Los Angeles Chatbot Deputized to Help with Police Recruitment

"Officer Chip" was developed in-house using Microsoft technology, and can answer more than 1,000 questions for potential police recruits.

by / February 20, 2018

Chip, the city of Los Angeles’ new chatbot, has only been “off probation” since July — but impressed by “his” performance, innovation officials have deputized him to deliver answers to potential police department recruits.

Chip, an acronym for City Hall Internet Personality, was launched in beta last May at the Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN), where he quickly took charge of helping the city’s more than 97,000 businesses understand how to find contracts, register for notifications and generally interact with the city.

The chatbot, which assisted more than 180 people during its first 24 hours, moved out of beta and went live in July 2017 — and attracted the notice of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Innovation Team. In Los Angeles, as it is elsewhere, police recruitment is time-intensive both for applicants — around 7,000 of whom are in its system at any given time — and for the City Hall staffers who field their questions.

Garcetti’s Innovation Team, in the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, focuses its work in single areas. Currently, it’s partnering with the Personnel Department, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and the Information Technology Agency, to help with LAPD hiring and recruiting.

Officer Chip, as the chatbot is known in his LAPD role, is a fast-track project that’s just one of 15 to 20 team initiatives in various stages.

His debut is intended to improve access to resources, reduce the thousands of monthly calls on basic process questions that candidates make to the Personnel Department’s Public Safety Division; and give the city insight into what candidates want to know.

“This is one of many things that we’re doing, but the overarching goal is to make it easier for police recruits to learn about what it means to be a police officer. I think the power of Chip is that it can be used in lots of different places,” said Amanda Daflos, director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team.

Activating the chatbot on joinLAPD.com meant replacing Chip’s business-related responses with public safety data. Officials started with an initial list of around 1,000 questions, on topics ranging from salary to drug tests to boot camp, but that number has more than doubled in the weeks after its launch.

Questions for Officer Chip are visible on the back end, and being able to review them has helped the bot become more intelligent, and educated officials about what residents need to know from them.

To date, the chatbot is averaging 35 to 40 chat sessions per day, a number Daflos said is highly encouraging considering officials haven’t advertised the technology.

“It’s telling us that, without even marketing or telling people, this is a thing that there’s a lot of interest in,” Daflos said.

These interactions are believed to last around two minutes each, meaning Officer Chip is saving the city roughly 70 to 80 minutes of call time a day — but one observer who praised the city’s deployment as “a very smart and leading job” said he thinks those numbers may be low.

“I would venture to say that there’s probably more than two hours of time savings in a given day. Plus the morale boost,” said former North Carolina Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Eric Ellis, a chatbot expert.

“I’d like us to suss out the dollar, the human value to the workers that are no longer having to answer mundane questions, and who have maybe started to move up a role duty standpoint because they’re no longer resetting passwords every single second,” he added.

The Chip chatbot was designed by two city developers with training from Microsoft and access to its Cortana platform and Azure bot framework, during a three-day period last year. Its cost, officials said last year, has been unremarkable. Daflos said Chip’s creation is a great example of staff being able to quickly address residents’ needs.

“We can do things with vendors all the time but really, being able to sustain things in government, you need to have staff that can deliver it, can design it, can make it better, can sustain it, all those kinds of things. I think it’s a really positive win for the city, that that is the case,” she said.

Currently, the partner agencies scrutinizing LAPD recruitment have found other ways to meet candidates at their level: texting, enabled last fall as a way for the Personnel Department to confirm appointments; and an LAPD marketing campaign featuring officers from a variety of backgrounds discussing the job, and community leaders talking about what they’d like to see from future officers.

Ellis said the chatbot’s robotic appearance is appropriate and sets “really good expectations” for residents that yes, they will be interacting with artificial intelligence — discussions that could have personal resonance despite their anonymization.

“When somebody goes to a chatbot, I think it is of great value to communicate to someone that, by using Chip, the information you provide will improve the experience for the residents to the citizens. It almost makes you feel a part of the community, which I think is the goal,” Ellis said.

Daflos said the two-way information flow has an exponential value for all parties.

“I think not only is it letting candidates get the answers that they need, but it’s letting the city understand how it should be designing programs, and the different elements of recruiting and hiring. It’s a wealth of knowledge for us as well,” Daflos said.

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.