A main interacting with a robot in the street.
Chatbots examples from some of the biggest brands. PHOTO: Shutterstock

Chatbots aren’t just for businesses anymore, they’re also being utilized by city governments that are relying more and more technology for daily operations. Some employ the same bots as corporations, while others work with municipal-specific tools. Regardless, what smart cities do with these bots isn’t that different from private enterprise. If you think of the taxpayer as a customer — someone for who pays for certain services — chatbot usage looks relatively the same.

Here we look at three examples that exemplify the similarities.

Keeping Customers and Citizens Happy

In most towns, if you’re driving along the road and see a downed streetlight, you need to call it in — an action most people don’t follow through with. The result is a communication gap that often becomes a point of contention, causing taxpayers to complain about how streets are maintained. In July 2017, North Charleston, S.C., instituted a better system. The town started using Citibot, a chatbot connecting through text, Twitter and Facebook Messenger.

Just as private sector businesses use chatbots to process customer complaints, the people of North Charleston use Citibot to request repairs. Within six months of the deployment, town spokesperson Ryan Johnson said North Charleston repaired or replaced 114 percent more trash cans, fixed 195 percent more street and traffic lights, filled 76 percent more potholes, and repaired 114 percent more street signs. Citibot is also available in towns across Texas, New Jersey and Virginia.

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Making Teams More Efficient

Question and answer chatbots make businesses more efficient by saving staff the time it takes to search for information. Why slog through a knowledge management system when you can get the answer by bot?

The same principle applies to smart cities. Instead of citizens having to ask city employees for information, they can simply access it on their own, via chatbot. In Los Angeles this means prospective vendors save procurement staff time by directing bid questions to the department chatbot. In Kansas City, Miss., a Facebook Messenger-based bot processes open record requests — questions from the press and others for public information. Use cases like these not only make workers more efficient by cutting back on calls and emails, but when accompanied by a project management back-end, chatbots help governments organize data. In North Charleston, Johnson says this has made the public works department 112 percent more efficient.

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Helping Cities and Companies Facilitate “Purchase”

Early chatbots — especially those connecting via website — served as virtual assistants to guide e-commerce customers through purchase. Buying items online was something users were comfortable doing already, but the bot was there to answer final product questions.

In a government context, this same technology can help people pay their taxes. In December 2017, the town of Rajkot, India launched Floatbot as part of the country’s Smart City Mission initiative. Floatbot facilitates tax payment information and processes citizen requests for birth and death certificates, as well as neighborhood complaints. Within its first 46 days, Floatbot processed 1001 queries. More than 1.3 million people live in Rajkot.

And — while it’s a federal government department, not municipal — the Australian Taxation Office provides assistance by bot as well. Business Insider Australia reports that 80 percent of taxpayer inquiries are resolved at “first contact” via chatbot as opposed to the industry standard of 60-65 percent.