By Bettina Tratz-Ryan Gartner, Inc.

Vienna’s residents and tourists do not have to rely on the kindness of strangers or scroll through long lists of website links to find parking, restrooms or other critical information. They can simply use WienBot, the Austrian city’s chatbot. Available via Facebook Messenger, WienBot provides answers to an array of user questions and continuously learns from the interactions — even pre-empting questions as it captures the most frequently used terms.

WienBot is an example of how governments can use artificial intelligence (AI) to go digital, one of the biggest challenges for cities, states and nations worldwide. Advancements in AI and AI-powered chatbots will allow government CIOs to customize and improve the delivery of services for the citizens they serve.

Gartner predicts that 20 per cent of all citizens in developed nations will use AI assistants to help them with an array of operational tasks, and that by 2022, 30 per cent of customer experiences will be handled by conversational agents, up from just three per cent in 2017.

Natural-language processing is one of AI’s biggest success stories to date. Most people are already familiar with conversational platforms like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. This will make it easy for government CIOs to use similar conversational agents — or chatbots — to drive more citizen-centric services for their smart cities.

A bot to answer all questions

Organizations use chatbots for initial customer contact and support purposes. This concept can be adopted by government CIOs as AI-powered chatbots can contextualize and personalize government services, improve service delivery and augment municipal employees’ effectiveness.

Well-designed conversational platforms shift the burden of dealing with complexity from the users to the technology. Computers have to understand humans, not the other way around. 

Often, CIOs and their teams focus primarily on the interaction interface to capture as accurately as possible the citizen’s ‘intent’. But success is when the agent is also able to fulfill the citizens’ requests. CIOs should spend an equal amount of time on the back-end fulfillment of their agents as they do on front-end interaction.

Process the normal, detect the abnormal

AI excels in processing routine requests and detecting unusual behavior. Government CIOs should exploit these capabilities to simplify and streamline their services. CIOs should begin using AI and conversational chatbots as one way to communicate and disseminate information on anomalies or abnormalities while they deal with citizen or user requests. AI technology can detect patterns in claims that could signal fraud, as well as simple user errors.

Advanced analytics and data science, including machine learning algorithms, can cross-reference data and validate complex business or service processes. These outcomes, accessed by citizens via AI chatbots, are a key benefit in smart city services.

One example is so-called “lawyer bots,” which deal with frequent and routine bureaucratic tasks such as filing applications for childcare support or housing assistance. Lawyer bots guide applicants through the process, help prevent mistakes and assess the chance of success — saving time for both applicants and government employees.

Although AI can help drive these types of services, embedding AI in smart city solutions requires changes in city operations, IT platforms and data privacy policies. While an embedded and interoperable AI improves the range of applications, the complexity of information and data flows increases and raises new questions on algorithmic business flows. For example, if a technology provider develops an AI chatbot, who owns the intellectual property it generates?

CIOs should oversee the necessary IT operational changes to manage this complexity. They must not only align city operations and management platforms, but also optimize data and analytics governance, data orchestration and predictive analytics to realize the full value of conversational AI.

Bettina Tratz-Ryan is a research vice president at Gartner, Inc. focusing on city and smart ecosystems.