This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Emerging Technology of 2019: Meet Your New Digital Coworkers.” Download the full guide here.
Want to know the word of the day? How about the standings in the NBA playoff race, or the 33rd president of the United States?
Just go home and ask “Alexa.” Amazon’s cloud-based voice response system has become famous for technological integration within homes, but many people don’t think of these same technologies when it comes to the government.
Mississippi’s IT department did.
“We really want to make it as easy as we can for citizens to interact with us, and we want to continually look for ways to do that,” said Renee Murray, Team Leader for the Program and Contract Management Team at the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services. “So, we see this as the first step in a much larger initiative.”
Mississippi’s Alexa program – titled “Ask Mississippi” – launched in 2016 but since has grown to Google Home applications as well.
Only a few states have implemented voice-response technology so far. Mississippi was the second state to launch an Alexa skill, with Utah being the first.
Ask Mississippi has won several awards, including the Emerging and Innovative Technologies Award from the National Association of State CIOs.
Users can ask an Amazon or Google device for a fun fact, but the state built Ask Mississippi to be far more than a responsive game of Trivial Pursuit. The skill links to Mississippi’s integrative MyMississippi platform, which contains user-specific data, such as driver’s licenses, hunting licenses and weather alerts. “If I want to set a reminder for myself when my driver’s license expires, then that’s more helpful to me,” Murray said. “This allows me to get the reminders that I need when I want to get them.”
Ask Mississippi has answered more than 5,000 questions so far, and there are 1,500 unique utterances – or scenarios – built into the system. The utterances are flexible and can respond to different word arrangements, meaning that questions phrased differently but asking for a singular answer will elicit the same response. The skill receives 12 to 15 questions a day, said Dana Wilson, General Manager and Subsidiary President of Mississippi Interactive – the state’s e-government partner.
The technology was built on the cloud, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the wide-reaching tools that the state had available. Cloud-based web tools, offering serverless computing and voice recognition and response, allowed for multiple interfaces to the Ask Mississippi technology. All the AI tools are built for the cloud.
As part of a broader citizen accessibility campaign, Mississippi became the first state to launch an official state chatbot, called Missi, and in 2017, debuted a cloud-based virtual 360-degree tour of the state capitol, with fun facts and frequently asked questions embedded into the program as part of the AI.
Even the utterances that might be more lighthearted – such as “Alexa, tell me a fun fact about Mississippi” – still fulfill a larger purpose. States often operate from strange proximity to their citizens. While local governments have next-door effects and impacts to show their citizens and national government has sweeping powers, state governments are more ambiguous in the minds of citizens, who may wonder what everyday services result from state influence.
Cloud-based AI is one way that states can directly communicate their role and reach citizens.
“People are going to be more interested in using something that is meant just for them,” Murray said.
Mississippi plans to expand and improve on the technology. Ask Mississippi is Agile and routinely updated by state officials. Wilson said the updates have refined the service and made it smoother over time.
Additionally, the state hopes to tap into customer experience and streamline processes for citizens and employees alike. Today, Ask Mississippi can save citizens a 15-minute phone call or trip to a department or library by answering direct and specific questions. The skill cannot yet process payments or requests.
That will change, if everything goes according to plan. The state has been actively researching how Alexa can answer “When does my license expire?” with the date and a follow-up: “Would you like me to renew it for you?”
The Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is already looking into an automatic renewal plan that would directly integrate with whatever payment method is on file.