Los Angeles, Microsoft Unveil Chip: New Chatbot Project Centered on Streamlining

Named Chip, for "City Hall Internet Personality," a new chatbot unveiled at a New York Smart Cities conference answers nearly 300 questions a week on the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network website.

by / May 3, 2017

The city of Los Angeles’ newest IT employee is an as-yet unsung hero who assisted more than 180 people in 24 hours and has answered more than 1,400 queries to the nation’s second-largest city.

On Wednesday, May 3, however, Chip’s anonymity ended when Microsoft and city officials promoted that hard work and potential to the Brooklyn Navy Yard audience at Smart Cities NYC ’17.

Chip is a so-called chatbot whose name stands for “City Hall Internet Personality,” although a Microsoft official said his capacity for learning raises him above that label. “He” considers himself “your personal digital assistant,” as will become apparent if you visit the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN), click on the WALL-E-esque icon and type in “What is your name?”

The city chose BAVN for the debut as a way to drive vendor engagement and make sure it’s publicizing purchasing and procurement opportunities. It is keeping Chip in beta mode for now and delayed introducing the bot until it was clear "we feel it'll give the optimal customer experience," Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross told Government Technology.

For Los Angeles and Microsoft, however, the bot's potential far outstrips its current position, where since March 21 it has helped representatives of the city’s more than 97,000 businesses search out contract opportunities, register to receive emails — even look for North American Industry Classification System code.

“Chip is an anytime, anywhere resource to understand how to do business with the city," Ross said. "When you have a city of over 4 million people it’s impossible to bring everyone into a football stadium all at once to talk to them. Technology is the platform in which we engage people."

It reflects, he added, “the culture of innovation” that Mayor Eric Garcetti “has been setting at City Hall.” And he offered a quote from Garcetti as proof: “Los Angeles is a platform for experimentation. It’s a place where you can try different things out.”

Its creation, like its mission, centers on streamlining: Chip was designed by two city developers during just three days in March, with training from Microsoft and access to its Cortana platform, its Azure bot framework and the Microsoft Azure cloud where Chip lives.

Cost was unexceptional. And despite freeing up staff to handle more involved issues, Chip is a harbinger of what’s next for artificial intelligence (AI), not a mere chatbot, said Michael Donlan, Microsoft’s vice president of U.S. state and local government.

Chip can be trained to “learn,” and has already been backloaded with knowledge more than tripling his answer base from around 200 to roughly 700 questions. He “curates” the answers from what he knows.

Through an extensible platform and Application Program Interface (API) programming, the bot can connect to any data or back-end system, Donlan said — and in the future will likely take on new languages.

“I think from Microsoft’s standpoint, we believe that human language will be the next new interface for computing,” Donlan told Government Technology, pronouncing Los Angeles “ahead of the curve” for unveiling the ’bot.

“And the thing I come back to is the AI standpoint on, to have a bot that can be building its own knowledge base and also give feedback on the questions that it’s answering to tailor the content,” he added.

Ross Rubin, founder and principal analyst at New York-based Reticle Research, which focuses on innovation in technology, media and telecom markets, said one concern he has is preserving residents’ privacy when they ask questions — though Chip’s interactions are anonymized.

Rubin described chatbots as “a very appropriate application of the technology,” though distinguished by their choice of medium and independence — anything from a message window to a device or even a car audio system, all front-loaded with that learning ability.

Their tech and ability to meet people on their own level mean they’re likely to become a fixture, the analyst said, noting that at the recent New York Auto Show, he was able to renew his driver’s license at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) booth.

“To extend this kind of scenario to a chatbot, I might be able to say something like, ‘Hey, Alexa, ask the DMV when my license is expiring or how to renew my license,’" Rubin said. "If that bot had access to my calendar, it might see I was going to the auto show and see that the DMV was going to be set up there.”

In October, for example, the state of North Carolina announced plans to test chatbots to help its internal IT help desk.

Recognizing Chip’s performance, Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector and Industry Toni Townes-Whitley mentioned the project in her Smart Cities NYC keynote address at 11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on May 3.

Townes-Whitley also mentioned Chip in a blog post on May 3 tied to the event, Digital Leadership: Empowerment by Design.

And already, Chip is not alone. When Los Angeles activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Monday, May 1, in response to May Day protests and activities around the city, Deputy CIO Joyce Edson said it also stood up an internal-facing chatbot to help first-time EOC visitors learn how to log on to computers and access the system.

Other bots could be on the way, Ross said, noting that Chip’s performance has slashed emails to BAVN from 80 a week to 30 or 40. With an IT staff that number 40 percent fewer than in 2009 — and about half of whom are eligible to retire this year — that is no small feat.

Not so far in the future, other “Chips” could answer questions during tax season, at the city’s 311 website, potentially even in areas of homelessness and immigrant rights.

“As we do new initiatives, this — it’s the type of service, a gadget, a widget you can put up on the new website,” Ross said, emphasizing that residents don’t want to click through a clunky website anymore, thus the move enabling Chip's intent to allow "access to information in a very usable format."

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.