This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide “State and Local Government: 8 Tech Challenges and Solutions.” In it, we provide an overview of case studies from governments across the country. Download the full guide here.
An interview with Dana Wilson, General Manager at Mississippi Interactive; Renee Murray, Procurement and Consulting Team Leader at Mississippi IT Department; and Drew Levanway, Director of Marketing and Operations at Mississippi Interactive
Challenge: Preparing for a Cyberattack
Earlier this year, if a Mississippi resident wanted to know how to obtain a hunting license, he or she had to either nd the application process on an information-heavy ms.gov website or call the service desk. And if that help call came after business hours? No dice.
To improve the customer experience, the state, along with its e-government partner Mississippi Interactive, decided to automate some of these search processes.
“We know that a lot of people work during the day, and they get home and they’re coming to ms.gov,” said Drew Levanway, Director of Marketing and Operations at Mississippi Interactive. “They’re searching for driver’s license information or tax information. And, if they do need to speak to somebody about that, well, it’s after hours.”
The team working on the project hoped to solve the problem with something comprehensive and novel but also recognizable to users. After all, if its functions weren’t intuitive, what was the point?
The team landed on “Missi,” a 24-hour chatbot application that can respond to user questions and direct them to the appropriate web pages.
“It can support about 1,000 iterations of questions right now, [and] I’d like to get that way, way up,” said Dana Wilson, Mississippi Interactive’s General Manager. “Our development team behind it has already been coming up with some ideas that they want to add, especially when it comes to the machine learning part of it, and actually being able to understand and know more questions.”
When you open the application in your browser, Missi introduces herself and asks what you need help with. Then a clickable list of example topics shows up on the screen. If you’re looking for more information about your tax account, for example, Missi can quickly point you to the taxpayer access point.
Aesthetically, the chatbot models a cellphone’s texting screen, with speech bubbles from Missi appearing on the left side and the user’s questions on the right. It’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever sent a text or instant message.
Since it launched in June, Missi has fielded some 2,000 questions that — were they phone calls — could have cost the state more than $35,000, Mississippi Interactive estimates. And because of Mississippi’s contract with that organization, the building, maintenance and hosting comes at no expense to the state.
“Which, from my point of view, is the best part of it,” said Renee Murray, the Procurement and Consulting Team Leader at Mississippi’s IT Department. “So while it is a vendor and government relationship, it’s a little bit different in that we’re very much partners. We both have to be successful in order for either of us to be successful.”
The chatbot hasn’t replaced employees but rather freed them up for other projects. “We haven’t fired anybody or gotten rid of anybody,” Wilson said, “but we’ve been able to allocate the resources in different ways.”
Missi took just six months to get up and running. And although the team agrees that the plan to incorporate all of ms.gov’s information from the start was probably overambitious, the members consider the end product successful and full of potential for future growth.