Mississippi and Utah Double Down on Digital Assistants, Expand Their Skillsets

As projected shipping numbers for the Amazon Echo soar and interest in digital assistants grows, agencies in both states are watching the market eagerly and focused on identifying needs and creating skills for Alexa, the Echo’s smart assistant.

by / July 6, 2017
The Amazon Alexa personal assistant speaks through the Amazon Echo, among other Amazon technologies. Flickr/MJZ Photography

With the number of so-called “voice-first devices,” including digital assistants like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, projected to increase nearly four-fold this year according to industry enabler VoiceLabs, early adopter states like Mississippi and Utah are doubling down to enhance their skillsets and do a better job of connecting citizens with government.

In its 2017 Voice Report released early this year, VoiceLabs predicted 24.5 million voice-first devices will ship this year — up from 6.5 million in 2016 and 1.7 million in 2015 — boosting the total in circulation to 33 million.

Perhaps chief among them is the Amazon Echo, which writer Adam Marchick said evolved last year “from novelty to in-the-home powerhouse, with over seven million devices in households.”

Both Mississippi and Utah, which began exploring digital assistant technology in 2016 and 2015, respectively, through their subsidiaries of Kansas-based NIC Inc., are focused on identifying needs and creating skills for Alexa, the Echo’s smart assistant.

“Apple just released their digital assistant home platform so that might be something we expand into but right now, the market is saying Alexa is the first platform to go in and then others will follow,” Dana Wilson, general manager of NIC subsidiary Mississippi Interactive (MI), told Government Technology.

Of course, agencies in both states are watching the digital assistant market eagerly as are their counterparts in states like Arkansas, which reportedly is exploring an area common with Utah: migrating certain online services of its Game and Fish Commission to voice-first devices.

Mississippi Adds Traffic, Government Skills, Envisions an Active Alexa

Mississippi’s relationship with MI dates to December 2010, but the state launched its digital assistant capabilities in 2016 with ms.gov and is enhancing them this year. Here, residents deliver their “asks” to Alexa — including questions on taxes to vehicle licensing and registration — and answers come from the state’s MyMS platform.

Two more abilities added recently include traffic alerts within a 20-mile radius and queries about elected officials. Ask Alexa who the secretary of state is in Mississippi, Wilson said, and “she’ll give you the information and ask if you want their phone number.”

FEDS EXAMINE DIGITAL ASSISTANTS

State agencies aren’t the only public-sector entities taking a closer look at digital assistants.

In April, the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology program — part of the fed’s Technology Transformation Service’s Innovation Portfolio — announced a new pilot to explore making federal-level public service information available to digital assistants, also known as artificial intelligence-driven personal assistants (IPAs).

“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,” GSA said in a declaration of principles.

On May 17, GSA’s Emerging Citizen Technology program hosted a five-hour hackathon in Washington, D.C., challenging more than 100 hackers nationwide to work with federal agencies on identifying what data streams they’re interested in making public — and how best to migrate these to IPAs.

Utah Department of Technology Services Chief Technology Officer David Fletcher told Government Technology that interest from the feds speaks volumes about the future for digital assistant technology.

“Once they get involved, you know that it’s going to go somewhere," he said, "and with the millions of people who have bought the devices, you know that it’s a solid platform now for us."

Alexa can now also deliver fun facts about Mississippi, and aggregate local news in addition to national headlines.

But CIO Craig Orgeron, who also is executive director of the state’s Department of Information Technology, told Government Technology that the state sees a future where “instead of just asking Alexa when your professional license is due and her giving you a date, maybe the vision is, what if she were able to give you a date and then ask if you’d like to renew your license."

So, Wilson added, instead of her just providing you information, "We can foresee her doing an actual transaction."

Echoing a common finding among public agency officials, Orgeron said state residents have “come to expect that technology is going to respond and deliver.”

Digital assistants, he said, are just the latest platform through which the state can enhance their experience and create a closer relationship between citizens and government — possibly on-boarding users who have avoided other Internet devices.

“I think the divergence would be the interface, how you talk to your device and maybe the artificial intelligence (AI) component of your device getting smart on your behalf. It knows where you’re going and it’s able to help you that way in addition to the voice component,” Orgeron said.

Utah Fishes for Tech-Savvy Government Watchers, Anglers

Utah was the first state to launch an Alexa skill for the Amazon Echo in April 2016, and Department of Technology Services Chief Technology Officer David Fletcher told Government Technology this is the year it, like Mississippi, digs deeper, “embedding it with some data-driven functionality that’s more real-time.”

Installation numbers weren’t available, but Utah.gov, a driver’s education skill, proved popular with students who found it useful for taking a sample driver’s license test.

In May, the state went live with Utah Fishing, a skill produced in collaboration with the Division of Wildlife resources that tells Echo owners where fishing hot spots are in its 150 lakes and rivers — plus species information, stocking reports and which lures are working best.

Similar hunting information isn’t available, he said, because hunting is seasonal and more infrequent by nature, while fishing is year-round.

Also that month, it launched Utah Public Meetings, a guide to the hundreds of public meetings every day by the 3,000 governmental organizations around the state that are required by law to give notice of meetings. City Council, county and school district board, and all state agency meetings are now searchable by location or ZIP code.

Fletcher said he sees digital assistants as “another channel for distribution of content information,” and an audience that’s growing rapidly — helped by the Echo becoming more entrenched, APIs being released and prices dropping. Like Mississippi, however, the state is focusing on Alexa for now — and not yet digital assistants by other makers.

“There’s a lot of interest in Utah and the technology, so I think we’re going to add new skills to Echo and as these new devices take off, we’ll look at them as well,” Fletcher said. “I think the fact that all the major players have jumped into this market is indicative of the future, that it’s not something that is going to go away.”

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.