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NOLA Launches AI-Powered, Textable Chatbot for 311 Services

The Big Easy isn’t the only city using chatbots to bridge equity gaps and provide more residents with the answers they seek on a 24/7 basis. Smarter chatbots are finding their places in public service.

A screenshot of New Orleans’ new Jazz chatbot chat window.
New Orleans’ new Jazz chatbot
New Orleans has launched an artificial intelligence-powered 311 chatbot to deliver faster answers to a wider range of residents. Dubbed “Jazz,” the bot is reachable via text and at the city website. It is expected to provide 24/7 services to a city that, by Census Bureau counts, numbered 390,000 in July 2019.

Cities struggled to keep up with a flood of 311 questions early last year after the pandemic upended daily life and drove more residents to seek support services and clarifications on the latest rules and health guidance.

“Our call volume at the height of the pandemic increased 250 percent at 311,” explained Tyrell Morris, New Orleans’ executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District, in a recent Government Technology interview. Monday-Friday operating hours also meant the start of the work week was crushed with calls.

Last year found a variety of cities paying attention to chatbots, although the majority had still not adopted them, according to 2020 Center for Digital Government Surveys,* which collected responses during and prior to the pandemic. Those surveys found 28 percent of city respondents had chatbots, with 13 percent of that segment intending to upgrade the technology within 12-18 months.

For many cities, the pandemic raised concerns over limits on how many calls staff could handle at a time and access barriers for residents who lacked Internet or computers for finding information from city websites. Now these tools are also drawing attention from municipalities that see them as part of longer-term goals to improve access, crisis or no crisis.

GIVING 311 A DIGITAL BOOST


Morris said chatbots can alleviate some equity issues, with New Orleans realizing that “certain pockets” of the city tend not to use 311 services. Individuals may lack time to wait on phone calls or lack devices capable of viewing websites but can now get real-time replies by texting the bot.

Such tools also often provide more efficient access to information, sparing residents the hunt through city webpages, noted Jerry Driessen, CTO and assistant CIO for San Jose, Calif., which uses a “resident assistant” chatbot. The hypothetical resident who needs her broken couch hauled away doesn’t particularly care to learn which department owns that service and which contractor serves her ZIP code — she just wants the trash gone, he told GT.

311 chatbots carry the promise of around-the-clock answers for constituents with basic questions, which can free up staff for more sensitive and complex concerns. Roughly 50 percent to 70 percent of residents’ communications to their local governments tend to simply be requests for information rather than for hands-on assistance, according to Bratton Riley, CEO and founder of Citibot, which serves several other jurisdictions in addition to New Orleans. Bots can easily take these on, enabling call centers to handle more requests, he said to GT.

Driessen said that the digital assistance also lets personnel then focus more on those who need an empathetic human on the other line — such as a resident who’s had water services shut off for nonpayment.

Cities prepare chatbots with data to allow them to interpret questions and supply relevant answers, and machine learning capabilities can help the systems improve over time.

Still, chatbots get stumped sometimes — and need to transfer residents to live agents. But encouraging constituents to start their engagement digitally could help because a single employee would be able to manage two or three live chats at once, amplifying their reach over what’s possible with one-on-one phone calls, said Russ Jensen, 311 and 211 director for Knoxville, Tenn. The city has a chatbot from Quiq and plans to start enabling the bot to redirect conversations to personnel as needed.

Benefits like these have been drawing cities to explore the tech, and each government puts its own spin on how it deploys the tools.

HOW NEW ORLEANS MADE ITS SELECTION


New Orleans has frequent festivals, meaning that any 311 chatbot had to serve not only its residents but also roughly 18 million visitors each year and support all the various permits involved in its events, Morris said. It must handle complexities, like situations in which a 311 call needs to be relayed to multiple departments.

“The Department of Parks and Parkways trims our city’s trees,” Morris said. “But if someone calls and says that tree roots are buckling the sidewalk, that’s an additional request that has to go to the Department of Public Works. We wanted to make sure the system was intuitive enough to generate two requests.”

Staff supplied Jazz’s knowledge base by connecting it to information from the 311 center’s customer relationship management (CRM) platform as well as city websites, Morris said. Integration with the existing CRM also meant that employees could continue to use the system they were used to, without new training.

SAN JOSE’S MULTILINGUAL SUPPORT


San Jose launched a resident assistant chatbot in July 2020 to help answer COVID-related questions and other queries. The service netted more than 46,000 uses within six months of deployment, San Jose webmaster and senior executive analyst Matt Opsal told GT. The city’s population numbered 1 million, according to July 2019 Census data.

San Jose tracks how often the bot matches residents’ questions with appropriate answers, marking an 82 percent success rate during that initial half-year period, Opsal said. A thumbs up/thumbs down feature also lets users indicate satisfaction with the results, and a recently launched “comments” option enables users to indicate if the bot brought them to the right general topic but not the specific details they wanted.

Recent efforts saw the city preparing its formerly English-only bot for Spanish and Vietnamese as well. Officials made a first pass at translating using free services to convert sets of questions and answers into the languages, then had bilingual staff review the results for accuracy, Opsal said.

“We had a team together that started with an initial list of questions and answers that ballooned up to 600 total,” Opsal said. “They prioritized the top questions and started running it through Google Translate to get a rough translation.”

Opsal said the city is likely to continue to have staff vet translations of very important information but wants the chatbot to also be able to craft new translations in real time as the need arises — something that it aims to do by integrating machine learning-powered automations.

One challenge has been that not all terms in city documents have easy, direct matches in other languages, and the translation team has been teaching the machine learning tools to understand “how government thinks” so it can provide better answers, Driessen said.

KNOXVILLE EVOLVES ITS BOT


Knoxville debuted a chatbot in March 2020 to answer Census questions, but the onset of the pandemic prompted it to expand the bot’s focus to handling the flood of questions pouring in about social support services and health guideline clarifications, Jensen told GT. The city has relied on close partnership with its health department to keep the data that’s fed into the bot updated every time COVID-19 guidelines change.

New needs are now coming to the forefront, and Jensen said the city is readying the bot to help provide answers about housing assistance resources and eviction rights information by the end of July.

“I have a new temporary summer employee here working on her master’s in information technology and we’re slowly going to morph the bot away from all things COVID-19,” Jensen said.

Currently, the tool matches user questions to pre-programmed answers, with Jensen jumping on to provide live chat if he happens to check the system and notices someone getting stuck. But near-term plans call for assigning dedicated volunteers or other parties to monitor and provide live chat support outside of traditional call center hours.

As a city of 187,000 — by July 2019 Census estimates — Knoxville has more limited resources than larger counterparts and had held off on activating the chatbot’s AI capabilities due to a lack of resources for programming the bot and monitoring its performance. Knoxville intends to ultimately activate these functions, however, to improve the bot’s ability to parse questions, Jensen said.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic. Government Technology is a sister site to Governing, both are divisions of e.Republic.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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