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Chatbot-builders take on international app competition

02 June 2017
APEC app challenge
Left to right: Frederick Fogerty and Benjamin Roe

A team of undergraduate engineering students competed in the APEC App Challenge on 18 and 19 May. Frederick Fogerty and Benjamin Roe, both Software Engineering students involved in startups whilst completing their undergraduate degrees, were flown to Vietnam to participate in the international competition.

APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum, encompasses 21 member countries across Australasia, and North and South America. Their App Challenge targets the issue of the limited capacity for small and medium-sized enterprises – which comprise about 98% of businesses in APEC economies – to export to foreign markets. Participants thus had to explore the potential in apps or online platforms to solve this problem.

Forgerty’s initial interest in the competition was sparked by its most obvious benefit, a chance for a trip to Vietnam – “what do you have to lose?” He then considered the possibilities his software engineering capacities may have in solving this particular real-world problem, and doing a conjoint in commerce added to the interest in the competition’s overall theme. The pair did not manage to win this round, but nonetheless had a great experience.

The pair have been honing their skills outside formal study at a startup, Bot Builders, see the potential chatbots have in overcoming the digital divide. With limited access to the internet via desktop computers, chatbots have the benefit of mobile-based communication across various platforms and utilising Facebook’s API, making it simpler to not just connect sellers with a large range of buyers, but also maximises transparency. “A buyer will just talk to a chatbot – much like a normal conversation, and then using specific search terms, can be connected directly to actual sellers”, Fogerty states.

Their entry into the APEC App Challenge is just one part of Fogerty and Roe’s interest in chatbots, and the potential the communication tool can have. Bot Builders aims to liberalise the use of chatbots by allowing businesses to use them without advanced coding capacity, and their success is reflected in their upcoming clients; a large proportion are well-known New Zealand brands, ranging from the sporting industry to government organisations.

While they sometimes come with negative connotations, Fogerty believes that chatbots can “break down barriers between brands and users – we’re used to seeing targeted ads all the time, which we’re not always happy with. Chatbots allow information to be transparently communicated to end users, and only if we’re asking for them. It ultimately gives users a deeper control of their preferences.”