainly using social media to do that as this is where young people live their lives. It needs to be heard above the noise of social media. We need to be mindful of particular themes for particular times – like mental health week. Visibility is going to be key. We are recruiting for a marketing person from our digital fund grant.’

For his part, Damien is a fan of the process through which he has been, ‘This is bringing one of the biggest technology firms in the world into access to information for young people. It has been hugely interesting to work in. I am involved in everything – not just brought in at the end. That has been really good. We could see the whole picture. That has been vital to success so far. It was Important for the design team.’

And Emma’s assessment so far? ‘It is a great tool but it needs to be integrated with a live chat facility and the new Child Law Hub. People want to retain their anonymity. They want a non judgemental approach. They want confidentiality. 

‘We are building a Child Law Hub – a new website with an A-Z of children’s law. REE and Live Chat will sit within that. Young people will come for advice on the hub and be signposted where appropriate. It will be an integrated advice and information service. We hope to launch on International Children’s Day, 20 November. Further development of REE is on hold for the moment while we focus on that. It is being built with a similar co-design process.

We decided not to have a separate app – it has to work across different devices. That is particularly important for our audience. They are using a much more varied selection than general users – including old iPads and phones etc.’

And the most important thing? ‘We knew it needed to be built by young people for young people without them at the centre of the design process the tool would be fake adults telling young people what they need.  Young people will always see right through that and will disengage”

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