The National Congress of Brazil in Brasilia, as depicted on the website of Operação Serenata de Amor (used with permission).

Bots today don’t have the best reputation.

We’ve all heard the stories: artificial intelligence that tracks users across the Web, plying them with advertisements and filling social media platforms with misinformation.

But there are bots that do good, too.

For example: Operação Serenata de Amor in Brazil. The open-source bot holds Brazilian politicians accountable by automatically inspecting their expenses, revealing if and when officials use public money for private purchases.

“We work for the development of democracy and social control of politicians through artificial intelligence,” says Yasodara Cordova, an activist, designer and director of the project.

Cordova says this noble bot comes at a critical time, as many Brazilians feel a sense of desperation about their government, and Brazilian lawmakers often spend excessive amounts of public money on food, fuel and travel.

The team behind Operação Serenata de Amor is a core group of about 10, plus a roster of volunteers. The project’s open-source nature means that anyone, anywhere can contribute code to make the bot better. Individuals can also use the code to build a similar bot for use in their own country.

So far, the small team has garnered big wins. “To date, the program has found more than 8,000 suspicious returns,” Cordova says, and has “reported 219 representatives for unlawful expenses, questioned $378,000 BRL ($115,000 USD) worth of reimbursements and seen financial resources returned to the public purse.”

Cordova says innovative technology can strengthen democracy, but also undermine it. It all depends on the people and principles behind the technology.

“We believe that technology will be deployed to allow participation in democratic processes — if communities of developers from the open-source world continue to be funded by organizations to do that,” she says. “Otherwise, governments will buy proprietary technology that they consider ‘good’ and use it to reinforce the inequalities and structural differences that exist in the world.”

Further reading:

Operação Serenata de Amor
Brazilian group develops an AI to help in public expenditures monitoring