As Amazon’s conversational technology Alexa becomes more prevalent in homes throughout the country, governments at all levels are embracing it as a means of making information about services more readily available to constituents.
For many public agencies at the state and local levels, these Alexa-centric programs are in testing or infancy stages, with public officials saying they plan to expand them soon. In some of the further-along cities — Las Vegas — and states — Mississippi and Utah — there are already glimpses into what the future of governmental use of the platform might look like: citizens not only being able to ask Alexa questions, but also being able to work with Alexa on simple tasks such as renewing a driver’s license.
Michael Sherwood, Las Vegas’ director of information technology, said that technology like Alexa is great for public-sector innovation because the simple existence of the hardware in citizens’ homes does a big part of government technologists’ job for them.
“We use these devices because they’re affordable and we don’t have to develop all of this technology from scratch,” Sherwood said. “We’re able to leverage a company that has a lot more development expertise than we do.”
Much smaller jurisdictions that Las Vegas have also seen value in embracing the Alexa format to better engage with citizens. In Cary, N.C., for example, the city has taken live a beta skillset (skills are the Alexa equivalent of apps or software), and testing is well underway, said Lori Bush, a city councilwoman and full-time Cisco Systems employee.
“This gives us a way to connect with citizens where they are,” Bush said. “That’s the whole goal from my perspective as a council member. How do I connect with you as a citizen in the way you want to be engaged and on the platform you’re most comfortable with?”
While many jurisdictions have started testing services over Alexa, the vast majority across the country have yet to explore the channel, taking the familiar government approach to technology of waiting until the platform has become standard in homes.
There are companies the gov tech space, however, that are seeing a slow-building demand for services that make it easy for them to reach constituents over Alexa. Imaginuity, a Texas-based digital marketing company, has launched a platform called Community Connect for Alexa that delivers municipal government information to residents.
Gary Hooker, Imaginuity’s chief marketing officer, said they have so far delivered the solution to nine cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, but that as the public’s familiarity with the platform rises, so too will demand for getting government info through it.
“I think this is really on the bleeding edge,” Hooker said. “We’ve talked to probably 30 municipalities; half of them are afraid of it.”
For those who aren’t afraid of engaging with new tech, however, development of municipal services and information dispersal is well underway. Here are a few examples of where progress in this area is being made:
Utah was one of the first states to embrace Amazon Alexa to enhance government services, doing so as far back as April 2016. The state has continued to be an early adapter, now using the platform for nuanced services such as helping residents practice for driver’s license exams.
Imagine this: a young driver is nervous about taking the test (naturally), and so he or she asks Alexa for help reviewing potential questions. Alexa then asks things like, “When approached by an emergency vehicle, the driver must immediately …” The state continues to offer new services through this tech as well.
The young driver says, “Pull to the right and stop.” Or maybe gets it wrong and is told the correct answer, all by Alexa. It’s an easy and intuitive setup, and as such Utah has won awards for the innovation.
The state continues to offer new services through this tech as well.
Like Utah, Mississippi is another state that has been an early adapter to using Amazon Alexa to enhance its government services, embracing the technology as far back as early 2016.
And, much like Utah, Mississippi continues to expand what users can ask Alexa. Mississippi residents — or really anyway else interested in the state — can turn to Alexa for info about a wide range of topics, from taxes to vehicle registration, and the tech will draw the answers from the state’s MyMS platform.
Recent additions include giving Alexa the ability to dispense traffic alerts within a 20-mile radius, fun facts about the state, aggregate local news, and info about the public officials who govern Mississippi, including phone numbers that users can call to contact their offices. Earlier this year, Mississippi CIO Craig Orgeron told Government Technology that “We can foresee [Alexa] doing an actual transaction,” potentially renewing driver’s licenses for users.
Earlier this year, Georgia joined Utah and Mississippi in establishing prominent governmental uses for Amazon’s Alexa platform with something called Ask GeorgiaGov.
Using the platform to provide easy access to information about state services is the focal point of a pilot platform that is a collaborative effort between the state agency GeorgiaGov Interactive and private company Acquia. This program is currently able to make all info from the state’s Georgia.gov site available conversationally from Alexa.
Nikhil Deshpande, director of GeorgiaGov Interactive at the Georgia Technology Authority, announced the usage of the platform in a blog in April.
“If successful, we will extend it to other agencies so that citizens, regardless of their abilities, can access information in their own way,” Deshpande wrote. “Just as the touch interfaces changed interaction with visual content, we hope to offer the same level of ease to non-screen devices, extending our commitment to providing interaction without any barriers.”
Although pinpointing which city government was first to embrace a certain technology is always tricky, Los Angeles was likely among the first major metropolitan areas in the county to find a use for Alexa, integrating the tech with the city’s calendar.
Users can access this capability through the L.A. City Skill on Amazon, which allows them to ask what’s happening in the city and receive a list of events in the area that are sponsored by the city. These include things like city council meetings and city council committee meetings.
This platform is currently in beta testing, and the city promises that expanded features and information will be available in the near future.
Las Vegas, which is also one of the first major city governments to adapt use of the Alexa tech, is out ahead of Los Angeles in terms of what it has made available.
Technologists with the city have already developed about nine skillsets, which give users the ability to ask about parks, elections, community calendars and the status of building permits. Las Vegas is also likely to be the first adapter of the next evolution of Alexa, which is called Amazon Echo Show and also features a video screen for visual conveyance of information.
Soon, users will be able to ask the Amazon Echo Show about the status of a building permit and have it appear right on the device’s screen, said Michael Sherwood, Las Vegas’ director of information technology. Show also has the potential to give residents visuals of nearby facilities and parks.
Sherwood also said that devices like Amazon Echo, which has a Dot variation that retails for less than $100, is a good way for the city to engage with citizens who don’t have access to pricier tech.
“We really wanted to find new ways to reach the population, reach people who may not have a computer but use Amazon and can afford a $50 Dot, the small Alexa device,” Sherwood said.
University Park, Texas
University Park, Texas, has enlisted the private company Imaginuity to help translate the information available on its Website to residents, taking a platform live less than 60 days ago.
Gary Hooker, chief marketing officer for Imaginuity, said that the tech allows residents of University Park, which is located within the Dallas Metroplex area, to ask for newsletters, traffic updates and other civic information. The most popular request so far has been for events that are happening in town that day.
Imaginuity has created a dynamic feed from University’s Park to Alexa users, meaning that whenever a city worker updates event information on the existing municipal Website, the information will be current when a user requests it through Alexa.
Cary, N.C., which is located just outside of Raleigh, N.C., is a smaller jurisdiction that is enthusiastically exploring the uses of conversational Amazon technology such as Echo or Alexa. Currently the city is beta testing a number of skillsets.
Lori Bush, a councilwoman in Cary who works full-time for Cisco Services, said the quick access to the platform — users need only ask it a question aloud — makes it an ideal channel for delivering municipal info that residents often forget, info like when recycling and garbage pick up is, or what time the 23 parks in town close. Other facets of the test include a news feed with fun facts about Cary.
City officials are also looking into using the medium to allow residents to open up case issues with the local government, reporting when their trash pickup was missed or asking to schedule oil and grease collection.
Bush said that a key part of the current beta test is to learn the best ways to let citizens know new skillsets are available. Awareness is another challenge often faced by governments that embrace new tech. Simply having the capability to do something with tech does not always equate to a citizenry that knows the functionality exists.
One possibility for solving this problem that has been discussed in other jurisdictions using the format is push notifications, which means that when new city info becomes available, Alexa will simply ask users if they’d like to know about it.