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What’s New in Civic Tech: Utah Launches COVID-19 Chatbot

Plus, IBM’s Call for Code content has now named three winners with projects related to the crisis, a new economic tracker is visualizing the impact of the ongoing crisis in real time, and more.

a person's hands touching chat bubbles on a screen
Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen
Utah has launched a new chatbot to help residents find COVID-19 information on the state’s website,

The bot was launched by the Utah Department of Technology Services, and it’s called Porter. Porter — which is really an automated text support tool — can also help visitors to with routine COVID-19 questions, thereby enabling human customer service agents to focus on more complex inquiries. 

“One of the challenges we face is getting quality information to the residents of Utah," said Utah CIO Mike Hussey in a statement. "This type of technology allows us to use state resources efficiently while serving the public.”

Like the majority of state and local government chatbots, Porter uses machine learning in order to process the questions that visitors ask the most and subsequently pull answers from the information from various agencies. While the bot is live now, an announcement from the state noted that developers are continuing to add more information and analysis answers to Porter with the goal of improving responses. 

Also like most chatbots, part of the aim with Porter is to add what feels like a more personal touch to the state’s website while at the same time making vital information a faster and easier to access. The sort of information that Porter is providing includes data bout COVID-19 case counts, services for people with disabilities, Medicaid guidance, online learning, unemployment assistance and more.

Chatbots have been on the rise within state and local government for many years now. Texas, for example, has used a chatbot during this crisis to manage an uptick in unemployment calls. One local government in Tennessee even has its own COVID-19 chatbot, which was initially set up to answer questions about the U.S. Census before the virus broke out in North America.

In addition to being part of a broader chatbot-centric trend in government nationwide, Porter is part of a localized trend in Utah that has seen the state government there turning to tech often to help with the crisis. In fact, Utah is one of a growing list of states that is working with an app aimed at doing the COVID-19 tracking work that is so key to restoring normalcy in society within the new medical reality we all face.

IBM’s Call for Code Announces 3 COVID-19 Project Winners

Call for Code is IBM’s annual global challenge that asks developers to create tech products that tackle pressing societal issues, and this year that issue is COVID-19.

After focusing on the COVID-19 crisis in late March, organizers for Call for Code have now rolled out three civic tech projects squarely aimed at helping ease the impact of the pandemic. All three are detailed on the IBM Developer blog here, and they are: Are You Well?, COVIDImpact, and Safe Queue. 

Are You Well? Was created by an India-based team, and what it does is aim to provide a comprehensive medical assistance system. This system is essentially an app for telehealth, and the intent is to take some of the burden off of in-person medical facilities that are overtaxed by the virus. With the app, users can evaluate symptoms with the help of an AI named Watson. The app also would also be connected with a global dashboard to assign cases a high, medium or low level of risk based on criteria developed by healthcare experts. Finally, the app when completed would have the ability to connect users with actual medical personnel who can prioritize their cases.

COVIDImpact, meanwhile, was created by a team at the University of British Columbia in Canada, with members from that country, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Mexico. What this app does is work to reduce the financial impact on small businesses by offering a predictive assessment tool to drive decision making. Basically, the tool can help users forecast financial risk. It also offers a curated list of federal resources for small businesses, a real-time news feed and an economic heatmap that shows where virus impact is greatest.

Finally, Safe Queue is the last project and it was built by a single developer based in Los Angeles. What this app does is aim to replace physical lines at shopping centers, businesses and polling places with on-demand virtual lines. The end goal here is to ensure that users don’t have to physically stand near each other, thereby creating safer shopping experiences during a pandemic. The way it works is that it uses GPS location data to create a virtual queue for shoppers within 1,000 feet of a location. Employees of the store can control the queue digitally, validating entry with a randomly generated QR code for customers. 

Economic Tracker Charts Real-Time Impact of Virus

Opportunity Insights — a Harvard University-based data analysis organization — has created a real-time economic tracker visualization aimed at helping decision makers understand the full scope of the impact of COVID-19.

The tracker, which you can find here, is designed to essentially track changes in consumer spending, as well as related numbers such as whether small businesses are open. Opportunity Insights has developed a number of key indicators, including small business activity, employment, spending, education and healthcare. Those indicators are tracked in real time.

Work on the tracker was done with the support of the Gates Foundation. Developers also noted on Twitter that “Opportunity Insights is committed to the rigorous protection of privacy & research integrity. The data in the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker are aggregated, de-identified & do not reveal information about individuals, transactions or businesses.”

#COVID19 has unleashed an unprecedented economic crisis. To understand the full scope of the impact and target recovery efforts, policymakers need data on a daily basis. To meet this need, @oppinsights built a real-time economic tracker with support from the @gatesfoundation. — Opportunity Insights (@OppInsights) May 7, 2020
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine