Local governments are using smart speakers like Amazon's Alexa to answer basic questions about the city.
Local governments are training digital assistants Alexa to answer basic questions about the city. Elaine Thompson/AP

As smart speakers grow in popularity, cities see them as an easy way to connect people to services and information.

Want to know how your city is doing when it comes to filling those potholes, or with crime in general?

Just ask Alexa.

Cities from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to Raleigh are riding the smart speaker wave by making Amazon’s Alexa part of the government. That means residents can now ask these devices about their city without gritting their teeth through hold music.

Already, for 1 in 5 Americans, the first interaction of the morning may not always be with a human. It may instead be with Alexa, Siri, or another personal AI assistant that—in its best human-like speech—can give you the latest updates on weather and traffic. Come 2019, half of American households are expected to own a smart speaker. “The number of units that Amazon is selling is mind boggling,” said Nick O’Day, the chief data officer of Johns Creek, Georgia. “That was a signal to us that the public is embracing these things a lot faster than new smartphones.”

Earlier this April, Johns Creek launched an Alexa “skill” (like apps, but for your smart speaker) that mines the city’s open data portal to turn its vast trove of zoning, crime, and public works data into easy-to-understand nuggets of information. Residents can activate the skill and ask Alexa directly for information on, say, the zoning of a particular property or the number of arrests in a certain neighborhood.

It’s as simple as saying, “Alexa, ask the city of Johns Creek for the current zoning of the property at 10700 Abbotts Bridge Road.” Or, “Alexa, ask the city of Johns Creek when the next city council meeting is scheduled.” The idea, O’Day says, is to make the city’s data accessible to everyone, not just those who know how to read it.

“Having a tool like Alexa makes it a lot easier to get a very small, digestible bite of data,” he said. “And if you’re still hungry after you get your answer, then you can go back to the open data portal or the city’s website and dig a little deeper.”

Other cities have found ways to use Alexa. In New York City, residents can enable Alexa to check their water usage and pay their bills. Albuquerque recently launched a skill to field 3-1-1 calls in hopes of reducing the 60,000 to 90,000 monthly calls by 15 percent. In Los Angeles, the L.A. City skill provides information about local events, as well as recent earthquakes.

L.A. Chief Information Officer Ted Ross says it’s part of the city’s effort to better communicate with residents during crises. “We are starting to prepare this ability onto Echo devices so that we can communicate what to do after the earthquake,” he said. “Whether it’s through Alexa, web, mobile or person-to-person communication, you kind of can’t communicate enough.”

Cities are also looking to experiment with Alexa’s competitors, like Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant. L.A., for example, also uses Cortana for its chatbot and has a “Talk To L.A. City” app for Google Home devices. But Alexa’s early domination in the digital assistant category, along with Amazon’s push to make her omnipresent, make her a popular choice among local governments.

Alexa still has a lot to learn, though. Among the small handful of reviews for government-backed skills are complaints that Alexa only understands questions if they’re phrased a certain way. Cities are constantly feeding it data about the questions that people ask, so Alexa could very well “get back to you.”

Both Ross and O’Day admit that user engagement with their Alexa skills have been lower than expected, but that it’s not too different from how residents react when cities push out new technology. Ross expects more users as the city continues to improve Alexa’s capability. For L.A., with millions of residents, this is, perhaps inevitably, “the next wave of engagement,” he says.

O’Day says Amazon Web Services analytics don’t report the number of engagements, but so far the number of questions Alexa has received is equivalent to saving the city staff an average of 10 hours each month. He anticipates that the numbers will climb as word spreads.

Indeed, reducing “administrative burdens” may be the most obvious and immediate beneficial way artificial intelligence can transform governments, according to a 2017 report by Hila Mehr, a former technology and democracy fellow at the Harvard Ash Center. Its potential to perform mundane tasks like answering simple questions could, in turn, free up time for the human staff to focus on boosting citizen satisfaction with their government.

She cites Ari Wallach, CEO of the tech consulting firm Synthesis Corp., who says AI will come in three waves. We’re already experiencing the first wave, in which AI can answer basic questions. In the second wave, AI will be more predictive and prompt to take action. And perhaps 10 to 15 years from now, AI predictive abilities will be more advanced, so much so that they won’t need to be prompted by a user.

If talking to a robot isn’t the norm now, it may soon very well be. L.A.’s former chief data officer and self-proclaimed “tech optimistic” Abhi Nemani notes in a Medium post that by subtly inserting government resources into your daily routine, AI may soon make talking to the government feel like, well, not talking to them at all. (Ross stresses the need to make Alexa “conversational.”)

But AI capability can go even further than just provide better service. Nemani writes that Alexa and her peers could someday do for all governmental data what Google did for transit data—essentially force local governments to clean up their data and develop a data standard across all cities.

Cities are already curating their data differently, in a more streamlined way, in order to take advantage of the new technology, Ross said. “For the city of L.A., we are building out our databases not just to handle Alexa, but to be able to handle Google Home, and Siri, and chat bots.”

Mehr urges caution in her report, though. As CityLab has reported, urban areas are testing grounds for automation, and city jobs aren’t immune to the threat. On one hand, she writes, careful implementation of AI can lead to jobs both directly and indirectly related to the new technology. But it can easily tempt a government with a limited budget to replace humans with automated services. She suggests implementing fair labor practices early on in anticipation of the arrival of AI.

With what O’Day says is already a lean staff for a city of some 84,000 people, he’s not too worried. “We’re a pretty small shop and we all wear multiple hats,” he said. “So it’s more about freeing people up from doing repetitive things so they can do things that are more deserving of their skills set.”

Ross, meanwhile, says the key is to give residents choices. He acknowledges that there are as many as five generations in the workforce, and some will undoubtedly prefer humans over robots. As with much new technology, privacy concerns and fear of digital surveillance will deter some people for venturing into to engaging with smart speakers. (Ross maintains that the city only collects anonymized data about questions asked, and that if the city were to find evidence of privacy breaches by the third-party companies, they’d consider eliminating the platform.) Similarly, with the digital divide, some lower-income families won’t have a smart speaker as an option to reach the government.

Still, at some point in the far future, he says the city will have to “leverage digital solutions more than human solutions.” But they’re not getting rid of the call centers anytime soon.

CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified Abhi Nemani as Los Angeles’s chief innovation officer. He was the city’s chief data officer.

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