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Rise of the Government Chatbot

Increasingly diverse group of public agencies are deploying automated chat platforms to assist users online.

A robot uprising has begun, except instead of overthrowing mankind so as to usher in a bleak yet efficient age of cold judgment and colder steel, this uprising is one of friendly robots (so far).

Which is all an alarming way to say that many state, county and municipal governments across the country have begun to deploy relatively simple chatbots, aimed at helping users get more out of online public services such as a city’s website, pothole reporting and open data. These chatbots have been installed in recent months in a diverse range of places including Kansas City, Mo.; North Charleston, S.C.; and Los Angeles — and by many indications, there is an accompanying wave of civic tech companies that are offering this tech to the public sector.

They range from simple to complex in scope, and most of the jurisdictions currently using them say they are doing so on somewhat of a trial or experimental basis. That’s certainly the case in Kansas City, where the city now has a Facebook chatbot to help users get more out of its open data portal.

“The idea was never to create a final chatbot that was super intelligent and amazing,” said Eric Roche, Kansas City’s chief data officer. “The idea was let’s put together a good effort, and put it out there and see if people find it interesting. If they use it, get some lessons learned and then figure out — either in our city, or with developers, or with people like me in other cities, other chief data officers and such — and talk about the future of this platform.”

Roche developed Kansas City’s chatbot earlier this year by working after hours with Code for Kansas City, the local Code for America brigade — and he did so because since in the four-plus years the city's open data program has been active, there have been regular concerns that the info available through it was hard to navigate, search and use for average citizens who aren’t data scientists and don’t work for the city (a common issue currently being addressed by many jurisdictions). The idea behind the Facebook chatbot is that Roche can program it with a host of answers to the most prevalent questions, enabling it to both help interested users and save him time for other work.

It remains to be seen how much use the chatbot will get, but it’s already caught on elsewhere, with Chattanooga, Tenn., also adopting a version of Roche’s work.

While Roche’s effort is more of the grassroots variety, several other cities have begun to partner with tech startups and private companies that offer automated chat platforms that government can use to help the public get more out of its services.

In North Charleston, S.C., the city has adopted a text-based chatbot, which goes above common 311-style interfaces by allowing users to report potholes or any other lapses in city services they may notice. It also allows them to ask questions, which it subsequently answers by crawling city websites and replying with relevant links, said Ryan Johnson, the city’s public relations coordinator.

North Charleston has done this by partnering with a local tech startup that has deep roots in the area's local government. The company is called Citibot and its CEO is Bratton Riley, whose father Joe Riley served as the mayor of nearby Charleston, S.C. for 31 years. Joe Riley was so popular there that The New York Times wrote a story asking if he was the most beloved politician anywhere, in the entire country.

Armed with a childhood spent observing the machinations of local government, where it succeeds and where it struggles to serve people, Riley said that with Citibot’s text-based chat format, the idea was to be able to reach 100 percent of the population — not just those who had access to the Internet or computers. This is especially important in the Charleston area, where Riley said a significant portion of residents don’t have smartphones.

“Everyone is texting, regardless of age, race or economic status,” Riley said. “We just feel like this can really help all citizens by processing their questions and requests, and just building trust between government and citizens.”

Citibot’s involvement with local government grew from The Harbor Entrepreneur Center’s startup accelerator program, and officials in North Charleston were on board right away.

“Citibot doesn’t sleep," Johnson said, "but most of our employees — besides police and fire — are 8-to-5 employees."

With Citibot, residents can report a pothole at 2 a.m., or they can get info about street signs or trash pickup sent right to their phones.

There are also more complex chatbot technologies taking hold at both the civic and state levels, in Los Angeles and Mississippi, to be exact.

Mississippi’s chatbot is called Missi, and its capabilities are vast and nuanced. Residents can even use it for help submitting online payments. It’s accessible by clicking a small chat icon on the side of the website.

Back in May, Los Angeles rolled out Chip, or City Hall Internet Personality, on the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network. The chatbot aims to assist visitors by operating as a 24/7 digital assistant for visitors to the site, helping them navigate it and better understand its services by answering their inquiries. It is capable of presenting info from anywhere on the site, and it can even go so far as helping users fill out forms or set up email alerts.

“Chip is an anytime, anywhere resource to understand how to do business with the city," said Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross when the city first publicized the bot. "When you have a city of over 4 million people, it’s impossible to bring everyone into a football stadium all at once to talk to them. Technology is the platform in which we engage people."

Or, increasingly, technology is the platform on which chatbots engage people on the city’s behalf, providing faster, more efficient answers at lower costs, both in terms of money and public employee work hours.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.