As cities and states invest in digital assistants to make their websites easier to use, the city of Amarillo, Texas, is hoping to set a new standard with a “digital human” that speaks dozens of languages and can help longtime residents and newcomers alike navigate City Hall.
Why it matters: While corporations have been pouring money into AI-enabled features, governments are playing catch-up, using pandemic relief money for new technology that improves public service.
Driving the news: The new “digital human” that Amarillo is building will use a female avatar, appearing on the city’s website by early 2024.
It will answer queries and help people request government services. (See a demo.)
What they’re saying: “This will actually become our digital version of 311,” Richard Gagnon, Amarillo’s chief information officer, tells Axios. (The city’s human-staffed 311 service isn’t going away, he notes.)
Amarillo has the most refugees per capita of any Texas city, Gagnon says, and the “digital human” is meant to ensure that “all of our citizens will get equal service.”
“I have a middle school speaking 62 languages and dialects,” he says. “It’s a big challenge.”
How it works: Rather than hiring 62 interpreters, Amarillo is using technology to “integrate conversational AI into our websites” so that everyone can chat with the city online, Gagnon says.
“Not only can you ask simple questions, like ‘When is the library open?’ but it can also direct you, so you can say, ‘Hey, I would like to book a spot in John Stiff Park.'”
“It’ll take you to that website and walk you through how to do that,” Gagnon says. “And oh, by the way, you can do that in 62 different languages.”
“If you’re just an average citizen wanting information, now you don’t have to navigate [a website] — you can just ask it questions, like, ‘What did the city spend on IT this year?'” he says. “It turns the whole interaction between resident and government into a conversation, which is really what we’re after.”
What it is: A digital (or virtual) assistant is more robust than a typical chatbot — Oracle defines it as “an advanced type of chatbot that can handle more complex interactions in a conversational way.”
Other examples include Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant.
Amarillo’s forthcoming digital human is “basically a huge leapfrog from what you’ve seen in the past,” says Alexander Keller, chief technology officer for services at Dell Technologies, the city’s lead vendor.
“It’s far more intelligent,” Keller tells Axios. “It’s intuitive. It knows what you mean. It’s far more accurate — it feels like you’re talking to a person.”
Zoom out: State and local governments — flush with pandemic relief funds, but short of municipal workers — are eager to find ways to serve residents efficiently, and digital assistants look like a good answer.
They’re also in keeping with “smart city” goals of using technology to deliver or augment citizen services.
“While agencies find significant cost savings from deploying digital assistants, officials emphasize the consistency of service as valuable to citizens,” per StateTech magazine.
Zoom in: Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah were early adopters of chatbot technology — as were cities like Austin, Boston and Phoenix — but the digital assistant Amarillo is rolling out is a next-generation version that’ll likely be more robust.
One city that may have beat Amarillo to the punch: Edmonton, Alberta, has a preliminary digital assistant that’s being used for transit and waste services, with more features to come.
Los Angeles has also been at the forefront, integrating Alexa into its website (so you can say, “Hey, Alexa, ask L.A. City…”) and introducing a virtual assistant for businesses, named Chip.
Between the lines: Amarillo is busy rolling out broadband to half the city, and has been doing a lot of outreach to immigrant communities — newcomers from Somalia and Vietnam, for example — to raise awareness and get permission to install new high-speed internet infrastructure.
“A digital human project means nothing if half your city can’t use it,” Gagnon says.
The bottom line: Gagnon estimates that 60%-80% of Amarillo residents will be satisfied to do business with the online helper.
But “some people are just not going to want to talk to a digital assistant — they’re just not,” he says.