City enlists SMS chatbots for service delivery

City enlists SMS chatbots for service delivery

In its effort to improve citizen engagement, the city of Mesa, Ariz., will soon offer interactive texting for some of its services. Residents will be able to send a message via SMS and get answers to about three dozen frequently asked questions, as well as check and pay utility bills.

Using Aspect’s CXP platform and natural language Interactive Text Response, Mesa is appealing to residents who are comfortable with text-based self service.

“We want to communicate with the public in ways that they’re used to communicating,” CIO Travis Cutright said. Because we understand that people’s time is important to them, we want to get so how “government out to the citizens when they want and how they want it.”

When the SMS chatbot goes live in June, city residents will be able to send text messages asking myriad questions, such as when government offices are open and how much they owe for certain services, for example. Aspect coded into its system the answers to 30 to 40 frequently asked questions.

“If it’s easy, we can just respond with a text message, but because SMS has restrictions of 160 characters, there’s only so much you can put into that,” said Tobias Goebel, director of emerging technologies at Aspect. When a longer response is necessary, the system sends users a short URL that takes them to a disposable optimized website that then redirects to the appropriate website, he said.

For instance, someone who wants to pay a bill using a new credit card  will be directed to the appropriate web portal. “For those use cases -- rich media display or secure information collection -- we pivot to the disposable app. You can secure that and can be linked to the correct website for the particular need,” Goebel said.

And because users aren’t sending personally identifiable information via SMS, there’s “nothing that would cause a security type of an issue,” Cutright said.

If the payment is successful, users will get notification of that payment and the amount,” he added.

To make this work, Aspect had to integrate with common carriers such as Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, which send and retrieve the messages. The company also had to work with the city’s banking systems via encrypted internet connections to be able to provide utility bills and payment information.

The system logs queries it receives so Aspect and the city can monitor the types of questions coming in and adjust the natural language engine, which learns which words go together and in what order to better understand all the ways someone might ask a question, Goebel said. If the chatbot can’t answer the question, it will offer to find someone who can and pass the user’s phone number along for a return call.

The texting effort should also reduce the workload of call center employees. Because people will be able to get the answers to many questions via the text service, Cutright expects call volumes to decrease.

“We can retool folks and have them working on other initiatives that are important to the city,” he said.

Looking past the June launch, Cutright said the city plans to expand the texting service. For example, he wants to include tax and licensing information and send alerts about changes in the trash pickup schedule because of holidays.

Mesa is not the first city to adopt this technology. In Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services  uses GovDelivery’s Interactive Texting platform to help caseworkers  stay in touch with former prisoners. Chicago used Textizen, now owned by GovDelivery, to get resident feedback on a public art plan, while Palo Alto, Calif., used it to garner comments on construction sites.

The health sector also offers promise for interactive text use. New Orleans’ Department of Public Health texted people who were eligible for free doctor’s appointments, and the Iowa Department of Public Health texts parents of newborns who recently failed hearing screenings with information on how and where to get retested.

At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use CDC Knowit, a text tool that lets users text their ZIP codes to the agency to get a response with a list of nearby HIV testing sites.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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