(TNS) -- Amazon's virtual assistant can already order a pizza or an Uber for you. Now, Alexa can also answer common questions about city services, tell you about road closures and even pay your water bill.
Dallas marketing agency Imaginuity has launched a new platform, Community Connect, that allows a city to create its own skill, Alexa's version of an app. The voice-activated assistant can share upcoming events and read a city's newsletter aloud. It can answer questions about city services, such as library hours or bulk trash days and give emergency alerts.
University Park has already launched its Alexa skill. Imaginuity's chief marketing officer Gary Hooker said he'd like to win the business of 15 to 20 other municipalities, police and fire departments or economic development corporations in Texas this year and then roll out nationwide in 2018.
"This is a way for municipalities to extend the conversations they're having into the living rooms, the bedrooms and the kitchens of their residents," he said.
Voice-activated personal assistants have gained popularity across the U.S. About 12 percent of U.S. households with broadband had a voice assistant by late 2016, according to market research firm Parks Associates. That was up from 5 percent a year earlier.
By 2018, about 30 percent of interactions with technology will be through conversations with smart machines, according to a report by consulting firm Gartner.
Community Connect works with all Amazon Echo products, which have been dominant in the virtual assistant category. Imaginuity plans to add Google Home and Apple's soon-to-debut HomePod in early 2018, Hooker said.
In the first half of 2018, Imaginuity will add features that allow people to monitor their water use and pay their utility bill. More options, such as paying library dues or parking tickets, could come later, Hooker said.
Imaginuity typically designs custom products, such as websites, for its clients. But after getting an Amazon Echo and Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas, Hooker said he thought it could fit cities' needs.
"We do work with a handful of municipalities, and they tell us the same thing over and over again: They want better interaction with their citizens," he said.
A few other cities are also looking to Alexa as a way to reach citizens. Los Angeles launched a skill in December that answers questions about events around town. The city of Las Vegas launched a skill that provides information about city parks, council meetings and planning commission meetings and fun facts about the city.
Community Connect makes it possible for a city to create and update its own Alexa skill by pulling information from its website. When the city updates its website with current events or important notifications, for example, Alexa's answers are updated, too. A city can also program the skill to announce an emergency alert when a user asks a question.
Imaginuity charges a one-time $6,900 licensing fee and $140 per hour rate for configuration and setup. Cities pay a monthly fee that's based on its population, Hooker said.
In University Park, city officials see Alexa as a new way to reach residents, especially since the city is home to many young families and college students. The city's median age is about 32 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
City spokesman Steve Mace said he imagines parents asking a virtual assistant questions while packing school lunches or older residents with vision trouble using it to read the city's newsletter.
To use Community Connect, University Park residents must add the free skill to their Alexa app — similar to adding an app to a device — and start each question with "Alexa, Ask my University Park..."
©2017 The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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