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Indian computer science students in Canada build a bot to ease the visa application process

Ruhi Madiwale and Dhivya Jayaraman discuss how they created their product, the support they’ve got from Dalhousie University and the local government, and how studying abroad has changed their lives.
BY Uma Asher |   21-09-2017

For Ruhi Madiwale, it was a long journey from her native Belgaum, Karnataka, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Fall 2016. After getting her Bachelor’s in Computer Science in India, she wanted to pursue a Master’s at Dalhousie University (Dal for short), but she found the student visa application process bewildering. Luckily, she got help from a fellow student, Chennai-based Dhivya Jayaraman, who was also headed to the same school. At the end of their first year, they along with another Indian student, JeyaBalaji Samuthiravelu from Coimbatore, participated in a regional government-sponsored summer bootcamp. Here, they came up with the idea of a visa bot, which they are preparing to launch commercially in early 2018. Ruhi and Dhivya discussed their budding business and future plans with BrainGain Magazine recently in a Skype interview. Edited excerpts are below.

From left: Ruhi Madiwale, Dhivya Jayaraman, and JeyaBalaji Samuthiravelu, the creators of RovBOT
From left: Ruhi Madiwale, Dhivya Jayaraman, and JeyaBalaji Samuthiravelu, the creators of RovBOT


Can you tell us a bit about your journey to Dalhousie University?

Dhivya: I did my bachelor’s in Information Technology in India and worked in a multinational company for two years. Then I thought I should pursue my master’s abroad. My area of interest was Natural Language Processing [a field of computer science, artificial intelligence and computational linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human (natural) languages], which has good scope in Dal, so that’s how I ended up here.

Ruhi: I did my Bachelor’s in Computer Science & Engineering in India, and thought of pursuing my master’s degree abroad, since the scope for it in India is comparatively low, and since every student dreams of pursuing an international education. So I thought of pursuing higher studies in Canada because of its quality education, and the range of possibilities such as thesis option, internships, and entrepreneurship. The Master’s program seemed the best fit for me, because I was a fresher with no industry exposure. I chose Dal out of the three universities I shortlisted – the other two were McMaster and University of Guelph – because I got the first admit from there. When you have an offer from the university where you want to pursue your education, there’s no looking back, so I accepted.
 

How do the three of you know each other?

Dhivya: All three of us are doing our Master’s at Dal. Ruhi and JeyaBalaji are doing their Master’s in Applied Computer Science, and I am doing my Master’s in Computer Science. We took a few courses together and that’s how we got to know each other. But I know Ruhi from back in India, when I was helping her out with her visa application.
 

How did the idea for a visa-processing bot come about?

Dhivya: We went to an innovation bootcamp last summer, where we were asked to think of an innovative idea and start building on it. So we were thinking about what we can do. The visa is a big issue which all international students face… so we thought that we should find a solution for it, and that’s how we came up with RovBOT, and we are working on it now.

Ruhi: When I was applying for my student visa, I faced a lot of issues. Although there’s information on Canada’s citizenship and immigration website, I couldn’t figure out how to apply, what documents I need, and whether my visa application is on the right track. I knew Dhivya through a Facebook group of students headed to Dal in Fall 2016. She was done with her visa process and she helped me out. We were both going to study in Canada, but the difference was that I was a student in India, whereas she was a working professional in India. So the documents she needed were different from what I needed. For example, I needed to provide my dad’s income tax returns, while Dhivya had to provide her own. These little things matter when you apply for your visa. After getting admission, the next thing is to apply for a visa, and we have to make sure that our visa application is not rejected for a silly mistake. When we arrived at Dal we found it wasn’t just me or Dhivya – a lot of students face these issues. It’s not country-specific. In India in 2016, visa processing took five weeks, but now it has increased to seven weeks. A lot of students ask us questions, and we are not authorized personnel to help them, but we do so based on our personal experiences. So we thought of developing something to help students irrespective of time zones, and help them reach out with questions.
 

How does RovBOT work – does it ask you questions? And does it work for visa seekers from different countries?

Dhivya: Yes, first, the bot will figure out what kind of person you are – student, working professional, etc. Then it will determine your eligibility criteria, and the list of documents that you need to submit to get a student visa.

Ruhi: The visa requirements are different for each country. For example, they are different for India and China. In some countries, including India, you need to appear for an interview. Nationals of some countries need to provide a larger set of documents than others. Processing times also vary – in India, it’s seven weeks right now, but in some other countries, such as Pakistan, the process can take four to five months.
 

So apart from developing the bot itself, you also had to research the visa process itself. Are you still working on it?

Dhivya: Yes, we are planning to work it out for India and China first, because more than 50% of international students coming to Canada are from these countries. So working on these two countries would make it easy for us to get into the market. Eventually we will extend it to other countries.
 

Can you tell us more about the bootcamp?

Dhivya: This was one of the innovation sandbox bootcamps organized by the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education this summer. Universities and community colleges in Nova Scotia province took part. There were two parts to the bootcamp. In the first part in May, we had to develop an idea. The people who got selected continued in the second part, from June to August, and had to develop the prototype of the product, analyze the market, and create a business model.

Ruhi: It was a provincial government initiative, and all the sandboxes in the province took part to help budding entrepreneurs to enter the market.

A view of Dalhousie University
A view of Dalhousie University (photo by DiAnn L’Roy, used under CC license)


What was the response in the university – your professors and mentors?

