Orange County, Fla., Taps Alexa to Deliver Info to Residents

The newly announced feature allows residents to interact with their Amazon personal assistant devices to find information about county government, including what to do in the event of a hurricane.

by Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel / February 3, 2020

(TNS) — Orange County has joined a growing number of local governments using Amazon’s conversational technology to provide residents with quick information.

Orange is the first in Florida to incorporate Amazon’s “Alexa” in its outreach efforts about county services, spokeswoman Doreen Overstreet said.

The county’s new app for the smart speaker allows users to get answers to questions such as “How do I adopt an animal?” and “How do I prepare for a hurricane?”

“There are thousands of questions already loaded on Alexa,” said Peter Miller, Orange County’s chief security officer.

He said an innovation committee tapped Orange County’s 311 help-line database to draft answers to the most commonly asked questions by county residents.

Miller said more questions and answers will be added later.

The decision to create content accessible by “Alexa” follows a national trend by governments to become more digital.

The approach also mirrors the public’s increasing reliance on mobile devices to connect with services through “virtual assistants” such as Amazon’s Alexa.

County staff prepared a 1-minute, 16-second video with Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to promote the app.

In the video, Demings, who Alexa correctly identified as mayor, also asks the smart speaker, “Who’s the most attractive elected official in Central Florida?"

It’s a Demings, according to Alexa, but not the one in the mayor’s chair.

Alexa instead chose the mayor’s wife, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando.

The mayor replies, “That’s a good assessment, Alexa.”

Residents can get answers about their elected leaders, how to recycling properly, how to get rid of mosquitoes and to 6,000 other questions.

“With Alexa, we have it covered,” Demings said.

County leaders hope the app gets a lot of use.

The county’s “311” help line fields an average of 320,000 calls a year from citizens with questions or complaints about traffic signals, road repairs and other issues.

Call numbers usually spike in times of bad weather, particularly hurricanes.

During the past decade, Orange County’s 311 line fielded more than 3 million queries by phone, online or through the county’s smartphone app.

In 2019, the help-line answered 191,096 calls, conducted 1,714 online chats, fielded 12,727 smartphone requests and replied to 1,254 emails.

Its operators fielded thousands of calls related to Hurricane Dorian.

Smart speakers can be programmed to play music, provide information, deliver news and sports scores, report the weather and control house lights and temperatures.

Overstreet said the county chose Amazon’s Alexa platform because of its popularity and market share.

In 2014, Amazon released its first smart speaker, the Echo, which is equipped with a talking assistant named Alexa.

The company has more than 100 million devices on the market as it builds Alexa into all of its smart-home products.

As of 2018, Amazon controlled three-quarters of the smart-home marketplace.

In Orange County, like many government agencies across the nation, “Alexa” programs are in testing stages with officials saying they hope to expand them.

For instance, Miller envisions “Alexa” being able to let a resident know what day his garbage will be picked up and how much his water bill is.

In Mississippi, one of the first state to embrace Amazon’s technology, users can get traffic alerts within a 20-mile radius or aggregated local news.

Residents can connect with "Ask Orange County” by directing Alexa, "Enable the Orange County Government Skill.”

©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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