Can Chatbots Connect You to City Government?

Dec 8, 2017

Bratton Riley has a true appreciation of city workers, whether they're picking up our trash or keeping us safe.  The 44 year-old has had a bird's eye view as the son of former Charleston City Mayor Joe Riley.  But he knows not everyone shares that appreciation.  Dealing with government can be difficult.  So he's created a chatbot called Citibot  in hopes of making it more accessible.

"A chatbot is a glorified term form something like Siri or Elexa where you have a human technology conversation taking place either through text or voice," said Riley.  He explains he got the idea in the spring of 2016 when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he would open  facebook messenger  to chatbots, calling it the future of customer service.

So what if chatbots could do what humans some times can not, get quick answers from local government?  That was his thought.  "It's real time, real people and artificial intelligence to make city government more efficient," said Riley.

North Charleston uses chatbot for customer service
Credit Victoria Hansen / SC Public Radio

The city of North Charleston is his first customer. Together they picked a number people can use to  send a social media message or text.  There's no new app to download.  City officials then chose four of their most common problems reported;  pot holes, traffic light outages, broken trash cans and missed trash cans.  City spokesperson Ryan Johnson says it's a simple as giving a name and address, problem solved.

"If you need something outside of those four things, then all you have to do is type the word message," said Johnson.  "It will send you the ability to report anything that the city is able to do for you."  Johnson says if need be, someone from city hall will then call you back.

24 year-old Tyler Hall tried it twice, to report outages at traffic lights.  "It asked me for the intersection and I told it the intersection," he said.  "Then it thanked me, told me it logged it a couple days later and then someone actually called and said the problem had been resolved."

By logging the problem,  Johnson says the city can keep better track of not only the problems reported but when and where they are resolved.  He says it also allows them to crowd source issues.  For example, if there are ten potholes in one part of the city, they can fix them all at once instead of responding to each pothole as it comes in, one at a time.

"Looking at the data, we've seen a great increase in the number of things people are reporting," said Johnson.  "Some might say isn't that extra work for city employees and for the  city and I would say yes, but that's the intent."  The key, Johnson says, is it's being done more efficiently.

Riley says that's the idea and perhaps it's just the beginning of what chatbots can do.  "We basically preprogram human interactions and then we use that to actually train the system to get better and better over time with human like interactions.

It's nothing like the days when his dad was mayor.  But the younger Riley says it's a goal he and  his father- a mayor of 40 years-  share, making government accessible to everyone.

"It's certainly something he worked hard for when he was mayor," said Riley.   "He was able to do it the good old fashioned way by being out and present, and knowing pretty much everyone in town by the time he retired."