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Georgia rolls out Alexa skill for government services

In 2015, Georgia began updating all state agency websites to comply with federal and World Wide Web Consortium standards for accessibility.  After the Digital Services Georgia team did user research, however, they realized that visually challenged individuals were using a variety of tools to navigate websites, including screen readers and conversational interfaces such as Amazon Echo.

On Oct. 12, Digital Services Georgia announced an Alexa skill, Ask GeorgiaGov, that  helps users find government information. It is  based on content from its popular topics page on 56 government services that cut across multiple jurisdictions. 

Ask GeorgiaGov queries  the website and extracts the appropriate results from the popular topics page.  The Alexa user is given a few topics to choose from, and the skill responds with more information from the website to comply the user’s requests.

“We focused on the popular topics based on user searches and used an intent-based architecture to focus on these specific services,” Nikhil Deshpande, Georgia’s chief digital officer, told GCN.  “We worked with 60 to 65 agencies to distill the needed information as opposed to pages and pages of information that used to be hosted on agency website.”

Deshpande worked with its website host Acquia Labs on a multichannel content strategy that identified the commonalities between web-based and conversational content through an evaluation of Georgia.gov.

“We learned that a traditional hub-and-spoke architecture where everything branches from a single homepage wasn’t going to work in a conversational setting,” Preston So, director of research and innovation at Acquia, said.  “We worked together to create more unidirectional or guided interaction flows where users are given a set of choices, and you don’t give them a huge amount of decision fatigue.”

To make the process less cumbersome for the Alexa user, Desphande’s team made the website content more suited to conversation by reducing the word count to under 300 words  and removing references to other sources of information.  They created a content-agnostic strategy and trained agencies on how to think about content for multiple channels.

“From a content perspective, our team can start focusing on the message -- instead of a webpage -- that can eventually be syndicated to multiple channels like a digital assistant or chatbot,” Deshpande said. “Our content strategy needs to be enhanced to consider all channels in the digital landscape instead of devices.”

Development of the Alexa skill also required a new form user testing to determine its success.  Since the use of digital assistant does not contain an interface, Deshpande and So asked users questions about their experiences after they used the skill.

“We are monitoring to see the success factors that enable people to get answers within a couple of attempts of conversations,” Deshpande said.  “There are some places where we see that they are taking a little longer, so we are looking at how to change those conversations by tweaking content or the code itself.”

Moving forward, Deshpande is interested in transferring the Alexa skill to other platforms such as Google Home. Another project involves partnering with a state agency to use Alexa to complete an entire transaction through the digital assistant.

Digital assistants and chatbots are being deployed in other states as well.  The Utah Department of Technology Services has also deployed Alexa skills and the North Carolina Innovation Center is using chatbots to divert calls from its help-desk phone line.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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