The City of Markham says it’s the first government body in Canada to leverage one of IBM’s unique AI solutions after it rolled out a new virtual agent with the technology giant today to help citizens gain access to the latest information about COVID-19.

The new service uses IBM Watson Assistant for Citizens, a virtual agent driven by AI and machine learning. With pools of information requests from citizens, wait times in many areas to receive answers can exceed two hours. The new solution will the municipality to deliver reliable, consistent and accurate information conveniently to residents via online text chat and voice calls.

The City of Markham started working with the IBM team on March 31, 2020, soft-launched the online virtual agent on April 19, and launched the telephone virtual agent today, on April 29, according to Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti.

“Without any promotion, the online virtual agent has already served over a thousand customers,” Scarpitti told IT World Canada. “We’re very thrilled to be the first municipality in all of Canada, to be using the Watson Assistant for Citizens. It’s a technology that can help organizations with any issue, but I think in a time when people want accurate, reliable and timely information, this is a wonderful service to have. It is part of our ongoing motivation to utilize technology that provides better service.”

This solution brings together Watson Assistant, Natural Language Processing capabilities from IBM Research, and enterprise AI search capabilities from IBM Watson Discovery, to understand and respond to common questions about COVID-19. IBM is offering this technology to governments, healthcare and academic institutions via the IBM public cloud, free of charge for at least 90 days, along with access to IBM experts who will help organizations set up the virtual agent.

“Watson Assistant for Citizens is built specifically to help all levels of government, academic institutions and healthcare. It is a cognitive and AI engine that IBM has built on the back of its Watson capabilities and runs in the public cloud,” Frank Attaie, vice-president of cloud at IBM Canada, told the publication, adding Markham is a hotbed for technology and talent. “The company has two public cloud data centres in Canada with another one being built in the background, out of which one is in Markham.”

Scarpitti said Markham is comfortable leading the way with these types of projects.

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“Innovation is part of our DNA as a community, and as a city, we love technology and adopt technology that can reduce costs for our customers and citizens, and provide great value of service,” he said.

The AI components in the Watson Assistant for Citizens can be adapted and expanded to specific customer needs and contexts. The pre-build content has been adapted to the City of Markham with information collected from the City of Markham website and public health authorities including the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ontario Ministry of Health and York Region Public Health.

Using this information, Watson Assistant for Citizens automates responses to frequently asked questions about COVID-19 that come in via phone call or text, such as “What are COVID-19 symptoms?”, “Where can I get tested for COVID-19 in Markham?”, “How do I protect myself from COVID-19?”, “Are parks and trails closed?”, “What City services are available?”, “Will my garbage be picked up as usual?” and more.

This information will continue to evolve and new information is fed to the virtual assistant on a regular basis so that it is always up-to-date. No personal user information is collected during the user experience, according to Attaie.

The online virtual agent can be accessed via the City of Markham website, and the telephone virtual agent can be accessed by calling 1.833.926.0929. Markham’s contact centre continues to respond to inquiries about municipal services and programs.