The City of Markham is working with IBM Canada to launch the Elections Markham Virtual Assistant, powered by IBM Watson Assistant, just in time for the 2022 Markham Municipal Election. The AI virtual assistant is designed to simplify the voting process, making it easier for voters to get information about the upcoming municipal election.
The virtual assistant offers 24-hour support for voters looking for credible, timely election information, and has the ability to answer questions at any time or place. For example, if voters are wondering how to vote online, need help registering to vote, or want to find out more about candidates, the virtual assistant is able to help out.
The Elections Markham Virtual Assistant is more than a basic chatbot, according to Frank Attaie, general manager at IBM Canada Technology. It’s a conversational AI platform.
“A conversational AI platform…is the insertion of artificial intelligence, and what we call natural language processing to effectively have a conversation, and understand tone…In the case of the city of Markham, if you’re gonna go on to the website, and you want to have a conversation and get the information that you need, that’s really what the Watson virtual assistant can do,” he said.
Attaie said that for individuals who aren’t tech savvy and just need a couple of answers, this tool can be a better and faster alternative to a call centre.
“That’s the experience we deliver through virtual assistant. You don’t need to be an advanced PhD in technology to interact with technology,” he said.
Martha Pettit, deputy clerk at City of Markham, said the virtual assistant also accommodates those with work schedules outside of the typical nine to five, making it more accessible.
“If someone is checking out Elections Markham at three in the morning because they’ve just gotten off night shift, or they’re a new mom and their baby is awake..we’re able to capture them so it doesn’t need to be necessary during business hours, we’re able to respond, adapt, and answer some generic questions,” Pettit said.
IBM and the City of Markham have had a relationship since 1981, Sumon Acharjee, chief information officer at City of Markham said.
“Through this public and private partnership we’ve done work with Watson and other IBM technology. We have been leveraging Watson technology for various use cases here at the city, and expanding that use case to include Elections Markham,” Acharjee said. “Markham has been early pioneers in online voting. And I understand that we are one of the longest running online voting programs across the globe, and one of the early pioneers here in North America.”
The virtual assistant is also able to track requested data as people use it. This means if a question is being asked multiple times, the Elections Markham communications team is able to come together and provide more context for that specific question via social media and advertising.
The use of technology in voting is still a fairly new concept to many cities, but Pettit believes it is the way of the future.
“I think that in this day and age when people buy their car online and some people find their spouse online…this is here to stay. I think this is an accepted, different alternative form to coming in person. And I think that the pandemic may influence more voters to do it this way. This is a safe, convenient, totally accessible way to go. Those who did not order groceries online before started to do so and those who did not bank online started to do so,” she said.