Educating Alexa: Feds Look to Make Public Service Info Available Through AI Personal Assistants

Agencies including the departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Housing and Urban Development have expressed an interest in the effort, which is now in its early stages.

by / April 21, 2017
The Amazon Alexa personal assistant speaks through the Amazon Echo, among other Amazon technologies. Flickr/MJZ Photography

The federal government’s sometimes arcane and esoteric storehouse of knowledge and services could soon be voice-activated.

That’s because the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology program — part of the fed’s Technology Transformation Service’s Innovation Portfolio — is piloting a new initiative to make public service information available through retail-level artificial intelligence-driven personal assistants (IPAs).

If the effort yields results, the Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana — even Facebook Messenger’s chatbot — could have easy access to an alphabet soup of agencies.

Or, as GSA put it in a declaration of principles: “These same services that help power our homes today will empower the self-driving cars of tomorrow, fuel the Internet of Things, and more. As such, the Emerging Citizen Technology program is working with federal agencies to prepare a solid understanding of the business cases and impact of these advances.”

The idea, the agency explained, is to explore opening its programs “to self-service programs in the home, mobile devices, automobiles” and elsewhere.

The pilot, which the federal government believes calls for swift development, is thought to yield “public service concepts reviewed by the platforms of your choosing” — whether you’re an Alexa, a Cortana or a Siri.

It’s also believed to generate a new field of shared resources — and educate the tech industry on working with the federal government.

Agencies that are listed as having requested to participate in the pilot include the departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Housing and Urban Development; the Internal Revenue Service; the Law Library of Congress; and AIDS.gov, which will shortly become HIV.gov.

A quote on a Web page for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, another participant, indicates that it is “hoping to see how an IPA may better support our need to provide consumers” with financial education, choices and solutions.

And this is just the beginning of … the beginning. The pilot’s first phase focuses on the read-only use of public data, though federal agencies and providers are in talks to expand it.

Even the endeavor’s Wiki is in development, though content “should be populated” by Monday, April 24, officials wrote online, noting they’re “currently processing concepts and ideas from federal agencies and public services.”

Justin Herman, who leads the Emerging Citizen Technology program office, said Thursday, April 20 in a tweet that the effort will be open-sourced.

Its exact timeline is unclear but already underway.

The first stage, the agency said, is to identify stakeholders, roles and responsibilities — an effort for which it has budgeted “one week, starting now.”

Next steps include developing and implementing a compliance plan, for which another week is set aside; and holding a one-day development workshop to refine business cases and problems, analyze data and development requirements, and collect feedback.