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The 411 on 311 Systems: Bots Are a Smart Bet for City Information

Tony Scherba
March 7, 2018

When my wife and I decided to get married, little did we know that one of the best days of our lives would come with the baggage of a bureaucratic headache.

A close friend conducted the ceremony outside of San Francisco's city limits. But to make it official with the city, we had some work to do. After scrolling through some blog posts, we paid a visit to San Francisco's city hall for our marriage license. Then we had to go back to get our friend deputized. Then we had to go back a third time to file all the paperwork. "Unnecessarily complex and annoying" were the words my wife used to describe the experience.

It's not just us, either. I stood in for some friends’ "official" wedding two weeks after their honeymoon. Because they weren't aware of an obscure requirement, they didn't file the right paperwork on time.

But thanks to technology, it doesn't have to be this way. Local governments like San Francisco are adopting chatbots to free up resources and streamline processes like procurement, licensing, registration, taxes, and more.

How Bots Could Improve City Life

Although the bot that we helped build for San Francisco is used by city officials, we think that chatbots have even greater potential to serve citizens. Consider how they could be used for the following functions:

1. Improve access to public health services.

San Francisco offers its residents services around pregnancy, disease prevention, mental health, and transgender health. But the truth is, these services don't matter unless people in need can access them. Right now, information about them is printed on brochures, hidden on confusing websites, or available through an understaffed call center. Why couldn't a chatbot, situated on the health department's website or even available via text message, provide patients with the information they need?

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) is experimenting with something similar. NHS teamed up with Babylon Health to offer patients a digital healthcare experience. Instead of the traditional 111 telephone hotline, Babylon is a digital app that uses decision tree technology to get patients the information they need via text message. When symptoms appear to warrant action, it can also connect them with doctors through video chat in minutes instead of weeks.

2. Streamline permitting and licensing.

The number of San Franciscans who know all the ins and outs of the city's construction ordinances could probably be counted on one hand. When people decide to start a new coffee shop — or, heck, even put a new sign on their building — they've got an informational maze to navigate. No doubt, the details are available somewhere online, but speaking as a business owner, I've never found them.

Chatbots are great for challenges like this because they can ask situationally specific questions. If someone wanted to know how to renew his or her driver's license, for example, the bot could first ask about the category of license (driving) then the person's desired action (renewal). In California alone, a DMV with chatbot helpers could save the state millions of dollars while satisfying the 73 percent of California drivers who want digital DMV services.

3. Answer tax questions.

When it came time for my company to file its business taxes, we got a confusing worksheet with lots of room for error. My bookkeeper ended up having to call the city so someone could walk us through how to pay our taxes. Because San Francisco is slowly phasing in a gross receipts tax in place of a payroll tax, the numbers change every year.

Across an entire city's worth of businesses and individual workers, just imagine how many thousands of work hours could be saved by a chatbot on the city collector's website. The bot wouldn't even have to submit the taxes: Half the reason business owners turn to tax services is to answer questions about deductions, credits, rules, and taxable income.

4. Simplify recycling and garbage collection.

Here in San Francisco, a mix of public and private companies handle day-to-day trash pickup. But when citizens have something large, unusual, or dangerous that they're trying to dispose of, they have to report it to the city's 311 service.

Contrast that process with how the Japanese city of Yokohama manages its waste. With just a quick message, residents can contact a chatbot about how to recycle certain materials and dispose of hazardous waste. Through chatbots, citizens can receive up-to-date information about delays or changes in pickup dates, and when a waste item warrants it, they can even submit photos to help city personnel plan ahead.

5. Make public works more efficient.

For residents of North Charleston, South Carolina, reporting potholes or broken water pipes is as simple as texting Citibot. There's no crawling city websites for a phone number, waiting on hold, and repeating the same information to three different city workers.

North Charleston's city personnel, meanwhile, can maximize their time by prioritizing projects that receive the most reports. They don't have to drive around to locate an issue, and they can arrive at the scene prepared with the submitted information.

For cities and citizens alike, it's hard to find a downside to chatbots. Citizens who don't speak English or work during business hours can contact city offices more easily than ever before, while city personnel who are accustomed to mundane, repetitive work can tackle more interesting human being-required tasks. What more reason could city leaders need to say "I do" to chatbots?

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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