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Digital Assistants: Governments’ Newest Public-Facing Opportunity?

The idea of having an Amazon Echo tied to government offerings may seem more like a novelty than anything else, but in Mississippi and Utah the technology is adding real value to the voice-activated devices.

When smartphones first erupted on the scene, governments were slow to realize the potential of offering mobile applications to better connect to their constituents. Over the years, the app has become a technological mainstay for any state or local organization, and the thought of not having one now seems almost comical.
But there is another shift coming, not unlike the disruptive smartphone, and two states are taking the lead to embrace the “next thing”: the voice-activated digital assistant. 
At first glance, the idea of having an Amazon Echo tied to government offerings seems more like a novelty than anything else, but in Mississippi and Utah the technology is adding real value to voice-activated devices.
For the citizens of Mississippi, that value is directly tied to the state’s MyMS platform, which was designed to help keep residents current on things like vehicle registrations, license renewals and paying taxes. With the help of what's being called an Alexa “skill,” users of the popular Echo digital assistant can vocalize their questions and expect an accurate and reliable answer.
Are you a new @amazonecho user? Discover the new Alexa skill. — (@msdotgov) June 13, 2016

Dana Wilson, general manager with the state's NIC subsidiary Mississippi Interactive, said the tool brings the same usefulness as the state’s mobile application without the need to pick up a smartphone or log into a program.
“This iteration of we decided to incorporate that Alexa skill into MyMS, to combine the two,” she told Government Technology. “On top of that, we wanted to put in some educational features. You can ask it what the state flower is and for it to tell you a Mississippi story or fact, and it will tell you that the first heart and lung transplant was done in Jackson, Miss., etc.”
Additionally, the state agency phone directory is included in the functions of the skill. While the feature won’t allow Alexa to connect users to a particular employee within a certain department, Wilson said there are plans to continue building onto the capabilities.
“It could get down to the agency level," she said. "Of course, we would need approval from the CIO if that was something he wanted to do, but we are always looking at ways to enhance the service.”
Past these capabilities, Wilson said there is conversation around making the tool useful in other ways as well. One idea is to translate the functions of the MDOT Traffic mobile app to the Amazon device. The mobile app currently allows users to establish a travel zone, say between home and work, that they would like to receive incident notifications for. “If there is an incident, accident or roadwork within that geo-fence, you’ll get a push notification on your cellphone that lets you know you should reroute,” she said. “We would like to do something similar where we could incorporate that application with the Amazon Alexa skill in Mississippi to ask Alexa if there is an incident on my way to work, specific to the geo-fence they set up in the application.”
Wilson reported that around 100 people have asked roughly 300 unique questions using Alexa on their home devices.
For Utah, the first state to launch an Amazon Echo solution in late April, the Alexa skill has taken a different form altogether. Residents practicing for a driving test have a new study buddy. 

Dave Fletcher, Utah’s chief technology officer, said the newly unveiled skill allows users to verbally interact with the Echo device to better prepare for the real thing.
“It’s really just the first step, I think, toward a different way of interacting digitally,” he said. “Voice interaction is going to continue to see an uptick. ... This is just sort of the initial round, like when we first released our iPhone app; there wasn’t a whole lot out there, but the whole environment has changed.” 
Much like Mississippi’s skill, Utah's test preparation feature is only a portion of the larger offering. Utah also built in its own educational feature, which allows the digital assistant to “recall” current and historical information.

Fletcher said Utah is looking at other ways various agencies can leverage the Echo moving forward. He also said a number of other states have expressed an interest in developing their own Alexa skills.
“We’ve had that discussion with agencies and they’ve talked about some ideas,” he said. “So I think this is just the first step.”
Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at