Amazon’s Alexa is overqualified for ordering a pizza or a Lyft, so a few pioneering cities are putting her to work on more complex and publicly beneficial tasks.
Los Angeles was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first U.S. city to build its own Alexa skill. But a little more surprisingly, the second city to do so lies 1,000 miles away from Silicon Valley, in a Dallas suburb called University Park. Up next? The entire state of Georgia.
It’s been two years since Amazon opened up the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which allows developers to create their own voice-activated skills for the smart home assistant. Anyone, from experienced developers on down to dilettantes and tech-unsavvy grandmas, can use ASK to teach Alexa new tricks, like viewing their kid’s school lunch menu, controlling an internet-enabled sprinkler system or checking the local surf conditions before hitting the waves.
Integrating an entire city or state with Alexa is naturally a bit more complex than that, but it has some interesting potential, if you ask those pioneer cities who are laying the groundwork now – even if it’s not all the way there yet.
The City of Angels launched its Alexa skill during the 2016 holiday season and leveraged it to push out information about holiday events in the area. The Los Angeles Information Technology Agency, which developed the skill, soon taught Alexa to provide information about reading times at local libraries and information about City Council members and upcoming sessions.
Next, the agency plans to integrate the city’s 311 service, which connects people with essential city services such as scheduling a building inspection, reporting graffiti, locating non-emergency police services, or notifying the city of a dangerous beehive. Those services are currently available by phone, web portal and mobile app.
Venture Beat reported that the agency was in the process of shortlisting skills to develop based on which requests could be fulfilled most quickly and made sense to complete with a voice command. Some tasks may involve more detail than users could comfortably relay to Alexa. If it requires an 8-minute conversation, then the skill is increasing friction rather than reducing it.
Proponents believe that Alexa can help involve citizens in the democratic process, even ones who wouldn’t normally seek to participate in civic activities. Down the road, she could provide information about the city budget and where taxes go, or connect people with resources to improve their community and help their neighbors.
Alexa as a civic servant debuted in Texas on July 25, thanks to the efforts of the Dallas-based digital marketing agency and consultancy Imaginuity. The platform, called Imaginuity Community Connect, was designed to boost community engagement via AI capabilities.
Residents who have downloaded the skill can say, “Alexa, ask My University Park” to find out about community news and events, road closures and local emergencies. Alexa can tell users the address and hours of City Hall, the library, the Peek Service Center, or the Holmes Aquatic Center, check the traffic, read to them from the local newspaper, the Arbor, or answer questions about trash collection.
“One of the City Council’s current initiatives is focused on getting more residents engaged through new and convenient pathways, so this partnership is perfectly timed,” said Steve Mace, University Park’s community information officer.
State Of Georgia
Soon, Georgians will be able to access similar information by saying, “Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov.” GeorgiaGov Interactive and Acquia Labs collaborated on the integration of the Georgia.gov Drupal website with the Amazon Echo voice assistant. By summer’s end, residents will be able to register to vote, pay state taxes or acquire a fishing license by asking Alexa, according to Acquia Labs.
An informational session on Oct. 17 will feature seven speakers and shed light on the who, what, why and how of the technology. Importantly, the state views the integration as not just a way to make people’s lives easier, but to better serve residents using assistive technologies.
Why Isn’t Everybody Doing It?
Creating a skill that encompasses the functions of an entire city or state is a little more complicated than building one to boss around your smart vacuum cleaner. On top of that, with voice technology still being so new, a lot of privacy questions remain. Exactly which data is being collected about consumers, and what is being done with it?
Ted Ross, general manager of the L.A. information and technology agency, said the city doesn’t receive any personal data about citizens via the Alexa skill, though it does collect the same general statistics that it collects from its website.