Lost track of bin day? Ask the bot

The City of Adelaide is using a chatbot to provide instant responses to queries from residents and hopefully improve its customer service.

Last year, Council built an experimental chatbot with startup Hopstay as part of its website redevelopment. The chatbot, which is essentially a sophisticated question and answer engine, uses Facebook Messenger and its interactions are managed by social media management platform Hootsuite.

 

Clayton Wehner, Manager of Marketing Strategy and Innovation for the City, says the chatbot allows people to pose standard customer service questions and receive responses to them.

“The ‘smart’ in it is its ability to interpret what the user’s asking,” he told Government News.

“There’s about 150 questions that it can respond to but about 35,000 different ways that those questions can be posed.”

The chatbot is “still quite embryonic” according to Mr Wehner, but  machine learning will lead to improvements over time.

“It has the ability to understand language and to learn from language, and as people input more queries, it learns,” he said.

“If it’s not delivering the right information, then it will go back and try and find the right information and be better over time.”

The technology has several functionalities built into it but one that Council is currently experimenting with is the bin date checker.

“The problem people have is ‘What day is my red bin picked up? What day is my green bin picked up? What day is my yellow bin picked up?’ Mr Wehner says.

“An algorithm has been put in place that allows people to ask when their bin is next being picked up. “

Residents can also report issues such as graffiti through the chatbot, and get recommendations for restaurants and find out what’s happening in their city.

Information access revolution

This technology is a response to the changing way in which people access information, Mr Wehner says.

“In the past, they’d walk into the office here and they’d talk to the person over the desk or they’d call.  Now people are more intent to get that information quickly without having to have any human contact. I think we need to provide for that.”

Mr Wehner admits Council faced some challenges implementing the technology because staff were worried about robots taking away their jobs. But he says the technology is about freeing empoyees up for more meaningful tasks.

“It’s really about trying to convince people that it’s not about their jobs being at stake,” he told Government News. “It’s about making the stuff that can be automated taken away from them so they can refocus their efforts on more meaningful work.”

Concern about loss of ‘human touch’

The uptake of the chatbot technology has been slow in Australia, says Hootsuite APAC Managing Director Heather Cook, who admits there has to be a balance between leveraging the technology and getting the customer experience right.

“If there were more people and companies out there doing the things that … City of Adelaide are doing, then it would help the adoption and the trust, and people (will) see the value and the efficiencies that they get out of it,” she told Government News.

“One, it’s being bold and brave and trying new things. And two, it’s listening. Not everyone is doing that,” she said.

Mr Wehner also acknowledges there are there are limitations to the technology, especially when it comes to those who prefer human interaction and people who have limited access to or experience with technology, such as the elderly.

“There will always be a segment of society that wants to have the human touch, so there’s still a requirement from us to maintain our more traditional contact mechanisms,” Mr Wehner says.

“Quite simply, a lot of them are not able or willing to use technology like chatbots, so we’ll always need to service those people through other mechanisms.”

Meanwhile, the City is currently experimenting with voice activation, and will shortly have its bin date checker available through Google Assistant.

“We’ve got a long list of things that we want to stick into the chatbot,” Mr Wehner said.

“A lot of the services that are available through our website lend themselves to being ‘chatbotised’.”

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