Ruhi: The bootcamp was through the sandbox associated with our university. As we progressed, and as our supervisors and mentors got to know about it, we got warm responses from them, and they were very happy to help us with technical issues and to create a business model. They were open to discussing ideas to scale it up, and to network so that we could find legal advisors, marketing experts and so on. All three of us have a computer science background, so they helped us a lot with the business part of it. We now have a better knowledge of the business aspect than when we started.
 

Will any of this count as work towards your Master’s degree?

Dhivya: No, this is completely extracurricular. We just took our own initiative.
 

How exactly does the sandbox function? Is it a virtual space or a physical one?

Dhivya: Everyone in the university has access to the sandbox. Students who have creative ideas go there to get technical help and software or other resources to develop products.

Ruhi: It is located in the Computer Science building, and it’s a big space where a lot of students come and try out different things. The sandbox organizes hackathons, workshops where they teach students different skills, and they also organize a lot of networking events to help students meet other students as well as people in industry.
 

You’re planning for RovBOT to go commercial – how are you going raise capital?

Dhivya: We plan to apply to a couple of incubators that can help us with investment and to develop it into a startup. A Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) branch will open in November at the Rowe School of Business at Dal, so we will apply to that. It’s the Atlantic branch of the University of Toronto’s CDL. It’s a technically oriented incubator, and has specialized people who can help us with artificial intelligence, which is our core area of research. If we get into CDL, it would be great for RovBOT – we’d have access to all CDL branches in Canada, be it Montreal or Toronto or Calgary. When it opens at Dal it will be easier for us because we’re still in school.
 

You have one more year to go for your degree, right?

Ruhi: Yes, Dhivya and I have a year to go. Our colleague JeyaBalaji has one term to go. He’s doing his internship now.
 

What are your plans after graduation?

Dhivya: We plan to launch the beta version of RovBOT by January or February 2018. If we are able to do that, depending on the response, we may extend our visas. That’s the plan as of now.
 

Are your families excited about this? What about the broader response to RovBOT?

Ruhi: Yeah! They’re super-excited about what we’re doing! RovBOT is being appreciated by a lot of people in a lot of countries. It got recognition all over Canada, from the university, Metro News [a news website with newsrooms in seven major cities], and PIE News [UK-based news and services provider focused on international education]. We got warm responses from other universities in Atlantic Canada that want to adopt something like RovBOT into their system, as it would help them provide efficient student services, especially as the number of international students is increasing and universities are competing with each other for these students. The Nova Scotia Immigration office also gave us a warm response, and are eager to adopt it once we have a good working prototype that can be customized to their needs. The product has also got responses from different countries, including New Zealand, with queries whether it can help them with their country-specific procedures.
 

So between school work and RovBOT, when do you get to do fun stuff, eat, and sleep?

Ruhi: [Laughs] We make sure we have fun. And we have fun when working as well! It’s not tedious work, and the three of us are really good friends. We make sure we have a balance between school life, personal life, and working for RovBOT.
 

All of you are from warm climates. How did the Nova Scotia winter work out for you?

Ruhi: [Laughs] Once you go to any place, you will adjust. The best thing was that we came to Halifax in the Fall, so we had time to adjust. The temperature decreased little by little, and by the time winter arrived, we were all set. Now we miss winter! The climate may sound extreme, but you will eventually love it, and you’ll get used to it.

Game of pond hockey in Nova Scotia (photo by Spencer Gillis – Northland Films, public domain)
Game of pond hockey in Nova Scotia (photo by Spencer Gillis – Northland Films, public domain)

 

How has your experience of studying abroad changed the way you look at life and work?

Dhivya: I really never thought I’d get into this entrepreneurial world, because I love doing technical stuff but I had no idea about making a business of it. Innovation bootcamp was the first step into this world for all three of us. The people who were competing with us there were from business and commerce backgrounds. We failed miserably in the first phase and were thinking of quitting, but our managers kept encouraging us. We started with a small attempt to make things easy for people, and an attempt to understand people, because most of us don’t believe bots – if we make a call and get a bot, we do all we can to connect with a human representative. So we thought we should solve that problem, and the visa problem would be a good way to solve it. One of the best things about coming to Dal is that I’ve learned a lot apart from technical stuff.

Ruhi: Coming to Dal was a dream. Being in a small, close-knit community, you are exposed to a lot of things, there are fewer students and a lot more opportunities. Your mentors and supervisors reach out to you, they are more involved with your evolution as a student, and they are there to help you. At Dal I’ve also learned a lot by being involved with the International Student Association: the difficulties international students face – visa issues, relocating to another country, how first-timers manage, how they evolve and make their careers successful. Apart from this, my technical skills have improved a lot. In the beginning at Dal, I was so nervous about certain subjects, thinking, “I’m bad at this!” And now I take subjects which people say are difficult, and I think, “Well, I’m going to take this.” One of the outcomes is recognizing your potential, recognizing that you can do this.

 

Interested in innovation? Check out these stories!
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5 steps to becoming a great entrepreneur
7 questions with Rod Carr, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
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Prof. Matthew Karau of NYU Abu Dhabi on studying Engineering Design
Neurotoxicology professor Graham Nicholson’s spider venom business
Why Artificial Intelligence graduates are in red hot demand
Learning to embrace the impractical and think more creatively

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