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GSA launches virtual assistant pilot

Government services could be just a voice command away if agencies are able to launch their own virtual assistants.

The General Services Administration is looking at virtual assistants technology as a potential way to help agencies answer simple questions over the phone, through the internet or with devices like Amazon's Alexa.

According to Justin Herman, who leads the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology Program Office, 70 percent of callers to call centers are asking the same 10 questions. If those questions could be answered by a virtual assistant, Herman  told the audience at Oracle’s March 27 Code Day in Washington, D.C., operators are freed up to  answer the more technical and nuanced questions.

A similar situation happens on social media. After analyzing data from U.S. Digital Registry, which tracks every federal social media account and website and provides data on interactions,  GSA noticed that thousands of people were heading to government websites and social media channels looking for help.

“We started realizing we had so much data with so much potential, but what could we do?” he asked. “How could we make that actionable and digestible in new ways?”

Tools like chatbots that take advantage of machine learning and artificial intelligence are becoming common in consumer applications like Alexa, Facebook Messenger and Google Home. “The technology available from the private sector is allowing us to tackle this for the first time,” he said.

Right now, GSA is working on finding agency use cases for the technology, Herman said. The second step will be making sure the data is accessible for any proposed solution. And, finally, the solution would be built, which Herman says will be the easiest part. The entire pilot will last about a month.

Government offices handling customer service have had been eyeing virtual assistants to reduce the time and expense associated with employing staff to answer common questions.  

For example, the North Carolina Innovation Center, which tests citizen services technology for the state, wants to use chatbots to both provide basic IT help to employees and make it easier for citizens to reach the services they require.

Residents of Mesa, Ariz., meanwhile, will soon 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.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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