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B.C. teen creates Facebook chatbot to help students stay organized

Victoria, B.C. native Alec Jones, 14, created an app for Facebook Messenger called Christopher Bot which helps with homework by sending reminders about when assignments are due.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Facebook tool that helps students be more productive and keep track of assignments developed by a Victoria teen has gone viral in an unexpected place.

Alec Jones, 14, says his chatbot, Christopher Bot, that helps students stay on top of their homework has garnered more than 3,000 subscribers, with many of them based in Thailand.

Chatbots are automated software programs, which Alec compares to iPhone's Siri, that respond to users in a conversational manner. The bot that he developed works through Facebook's Messenger platform.

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For students who forget to write down their assignments or deadlines when they are handed out or struggle to keep track of it all, Christopher Bot is designed to do the remembering for them.

Once a user subscribes to Christopher Bot, all they need to do is input their course schedule. The bot then sends a message to them near the end of each class asking whether they've been assigned homework. It also responds with sympathizing messages of "that sucks more than a vacuum" when the answer is yes.

Later, the bot reminds the user about their assignments.

Alec said he had the idea after forgetting to bring books or schoolwork home with him. When he went to school early sometimes to catch up on homework he had missed, he said he noticed his friends were having similar problems.

"The thing with calendars or agendas or to-do lists is that at the end of the day you always have to remember to put that information in," he said, adding that those tools are easily forgotten in lockers.

But your phone is always in your pocket.

"With the bot, it texts you first. You don't have to remember to write it in. It asks you."

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He said he first considered designing a smartphone app, but with only having experience in building websites, the technology for app development was a bit out of his reach.

"I looked up what would be the closest thing I could do (to an app) and I heard about bots, and I thought it would be an interesting platform to build on," he said.

Everything about building a bot was also new to him, and the teenager said he spent a lot of time reading articles and documents to figure it out.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company doesn't typically see 14-year-olds developing bots on their platform, and called Alec's endeavour "an incredible achievement."

When he launched the bot in February, Alec said he hoped a few hundred people would sign up.

He created a profile for the bot on a tech product website to help promote it. Alec said someone from Thailand came across the profile, tried out the bot and shared the post on Facebook.

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That Facebook post received over 11,000 likes, 3,800 shares and 300 comments, all of which were written in Thai. A spike in subscribers to the bot ensued.

"I never expected that so many people would be signing up," Alec said.

While Alec said he sees endless potential uses for technology, he hasn't had any new ideas yet and is focusing his efforts on managing Christopher Bot for now.

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