311 gets an assist from IBM

311 gets an assist from IBM's Watson

When citizens of Surrey in British Columbia, Canada, want to know when to put out their recycling or the location of the nearest dog park, they no longer have to search the Internet, browse city websites or call the city’s 311 center for the answer. With My Surrey –  a mobile, cognitive computing application powered by IBM Watson – the city can quickly answer to citizens’ frequently asked questions and reduce the cost of providing that service.

The My Surrey app was developed to address the 65 percent of 311 calls whose answers are already on the city websites but are too difficult for citizens to find.  Depending on the size of the city, these calls coming into customer service centers can cost the government between four and five dollars each.

When Surrey began its digital initiative over a year ago, Purple Forge, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of mobile community engagement solutions, jumped in to create the My Surrey app.

When a user asks My Surrey a question in natural language, the system will provide a response in text with possible links to additional information. “The whole idea is to get as concise of an answer as possible to the user,” said Brian Hurley, CEO and co-founder of Purple Forge. "And if they want to follow the links, they can."

Purple Forge wanted to use natural language queries to provide an enhanced customer experience, build an app that ensured multi-platform compatibility, and incorporate ways to receive continuous feedback on how to improve the program and reduce costs.

“We partnered specifically with IBM because we wanted the [software] to support their Watson solution, specifically their question and answer and the natural language processing capabilities,” said Hurley

Purple Forge and IBM Watson partnered to create the application at no cost to the city, with hopes for commercial deployment after the system's pilot launch.

Purple Forge was given an instance of Watson and cognitive application programming interfaces in order to train the system on particular subject matter domains. The team collected unstructured data from the city, ranging from documents, forms, text and website pages and links.

Once the information was properly formatted and loaded, Purple Forge processed the data in a way compatible with Watson.  The team went in and overlaid typical questions – including variations of the same question – so Watson would know enough to offer a correct response, regardless of how the inquiry was phrased. Making sure Watson can differentiate between parks for walking dogs and vehicle parking options was a factor, for example.

Purple Forge then implemented tools and services that allow it to track user interaction and the accuracy of Watson’s results, so that developers can better decide where to focus future improvement efforts.

For the pilot, Purple Forge loaded more than 3,000 documents on Watson regarding 16 city service domains, Hurley said, and taught it to respond to more than 10,000 questions a citizen might ask. Because Watson continuously learns over time, he added, the system's knowledge base will only grow stronger and wider with increased interactions. The system is even adaptable by season, meaning Watson will change the types of answers given as seasonal interests and available resources change.

Gathering and loading all the content took about eight weeks.

Originally, Watson started with a single API for its question and answer key, and has expanded to 25 unique services, according to Lauri Saft, vice president of IBM Watson Ecosystem. She said Watson now has learning dimensions capable of making decisions and trading off on decisions, and is adaptable to virtually any domain or knowledge set. “It can and will be used to work in various ways for cities,” Saft said.

The Surrey pilot was launched on July 22, and included web, mobile-application and smart watch interfaces. The information gathered will shed light on what services should be made available next, and provide customer service staff with insight into what kinds of questions are asked.

"This pilot is expected to enhance customer experience by increasing the accessibility of services, while providing city with insight into opportunities for improvement and reduction to service delivery costs." said Surrey Councilor Bruce Hayne.

Purple Forge also plans to incorporate more information on local events and other areas of public interest, and to add trigger functionalities that supplement Watson’s answers, such as a link to a list of events near an area where a user is asking for public parking.

Because Purple Forge has streamlined and normalized the process of creating Surrey’s Watson-powered app, Hurley said the timeline for similar projects will be determined mainly  by how long it takes to gather all the relevant data. The company is currently in talks with a range of government agencies and cities interested in the program, he said.

“We’re at the beginning of a huge transformation of how people interact with their cities,” Hurley said. “We’re changing the dynamics of the cost to support new types of interactions.”

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a Reporter/Producer for GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media, Ziadeh was a contributing journalist for USA Today Travel's Experience Food and Wine site. She's also held a communications assistant position with the University of Maryland Office of the Comptroller, and has reported for the American Journalism Review, Capitol File Magazine and DC Magazine.

Ziadeh is a graduate of the University of Maryland where her emphasis was multimedia journalism and French studies.

Click here for previous articles by Ms. Ziadeh or connect with her on Twitter: @aziadeh610.


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