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Meet El Paso’s Chatbot, Ask Laura. She's a Real ‘Game Changer’

After seeing some success with the tool on the city's procurement website, officials are considering how to implement across other platforms.

When the city of El Paso decided to improve customer service, the purchasing department swung into action and created an avatar, or human-like chatbot, called Ask Laura, modeled on a city deputy attorney. 

“Instead of hiring someone to handle the calls, the director asked that we put up an avatar to handle basic questions about purchasing,” said Veronica Gomez, a software specialist for the city. While it is not uncommon to see cities launching chatbots, it is unusual that it launched one on a purchasing page.

When you open the page, Laura pops up in the middle. She is a dark-haired woman dressed in professional attire. She asks in a pleasant voice: “Hello, how can I help you?” Her voice is natural and friendly. One experiences her as pleasant, open to answering questions, ready to help you. Her name tag says "Laura."  She has a search feature that allows the user to type in questions. To answer your question, she not only speaks, but a small cartoon balloon also pops up with complementary resources. She invites you to: “Click on the question that is most relevant to you.”

Ask Laura provides users with a “customer service experience that provides immediate information on topics that include: how to register as a vendor with the city; how to do business with special programs; where to find bids and other FAQs,” Gomez said.

The city deployed Laura, its virtual information officer, in early 2017 and, according to Gomez, the technology has already paid for itself. 

The cost for the first year with implementation and purchasing the software was $20,140, but the cost of a full-time employee would have been much more, Gomez said. The city estimates that it saves some $26,251.96.

A French company called Living Actor built the friendly chatbot for the city. The company provides a platform that will work in several languages. “Clients can customize the conversation themselves,” CEO Benoit Morel explained. “The avatar also works on mobile devices.”

Chatbot expert and former North Carolina Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Eric Ellis sees the El Paso avatar as a “good implementation.” Ellis, now the director of Strategic Solutions at SHI International Corp., said while most cities have adopted robotic-looking chatbots, the El Paso avatar creates the expectation of a human conversation. “I sit on the side of humanness for chatbots, but human interaction is not the goal of most of the bots,” deployed on many city websites.

Gomez said the city wanted something unique. “We went for a company that could customize the voice (and the look). We can handle any updates in-house.” The software comes with its analytics and allows the department to update any questions that need to be answered. To maintain a certain fashion sense and for an additional cost, the team has her attire (black suit for winter) changed to follow the seasons. 

Implementation of the avatar was very easy for the city, said Morel because “they have a specific process for purchasing and contracts. “Their avatar can answer most basic questions,” avoiding a phone call, he said. 

Two people “man” Laura. The avatar asks for feedback from its users, and any questions it can’t answer are retained and considered for a monthly update. “We receive a weekly report on how she is doing,” Gomez said. “This is part of our continuous process improvement and continuous learning for her.”

In some respects, El Paso treats its Laura avatar like a real employee, with frequent reviews and a healthy dose of education to make sure citizens get the answers to questions they are seeking.

“Our goal is to provide [an artificial intelligence] tool for our clients so that they can manage their virtual employee like a real one,” said Morel. “The avatar is their ambassador. They review the information she receives when she interacts with citizens and then teach it to answer [new] questions [that need answering].”

The city has just launched Laura on the city tax page, and plans to bring the feature to the Department of Planning and Inspection and the El Paso International Airport websites.

While Ask Laura has been a hit with the city, it has also inspired the real Laura. “When we showed the product [to her], it was great to see she wanted to part her hair just like the avatar,” Gomez said. “After all, it was chosen to look like her.”

Chatbots allow the cities to know a lot about their citizens by being data hogs.

Compared to website analytics, Ellis said, these bots take in a whole other type of data. Unlike a real employee, who is answering questions, he said, a chatbot retains tons of data and can bring clarity to answers citizens need. Before the deployment of chatbots, he said, “we haven’t been able to analyze websites at this depth.” 

“With this much data, we [as cities] can be much more responsive to citizens. It is a game changer.”

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

Ellis said developers are now building software that can quickly deploy chatbots on government websites. “From helpdesk to purchasing departments, AIs are empowering cities to augment the customer experience.”

In the future, he sees a third-wave of chatbots that will be voice activated to deliver feedback data visually. “It might have the look and feel of a dashboard, but it will allow the user to call up,” the data the chatbot has gathered, and you will be able to see it [in a table] and understand what it knows.”

Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.