This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
Ritika Dutt’s anxiety had grown so acute, her hair was falling out in chunks.
For months over 2016 and 2017, a stranger stalked Ms. Dutt at her workplace, a non-profit organization housed in a community space open to the public in Montreal. Every day through her shifts, the man would come in and watch her. After finding out her phone number, the stranger would bombard her with texts and calls. One night, he showed up at a bar where Ms. Dutt’s friends were waiting for her. All night, he stared at the door while leaving her empty voicemails.
“It was something that was really consuming," said Ms. Dutt, now 29, who eventually quit her job after complaining to her employers about the man’s threatening presence, to no avail.
“I knew something bad was happening … but I struggled to call it what it was, which was stalking,” said Ms. Dutt, an economics and political science graduate of McGill University. “I needed education on my legal rights and the options I would have to deal with this.”
Now, Ms. Dutt is determined to aid other victims with a groundbreaking artificial-intelligence tool she’s developed that offers information and non-judgmental feedback to people staring down workplace harassment, sexual assault, cyberstalking, domestic violence, racism and gender discrimination, among other forms of misconduct.
“The catalyst was my own experience,” said Ms. Dutt, who is chief executive officer of Botler AI, the company behind the tool. “It’s a first layer of information and a bit of legal literacy to understand what you’re going through, what it’s actually called, what rights you have and where can you go to get help."
The free web application, called Botler for Citizens, lets victims disclose their experiences anonymously to a chat bot and then points them to a range of possible options for recourse. Recently partnered with the Canadian legal aid program, the tool refers victims to support organizations in urban and rural regions across the country. Funded partly by the Department of Justice, the web app is undergoing final testing and will be available to Canadians later this year.
Botler for Citizens works like this: First, a chat bot asks users to describe their situation. As people type in their responses, the AI tool analyzes the information and cross-references it with hundreds of thousands of criminal and civil documents, testimonies and legal texts and definitions to interpret what users are disclosing and help determine which laws may have been violated. A panel on the side of people’s screens offers up relevant resources, links and legal definitions.
Ms. Dutt said the web app’s language has been designed to be neutral, non-judgmental and trauma-informed. That means victims don’t need to fear being peppered with questions that blame them. In the context of sexual violence, it means victims won’t face probing questions about what they drank or wore or how they reacted throughout an assault.
“The way in which you dress never constitutes consent,” one of the app’s bullet points reads. “A current or previous marriage, dating, social or sexual relationship by itself does not constitute consent,” the message continues. “If you initially consented to the activity, then expressed your unwillingness to continue, this is not considered consent.”
With all the information it gathers, the tool can also generate an incident report, which victims can use as they wish. They can take the report to authorities or the system can forward the information to an organization of the person’s choosing. Using bank-level encryption, the web app can also save the material anonymously.
Botler AI’s chief technology officer Amir Moravej designed and developed all of the tool’s technological components. While Botler AI funds the digital and technological elements of Botler for Citizens, the Department of Justice grant helped fund the project’s legal agreements, accounts, audits and translations, Ms. Dutt said.
“The idea is to empower people with knowledge,” she said, “so they can seek justice on their own terms, as and when and how they feel comfortable.”
In Ms. Dutt’s case, she had no clear sense that the stranger’s behaviour constituted criminal harassment under Canadian law. After spotting the man watching her apartment building from across the street at night, Ms. Dutt rarely left her home for six months. As the trauma intensified, her health deteriorated. Eventually, the man disappeared from her life.
By using the Botler for Citizens web app, victims no longer have to choose between remaining silent or subjecting themselves to more traditional reporting avenues such as police or human-resources complaints, Ms. Dutt said. She argued that such routes remain daunting for many victims, who fear their disclosures will be met with indifference, judgment or retaliation.
“That’s not the only way to deal with it,” Ms. Dutt said. “Most people don’t want to go through that kind of confrontation and longer process. This offers shades of grey in between.”
Available 24/7, the online tool provides a level of discretion not always possible through a phone call or in-person appointment. That may be especially important throughout this pandemic. For months, advocates have sounded the alarm about a spike in domestic violence through the lockdowns. With spouses shut in together and stressors such as job loss, financial strain and uncertainty around child care multiplying, the risk of intimate partner violence is rising in homes where abuse already existed or was looming.
“If you’re quarantining with somebody who is abusing you,” Ms. Dutt said, “this will provide a discreet alternative you can access without drawing attention.”