alexa with map data

How Alexa mines open data

The Georgia and Utah state governments have created Alexa skills to make  information about government services more accessible. Now, local governments like Johns Creek, Ga., are getting in on the action.

The city of Johns Creek worked with Esri’s open source Sonar project to create an Alexa skill that has saved the city 10 hours a month answering phone calls since the skill launched in April.  (An Alexa 'skill' is an application that delivers tailored functionality over specialized information or processes -- ranging from interactive language lessons to voice-driven smart-home interfaces.)

Sonar is hosted in the Amazon Web Services cloud and allows cities to build Alexa skills using information found in Esri’s open data portal capabilities.

“We host all of our open data on Esri’s cloud platform since they have a framework for creating an open data site that is easy to use,” Nick O’Day, Johns Creek chief data officer, told GCN.  “We latched onto their Alexa skill project as a way to get into the chatbot world.”

Hosting the city’s open data platform through Esri enabled O’Day’s team to have over 200 different questions baked into the Alexa skill at launch.

Citizens can ask about zoning issues, calls from police and fire departments, city financial records and public works orders that are all found in the city’s open data portal. The Alexa skill is connected to the city’s RSS feeds and application program interfaces so residents can also ask Alexa about city council meeting and other events in addition to job postings.

“By making Sonar open source, we are providing an opportunity for other people to carry it to the next step for their communities and to meet specific needs,” Esri CTO Andrew Turner said. “We also see more developers working on our platform and able to build new technologies into it.

It took the city six months to develop the service -- from downloading the Sonar code to launching the Alexa skill. 

“Most of the development time was spent figuring out what we wanted the Alexa skill to handle and what was an appropriate verbal response versus other kinds of questions where you need to map and explain them,” Nick O’Day, Johns Creek chief data officer, told GCN.

Currently, the city is updating the Alexa skill to match the needs of Johns Creek residents.

“We are able to get analytics on what questions people are asking, the time of day and if questions are answered correctly,” O’Day said. “If there are questions that people are asking a lot, we are trying to tweak the answers to make them more concise, and we are improving Alexa by adding answers to new questions that people are asking.”

Johns Creek’s Alexa skill recently won the best practices award in Amazon’s City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge at the AWS Public Sector Summit. O’Day said his city will use the AWS promotional credits to conduct a hackathon to generate new ideas on how to integrate the Alexa skill with more open data.

Turner said he believes that the Alexa skill shows the next step in his company's  evolution to help local governments provide better access to information by giving them the foundational code they can experiment with to meet their specific needs.

“Governments like Johns Creek are now able to provide their citizens services that are accessible through social media platforms and voice interfaces that they can ask questions,” Turner said.  “By making Sonar an open source tool, we allow developers and the community to provide innovative ideas on top of it to explore new ways to ask questions about the city and explore new conversations to have with the data.”

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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