Starting the Conversation: Using Conversational Interfaces and AI to Improve Resident Interactions with Government
By Vidal Anguiano, Jr., CityBase intern, Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy
Today, most of us are accustomed to interacting with computers via dropdown menus, buttons, keyboards strokes, and mouse clicks; on our mobile devices: taps, scrolls, swipes, and presses. We now also live in a world where we can interact with our devices by speaking to them, via voice or text. With a simple set of commands, we can order a pizza to our specifications, dim our living room lights, or send a text message as we’re rushing out the door with our hands full. Thanks to voice-based interfaces enabled by Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Siri, and text-based “bots” on Facebook Messenger, we can engage in brief conversations with our devices and services to complete tasks. These interactions emulate the brief conversations we would otherwise have with the host at a pizza restaurant or with someone nearby who could give us a hand.
Using human language to interact with devices is possible through what are increasingly referred to as conversational interfaces. Conversational interfaces, at their most rudimentary level, are a user interface, just as any other point and click, drag and drop interface. Except now, instead of using predefined, static inputs, you can interact with technology using full and partial sentences.
Conversational Interfaces in the Private Sector
Business with a large base of customers — including travel search engines, grocers, and retailers, among other industries — have implemented conversational interfaces to simplify customer interactions and improve customer satisfaction. It is a welcome convenience that I can speak to my smart speaker to turn down my thermostat without getting off my couch, or set a cooking timer when my fingers are covered in cake batter. I can even order more paper towels from Amazon just by using my voice.
As a more complex example, placing a pizza order is made easier over a conversational interface compared to its over-the-phone alternative: I call the restaurant, wait on the phone for a minute (sometimes five), probably be put on hold, and then place my standard, three-topping pizza order. Assuming I am paying with a credit card, I still have to dictate my credit card number. Alternatively, a conversational interface allows me to place a complex pizza order quickly and pay automatically using a payment method linked to my account.
Even insurance companies have created conversational interfaces that can complete and file insurance claims for lost or stolen items. For a few of us early adopters, conversational interfaces have objectively made it easier to interact with our favorite brands, services, and products.
Conversational Interfaces in the Public Sector
Why limit this technology to brands and products? I imagine a day when conversational interfaces can make it easier to interact with my municipal government. City residents can access city services in a more timely, accessible, and equitable fashion. If I can order a pizza with ease, shouldn’t I also be able find out how to dispute a recent parking ticket I can hardly afford to pay? It’s easy to envision how local government conversational interfaces could make people’s lives easier, for things like requesting a street cleaning following a windy storm, or asking when the next bus or train is coming.
Forward-thinking agencies and municipalities are already enabling residents to request the services and information they need, by using their own words. Albuquerque has been recognized nationally for being the first municipality to enable residents to submit 311 requests via an Alexa Skill. Even at the federal level, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau (USCIS) has introduced Emma, a chat-based conversational interface that answers frequently asked questions and helps website visitors find answers to their immigration-related questions. These are just a few examples. The time has come for conversational interfaces to improve the experience for residents interacting with their government.
Government Processes That Are Ripe for Conversational Interfaces
For better or worse, artificial intelligence cannot yet handle every type of request or use case — nor can it take over the world, thankfully. However, there are many government use cases that are great for conversational interfaces.
The best use cases for conversational interfaces are those which are commonly requested, repeatable, and follow a relatively standard procedure. For instance, if your agency or municipality has a phone hotline, consider the most frequently asked questions. Just as the USCIS example above, you can make information about city services more accessible to residents by letting them ask for it in their own words. From there, you can respond with a simple answer, or direct them to the appropriate webpage for more information. In terms of complexity to implement, FAQ-type implementations are typically a great candidate for a quick-win conversational interface implementation, assuming your municipality knows which questions are most frequent.
Taking the above example a step further, what if, when a resident asked about how to apply for a business permit, they were given the option to have the application link sent to their email or mobile device? After all, filling out a long application is still better done on a screen than in a verbal conversation with a device. By delivering an application link to their mobile device or email address, you set your resident on the path toward completing the application. And all they had to do was ask for it, without needing to call an agency or direct their browser to your website and click around.
The greatest value of conversational interfaces is in their ability to facilitate transactions, whether it’s requesting a service, making a payment, or filing a complaint. As government becomes increasingly cloud-based, it becomes easier to make integrations with other government processes and services.
Charge to Action: Try Conversational Interfaces for Yourself and Dream Up the Possibilities for Government
I challenge you to continue learning more about conversational interfaces. If you use Facebook Messenger, start by chatting with one of more than 100,000 text-based bots. If you have a Google Home device or the Google Assistant app on your mobile device, explore the various available Actions. Finally, if you have an Alexa-enabled device, like an Amazon Echo or the Alexa mobile app, try out one of the many Alexa Skills.
As you come across conversational interfaces you find particularly useful, begin thinking about how your residents and constituents can use conversational interfaces to interact with their government. What can you envision your residents doing over a conversational interface?
Also published on Medium.