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CITYDATA Launches Two Geofence-Based Chatbots for Government

One mobile app is focused on public-sector employees and contractors, while the other app is meant for residents. Here's how one gov tech startup is putting a spin on chatbots using geofences.

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CITYDATA, a GIS data platform geared toward local government, is in the early stages of offering a pair of chatbots that make use of geofences to send location-specific information to people.

One of these, CityTrace, is meant more for city employees and construction workers. It tracks people as they cross into or out of geofenced areas and sends them information or tasks specific to that area. The other, CityChat, is currently in a beta test with the city of San Leandro, Calif., and is meant more for the public.

With CityChat, residents can configure locations they’re interested in and then receive information from the local government about what’s happening in that area.

“Nextdoor is the thing that comes to mind … Nextdoor with a very focused view on specific topics like 311, PD information and building permits, which are typically the top three items that most citizens want to know about in their neighborhood,” said Apurva Kumar, CITYDATA’s CEO. “Like if my neighbor two doors down is going to start a huge construction project in two weeks, and they've asked for a permit, it might be a good idea for me to know about that.”

The government can also use the app to poll people within a geofenced area.

Local governments across the country have started using chatbots more since the onset of the pandemic, but most often they’ve set them up to handle the influx of requests from the public for everything from unemployment insurance to business closures. In that function, chatbots act more like automated help desk agents designed to handle the easiest, most common requests so humans can spend their time on the more complicated calls. Location-based chatbots aren’t as common.

CityTrace is more widely available than CityChat at the moment. Kumar said it initially started with an eye toward the construction industry — where safety rules, tasks and information are heavily location-dependent — but the pandemic shifted demand. Instead, the company found an appetite from civic institutions, especially parks and recreation departments.

“Those types of programs and those types of projects [where] you need to be out and about, you want to be able to communicate with your field crews,” he said. “And you want [them] to be able to know that when they are entering a specific area, here are the tasks that need to be done. At the same time, I need to be able to have a quick chat with them about some other things that need to happen at this other venue.”

Geofences are drawn in using CityDash, the company’s core data platform, which users will gain access to if they get CityTrace. The company can quickly set up many of the more obvious geofences, Kumar said, speeding up the deployment process.

“You can look at Google Maps and figure out what is the ideal fence around Golden Gate Park? Or what is the ideal fence around city hall? And so we can take care of that ourselves. But we do need to know what the project sites are, or what are the historical sites or community centers and senior centers that need to be looked at,” he said. “Once we have that information, then the only other piece of information that's needed is — who do we deploy this to?”

As of right now, CityTrace is available for Android devices but not iOS. Kumar said the company is working to get the app up and running for iOS.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.