Why Los Angeles made an Alexa skill, and what the city wants to do with it

Author

Khari Johnson

January 17, 2017

Los Angeles appears to be one of the first major cities in the United States with its own Alexa skill. Cortana skills and Google Assistant actions may be on the way in the future.

The City of Los Angeles Alexa skill launched last month with basic information about holiday events around L.A. Next month, it will grow to include information about reading times at local libraries and information about city council members and upcoming council sessions.

The Alexa skill was made by the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency, and its creators want to explore ways a virtual assistant can prompt participation in democratic processes and deliver government services.

“We have a tremendous knowledge base online and on the web and we’re in the process of coding those aspects so that you can access it through a virtual assistant,” Los Angeles Information Technology Agency CIO Ted Ross told VentureBeat in a phone interview.

At a date to be announced, the city plans to bring 311, a service to connect people with essential city services, to Alexa.

In Los Angeles, you can call 311 to schedule a building inspection, request graffiti removal, locate non-emergency police services, or report the location of a dangerous beehive. Currently, 311 services are available by phone, as well as through a website and app.

The Los Angeles ITA also wants to use voice-enabled assistants like Alexa to collect information from city residents and to allow them to complete city services like the kind found on 311. The staff is in the process of shortlisting the kinds of skills that can be completed quickly and that make sense when using voice as a user interface.

“Some things are very detail-oriented. We don’t want to have any eight-minute conversation with Alexa to make a request for something.”

In addition to using Alexa to deliver city services, ITA workers may consider the incorporation of datasets and provide another avenue for democratic processes, Ross said.

The Los Angeles open data portal provides access to more than 500 sets of raw data related to things like public safety, the economy, and government spending.

“Sometimes that data can be quite large, and we got a lot of data hawks that want large tabular data to work with. But from the perspective of the average citizen, they may want to know basic questions regarding our budget or where taxes go or how spending is done,” Ross said.

In the future, Ross believes an Alexa skill can bring people into democratic processes who would not have otherwise been exposed to city services and connect them with the services they need or resources they need to improve their community or help their neighbors.

“There’s just a really long list of benefits when it comes to civic engagement. And digital is the platform in 2017, and specifically…virtual assistants are becoming a platform,” he said.

Indeed, more and more governments are using virtual assistants or bots to provide services.

Last week, for example, National Health Service in the U.K. began to deliver services with a chatbot, and last summer, a London neighborhood began to offer services with Amelia, a virtual assistant made by IPSoft.

 

This article was written by Khari Johnson from VentureBeat and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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