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More Cities Turn to Alexa to Field Resident Questions

Johns Creek, Ga., and Raleigh, N.C., are using the Alexa Skill platform as a way to make open data information available.

Wondering when you should put out the garbage cans for collection? Just ask Alexa.

Cities like Raleigh, N.C., and Johns Creek, Ga., are turning to the Internet-enabled voice assistants to field resident inquiries.

Technology officials in Johns Creek launched an Alexa “Skill” platform in April 2018, allowing residents to present questions related to zoning, police and fire department activity, current traffic conditions, available jobs within city government, as well as city events and meetings, according to Jeff Breslau, communications director for Johns Creek.

The virtual assistant is connected to the city’s DataHub portal, a clearinghouse for city-generated data like building permits, code compliance information and more.

“At a much higher level, the Alexa Skill fills a void in the city’s overall goal of increasing transparency and accessibility to information, as well to encourage more engagement with the public,” said Breslau.

In Raleigh, once residents have downloaded the City of Raleigh platform from the Alexa Skills app, they can ask eight questions such as “What is my police district?” or “What is my yard waste pick-up day?”

The move follows a trend many local and state governments are taking to become more digital, and in approaches that somewhat mirror the public’s embrace of consumer tech in the form of mobile devices or even “virtual assistants.”

Mississippi and Utah began exploring digital-assistant technology and creating skills for Alexa about two years ago. For example, Mississippi residents can ask Alexa when their driver's license expires, or for contact information for various state agencies.

Kansas state government launched its Agent Kay chatbot last month to help residents answer about 150 questions on topics such as unclaimed property searches, filing state income taxes or even obtaining a fishing license. The technology, created by Kansas Information Consortium LLC, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to guide residents to information.

“What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is the transformation of governments to be digital — make data publicly available,” said Andrew Turner, chief technology officer at Esri, which created the open data portal for Johns Creek.

“We’ve been working with governments for a number of years to digitize their data, namely around geography, because that’s a powerful way to combine data from the transportation department, from the police department … to understand, ‘where are my roads, where are there collisions, where are the safe routes to schools?’” said Turner.

The Johns Creek Alexa Skill platform was singled out at the recent Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C., taking an award in the Best Practices category in the AWS City on a Cloud challenge. The challenge encouraged municipalities, countries and other organizations serving under-served communities to look to cloud-based innovation.

Putting platforms like Alexa Skills to work is not just a fun bell and whistle for cities. It can lead to operational efficiencies.

“Overall, the Skill is currently saving the city about 10 hours a month, on average, in staff time,” said Breslau.

Linking Alexa to Johns Creek’s DataHub lowered one more barrier to information collected by the city, said Breslau, allowing for more engagement with the community — a central aim for cities across the country, regardless of size.

“The DataHub was a great start in this direction, and the Skill helps people casually use the information in the DataHub,” Breslau explained. “For more advanced users, or people with more demanding needs of the information, they will still be able to download and use the raw data.” 

Residents can expect local, county and state governments to continue to explore innovative approaches to connect with constituents and share data, said Turner.

“I think you’re going to see first, just basic information. That’s what we’re seeing a little bit of,” said Turner. “But next will be technology to support questions such as ‘what’s coming up? What just happened?’”

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.