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What’s New in Civic Tech: States Deploy Chatbots for Crisis

Plus, Nassau County, N.Y., publishes an equity gap toolkit; Kansas City, Mo., conducts a COVID-19 survey to compile crisis data direct from residents; and Apolitical is hosting a class on public-sector innovation.

by / July 30, 2020
Missi, Mississippi's chatbot, helps customers with questions on the state's portal. ms.gov

Amid the governmental crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many state-level organizations have experienced a surge in online interactions with residents, be they information inquiries or business transactions. 

As a result, digital services and call centers within state governments the nation over have at times been overwhelmed by the increase in volume. In turn, states have turned to new approaches to help enable quick and efficient responses — namely, chatbots, which have been developed and rapidly deployed to help support this uptick.

These efforts have been so widespread, in fact, that the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) has conducted research that now estimates roughly three-fourths of states continue to deploy chatbots that are capable of assisting with questions related to topics such as COVID-19, unemployment insurance and others that are generating massive levels of traffic due to the pandemic.  

NASCIO has even issued a report around this, titled Chat With Us: How States Are Using Chatbots to Respond to the Demands of COVID-19. The publication, which is available online to interested parties for free, show show these chatbots have responded to the influx of citizen questions, as well as how the chatbots learn from and build upon all interactions to expand the knowledge base. 

The publication from NASCIO covers all of this via state examples, predictions for the future of the work and links to the active state chatbots that are making all of this happen.

Nassau County, N.Y., Publishes Equity Gap Toolkit

Nassau County, N.Y., has created a new equity gap toolkit, which focuses on six specific steps that can be taken to close gaps in communities.

These are gaps that pertain, specifically, to home ownership, educational achievement and student loans. This project — dubbed Equity Gap Toolkit: Concrete Actions We Can Take to Close Equity Gaps — cites “the major healthcare inequities unmasked by COVID-19 and the continued disparate treatment of people of color in America” as reason to address inequalities in our society at this point in time.

The work was done by the Office of the Nassau County Comptroller, specifically by that office’s policy and research unit, and it highlights data that illustrates the existence of these equity gaps. It also notes that, “In addition to ensuring a more just society, closing these gaps could have a clear economic benefit.”

The six specific steps, of course, are listed as well, and they are split between two gaps: the homeownership gap, and the educational achievement and student loan gaps. Within those two designations, the actions include rating real estate firms to discourage discriminatory practices; consider housing-related payments in credit consideration; increasing inequity awareness; raising the cap for interest rate deductions; student debt reduction; and increasing financial aid.

You can, of course, find much more about all of this within the toolkit itself. 

Kansas City, Mo., Conducts COVID-19 Survey

Kansas City, Mo., has conducted a resident survey about COVID-19, and the city’s DataKC operation has now analyzed and written up the results. 

The idea of doing a COVID-19 survey actually spans all the way back to mid-March, and it was conducted with the help of the ETC Institute. The survey consisted of four other surveys, each of which was aimed at helping to better understand the impacts that COVID-19 is having on residents in Kansas City. The most recent survey was done this month, and it included a random sampling of 302 residents of the city. 

The goal of this most-recent survey was to gauge how residents were reacting to a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the city, a heightened cause for concern of late. 

There were some key findings in this data. For example, in March, 2 percent of the residents surveyed said they knew someone personally who had tested positive for COVID-19. April through June, the number increased to 29 percent. This month, the number had risen to 49 percent of residents. 

“As the impact of the pandemic has grown, our policymakers in KCMO have used this survey data to better understand how residents are reacting to public health directions,” DataKC staffers wrote, “as well as to get a picture of the needs of our residents who have been disparately impacted by the pandemic, based on race/ethnicity and income.”

Apolitical Hosts Online Class on Inspiring Public-Sector Innovation

Apolitical, which is a global learning platform for government, is offering a free masterclass for inspiring public-sector innovation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The masterclass is set to take place next month. During this pandemic, many of those in the government innovation space have said that this situation presents an opportunity to accelerate public-sector innovation. The reason is that there is a new understanding of why it is important for services to be available online. In addition, the crisis has strained local and state government budgets, creating a new need for spending efficiency, which has long been a preached benefit of gov tech and innovation.

The workshop is set for Aug. 11, and interested parties can sign up on the event’s website. Apolitical is partnering on this effort with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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