20
September
2018
|
15:05
Europe/Amsterdam

Bridging technology and law

Representatives of all the participating teams, together with Assoc Prof Wong (front of group) and various staff of WongPartnership, at the closing ceremony

Addressing the difficulties of migrant workers took centre stage as the top three teams of the inaugural NUS Law-WongPartnership Legal Tech Competition were revealed on 18 September. The competition, which took place over two weeks — from 31 August to 14 September — challenged NUS students to design a legal technology platform that could improve access to legal aid and benefit particular groups of beneficiaries including migrant workers, litigants-in-person, accused-in-persons, low income families and youth at risk. Over 60 students participated, from NUS Law as well as other schools and faculties like NUS Business, NUS Computing, NUS Engineering and Yale-NUS College.

The winning team, made up of Year 3 NUS Law students Natasha Tan, Suresh Viswanath and Yu Kai Yan as well as Year 3 NUS Engineering students P Srivatsa and Melvin Tan, edged out the competition with their NatashaBot, a Facebook-based chatbot that can converse in more than 100 languages and is designed to give migrant workers easily understandable answers to basic legal questions. Key features include an ability to improve itself with increased interaction, as well as easy maintenance without the need for a background in coding.

“It had been designed very thoughtfully by the technical people working together with the legal people so that maintenance is not dependent on the technical people but instead leverages off their knowledge,” recalled Associate Professor Eleanor Wong, Vice-Dean (Student Life & Global Relations) at NUS Law, who was one of the judges. “I thought that was really amazing and I hope to see more of this happen,” she added.

The opportunity to collaborate with students from another faculty was one of the most valuable parts of the experience, the students shared.

“It was very intense and very enjoyable. It was a chance to create something tangible with legal knowledge. Usually in law you most often write and read, it’s very verbal. In this case we were able to team up with Sri and Melvin to create this bot,” said Natasha, adding that at one point she spent hours with Melvin programming the bot to ensure that the legal knowledge was correctly captured.

For Srivatsa, the experience showed him the opportunity for greater collaboration between the two areas of expertise. “Over the two weeks, we had a better understanding of the legal space and could see how we can bring in technology, and for the law students, I think they saw that technology is not abstract and hard to understand but something that’s very intuitive which you can easily apply.”

The team hopes to refine their project in the future, interacting more with migrant workers to understand their struggles and how they communicate to enable the programme to become more intuitive and user-friendly.

So much of practice is about being able to think through problems, come up with solutions and then find ways to solve them by bringing in the right collaborators. If our students managed to get a taste of that through this competition, I’m over the moon about it.

The 18 participating teams were evaluated by a panel of judges on a range of criteria that included technical feasibility, creativity, social impact and the quality of the pitch.

One of the judges, Mr Lam Chung Nian, Head of the Intellectual Property, Technology & Media, Telecommunications and Data Protection Practices at WongPartnership, commended the students on the thought and diligence that went into their ideas, saying that they “demonstrated awareness of the needs of beneficiaries as they applied technology to help ameliorate the needs and concerns”. He strongly encouraged them to continue coding for a cause.

“So much of practice is about being able to think through problems, come up with solutions and then find ways to solve them by bringing in the right collaborators. If our students managed to get a taste of that through this competition, I’m over the moon about it,” Assoc Prof Wong commented, reflecting on what she hopes the students have gained from the experience.

In total, five teams won cash prizes ranging from $250 to $2,500, sponsored by WongPartnership, which they were encouraged to use in further developing their project for real-world applications.  All law students in the winning teams will also be offered internships at WongPartnership.