Canadian immigration applications could soon be assessed by computers

January 24, 2017

By Nicholas Keung, Canadian Immigrant Magazine |

Ottawa is quietly working on a plan to use computers to assess immigration applications and make some of the decisions currently made by immigration officers, the Star has learned.

Since 2014, the Immigration Department has been developing what’s known as a “predictive analytics” system, which would evaluate applications in a way that’s similar to the work performed by officials today.

The plan — part of the government’s modernization of a system plagued by backlogs and delays — is to use the technology to identify the merits of an immigration application, spot potential red flags for fraud and weigh all these factors to recommend whether an applicant should be accepted or refused.

At the moment, the focus of the project is on building processes that would distinguish between high-risk and low-risk applications, immigration officials said.

“Predictive analytics models are built by analyzing thousands of past applications and their outcomes. This allows the computer to ‘learn’ by detecting patterns in the data, in a manner analogous to how officers learn through the experience of processing applications,” department spokesperson Lindsay Wemp said in an email.

“The goal is to improve client service and increase operational efficiency by reducing processing times while strengthening program integrity.”

The project was approved by the former Conservative government cabinet in February 2013. Wemp said there is no firm timeline on when automated decisions might be a viable option.

“To ensure the accuracy of decisions, models undergo extensive testing prior to being used. Once in service, quality assurance will be performed continually to make sure that model predictions are accurate,” she explained.
“The novelty of the technology and the importance of getting it right make it imperative that we do not rush this project.”

With the proliferation of artificial intelligence in people’s day-to-day lives, from IBM’s Watson (the supercomputer that defeated Jeopardy! champions) to Google’s self-driving cars, immigration experts said they were not surprised by the move toward automation.

“This is the greatest change in immigration processing since the Internet. What requires weeks if not months to process would only take days with the new system. There are going to be cascades of savings in time and money,” said immigration lawyer and policy analyst Richard Kurland.

“A lot of countries have used predictive analytics as a tool but not for immigration processing. Canada Revenue Agency also uses the techniques to identify red flags. It uses artificial intelligence. It is decision-making by machines. The dividends of this exercise are huge.”

The Immigration Department’s Wemp, however, said the department’s plans shouldn’t be classified as artificial intelligence because a predictive model cannot exercise judgment in the same way as a human and officers will always remain central to the process.

“We would be able to catch abnormalities in real time, which would then help us to identify fraud and threats more quickly,” noted Wemp. “Some immigration programs are better suited for predictive analytics than others. The department envisions a phased approach, one program at a time.”

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