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Governments Get Creative to Adapt to Coronavirus Reality

Knoxville, Tenn., recently launched a chatbot to address U.S. Census questions, then came the novel coronavirus. The shift that followed helped the city meet constituents where they were — stuck at home.

Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen
Chatbots, apps, dashboards and other communication devices are increasingly serving the needs of cities, counties and states during the coronavirus crisis, as a worried public searches for trusted information.

“A lot of the 211s around the country are looking at what we’re doing right now, because they're looking for newer ways to get information out to people without tying up their operators, because everybody’s taxed to the limit right now,” said Russ Jensen, director for 311 and 211 systems in Knoxville, Tenn.

The city recently launched a chatbot, initially developed to handle questions related to the ongoing U.S. Census, which unfolded at more or less the same time as the novel coronavirus crisis.

The virus has sickened more than 206,233 people across the U.S., killing at least 4,576 people, according to The New York Times. Millions of residents are under some form of stay-at-home orders in order to slow the spread of the virus throughout the population.

On March 23, the Knox County Public Health Department closed all non-essential businesses and limited public gatherings.

“We decided, well, let's give people an avenue where they can go to and get really quick, really useful answers on the Census: how it works? Who needs to answer it? What the process is?” said Jensen, recalling the thinking behind the chatbot. “But then very quickly, we started morphing into the whole COVID-19 realm because that was becoming a bigger and bigger piece of the picture. So, on Day 1, about a week and a half ago, when we went live, the chatbot was set up to either answer questions on the Census or COVID-19.”

About 70 percent of the questions are coronavirus related, while the other 30 percent tend to skew toward the Census, said Jensen.

The chatbot is set up to handle a number of social service questions, which span from unemployment benefits to food banks or the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.

Meanwhile, the state of Colorado has fashioned its myColorado app to handle COVID-19 information for residents. The app, launched late last year, was a collaborative effort among Department of Revenue (DOR), the Office of Information Technology (OIT), the Colorado Department of Public Safety and Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). One of the app’s key features is its “Colorado Digital ID,” which enables residents to create a digital version of their Colorado driver's license. 

“OIT led the efforts and continues to manage the road map for myColorado,” said Brandi Simmons, a spokesperson for OIT, adding more than 40,000 Coloradans have downloaded the app.

The app now includes job information, 17 additional services provided by the Division of Motor Vehicles, and also functions as a platform for residents to receive COVID-19 alerts and other information.

“The new features in the myColorado mobile app support the practice of social distancing by providing easy access to state services from a smartphone, which is critical as we get through the COVID-19 pandemic together,” said state CIO and Executive Director of the Governor's Office of Information Technology Theresa Szczurek, in a statement.

Boston recently released a COVID-19 dashboard on the city’s website, showing information such as the number of cases in not only Boston, but also Massachusetts and the United States.

Back in Knoxville, the city’s chatbot has already conducted more than 300 “conversations,” said Jensen.

“And not one complaint,” Jensen points out, who can monitor the progress of the bot on his phone or other devices. Since he’s the administrator for the chatbot, Jensen sometimes butts into a conversation that is likely to stump the chatbot’s automated system, providing a more nuanced answer that sometimes only an actual human resident and employee of the city is particularly equipped to offer.

“Early on, before we shut everything down, people wanted to know if parks were open. Well, the bot wasn’t really set up to answer that question. But since I was able to see it, I could take over that conversation, and then go ahead and answer it for them, and then get back out of the conversation, and let the bot do what it was set up to do. So it’s incredibly flexible.”

Chatbots, apps and similar platforms are clear communication enhancements, as cities aim to meet residents “where they are,” say officials. The chatbot in Knoxville, created by Quiq, can operate via SMS text, as well as social media platforms like Facebook Messenger and Twitter.

“Whatever avenue we want to use, to make available to our public, we can give them access to that,” said Jensen. 

“We’re very big here in Knoxville on what we refer to as ‘digital diversity’ and ‘digital inclusion,’ he added. “Having access to digital information, regarding local government in particular, through any and all venues to where we can reach people from where they’re at.”

The coronavirus crisis is only heightening the need for local governments to engage with residents, providing good, solid information they can trust, said Mike Myer, CEO and founder of Quiq.

“Public service providers are serving their constituents who want information at their fingertips, but are not necessarily willing to do an exhaustive search on a website to find it,” said Myer, in an email. “Chatbot technology gives people the ability to find the most pressing information easily, while still being able to access agents when the situation warrants.”

Keeping in mind that not everyone is online or has access to a smartphone, Knoxville officials are actively reaching out to other populations like elderly or homeless people to get a better sense of how to connect more seamlessly with these groups.

"There’s more to follow on that,” said Jensen. “But it’s a good question. And we are addressing it, one piece at a time.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.