How AI Fits in Local Government

Posted on July 13, 2019

Chatbot answering a question on a smartphone. Getty Images credit anyaberkut

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Meredith Trimble, Sr. Content Specialist with Tyler Technologies, Inc., and former Acting Chair, Farmington, CT Town Council (Twitter, LinkedIn)

During my tenure on a local town council, I received regular texts from neighbors and friends seeking general information about town: After July 4th, was garbage pick-up delayed a day? What date was the fireman’s carnival again? When is bulky waste pick-up? How could they register to vote?

I know why they asked. That simple information was nearly impossible to find on the town’s website. I’d give it a good five minutes searching the site myself before giving up and texting the town manager, who gamely responded quickly.

True story: As council vice chair, I burned half an hour trying to be self-sufficient but, for the life of me, could not pull from the site the two-week window after Christmas when our trees would be collected.

The truth is that most residents don’t really want to download and read a 112-page facilities report. (Oh, how I wish they did!) They really want to know when fall leaf pick-up is so they can clear their lawns. As local governments move toward digital maturity in a variety of ways – ways largely spurred by an evolving workforce – there’s an opportunity to make this type of simple service better.

Specifically, local governments can pair AI with their public data to communicate important information to residents.

AI for Agencies

AI and machine learning are gaining momentum in helping public agencies at state and federal levels contextualize data, identify commonalities, and recognize patters for important insight. Being able to interact with real-time data helps decision-makers fully understand what’s working and what’s not.

Digital Maturity and the Public

Digital maturity in the public sector, however, isn’t just about internal strategies. All areas of government interaction with data, including operations, connecting with partners, and connecting with residents, benefit from modern technologies that are prevalent in our everyday private lives.

At the local level, full digital maturity in resident engagement looks like:

  • Customizable, mobile, digital experiences with government that match private-world experiences;
  • Public self-service to conduct business through a single, constituent portal 24/7, or self-report issues; and
  • Public access to the same quality of real-time data surfaced through effective internal data sharing and aggregation.

While departments are using AI and machine learning to ask – and answer – the questions that matter most to our communities such as, “what’s working to address homelessness?” residents have their own questions more in line with their daily lives. And these questions can be answered through common household devices and apps, like Amazon’s Alexa.

Ask Alexa

Many of our Morning Buzz governments probably already use voice-enabled technology to provide general information on events and news. The next-level progression is incorporating open data and geographic boundaries to provide enhanced information to the public.

Resident questions that can be addressed in this way include:

  • Business
    • What is the status of my application?
  • Services
    • When is bulky-waste pick-up?
  • Emergency Information
    • Where is the nearest shelter?
Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo by Adam Bowie on Flickr

Using a service such as Alexa provides local governments with an opportunity to give tailored responses to constituents while removing the need for them to navigate cumbersome websites or call reception for information.

Use Cases

This GovTech article describes some earlier successes of state and local governments using Alexa to assist the public in different ways, from giving advice on driver’s license exams to providing traffic updates.

A great recent example comes out of Douglas County, Colorado. As reported in this Denver Post article, county residents can bypass online searches and use the “Ask Douglas County” feature on Amazon Alexa devices such as Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Fire TV, Fire tablets, and more.

According to the article, residents can, “simply shout out questions about events, road closures, tax information – or even something as vague as, ‘Alexa, ask Douglas County, what’s new?’”

The county’s website highlights some popular questions that can be answered through Alexa voice commands, such as:

  • Current news
    • “Alexa, ask Douglas County, what’s new?”
  • Family events
    • “Alexa, ask Douglas County, what events are occurring this month?”
  • Road closures
    • “Alexa, ask Douglas County if there are any closures?”
  • Property taxes
    • “Alexa, ask Douglas County, how do I pay my property tax?”

County services including learning about county finances are also query options. Information is continuously added based on resident requests. The county’s open data site offers an updated list of questions.

Enhancing communication with residents is an important pillar of a government’s full digital maturity.

Pairing AI and open data streamlines the public’s access to information by mirroring private world digital experiences, while saving valuable staff time through reduced information requests, research, and follow-up.

In the evolution of local government’s digital maturity, it is proving to be a functionality worth considering.

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