Sep 20, 2023 - Technology

A digital assistant will help immigrants in Amarillo, Texas

Illustration of a city hall facade with a giant cursor hovering over it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As cities and states invest in digital assistants to make their websites easier to use, the city of Amarillo, Texas, is hoping to set a new standard with a "digital human" that speaks dozens of languages and can help longtime residents and newcomers alike navigate City Hall.

Why it matters: While corporations have been pouring money into AI-enabled features, governments are playing catch-up, using pandemic relief money for new technology that improves public service.

Driving the news: The new "digital human" that Amarillo is building will use a female avatar, appearing on the city's website by early 2024.

  • It will answer queries and help people request government services.

What they're saying: "This will actually become our digital version of 311," Richard Gagnon, Amarillo's chief information officer, tells Axios. (The city's human-staffed 311 service isn't going away, he notes.)

  • Amarillo has the most refugees per capita of any Texas city, Gagnon says, and the "digital human" is meant to ensure that "all of our citizens will get equal service."
  • "I have a middle school speaking 62 languages and dialects," he says. "It's a big challenge."

How it works: Rather than hiring 62 interpreters, Amarillo is using technology to "integrate conversational AI into our websites" so that everyone can chat with the city online, Gagnon says.

  • "Not only can you ask simple questions, like 'When is the library open?' but it can also direct you, so you can say, 'Hey, I would like to book a spot in John Stiff Park.'"
  • "It'll take you to that website and walk you through how to do that," Gagnon says. "And oh, by the way, you can do that in 62 different languages."
  • "If you're just an average citizen wanting information, now you don't have to navigate [a website] — you can just ask it questions, like, 'What did the city spend on IT this year?'" he says. "It turns the whole interaction between resident and government into a conversation, which is really what we're after."
A demonstration video shows an example of a digital assistant similar to the one Amarillo is developing with an AI company called UneeQ, which specializes in digital humans.
A demonstration video shows an example of a digital assistant similar to the one Amarillo is developing with an AI company called UneeQ, which specializes in digital humans. Image: Courtesy of the City of Amarillo and Dell Technologies

What it is: A digital (or virtual) assistant is more robust than a typical chatbot — Oracle defines it as "an advanced type of chatbot that can handle more complex interactions in a conversational way."

  • Other examples include Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant.

Amarillo's forthcoming digital human is "basically a huge leapfrog from what you've seen in the past," says Alexander Keller, chief technology officer for services at Dell Technologies, the city's lead vendor.

  • "It's far more intelligent," Keller tells Axios. "It's intuitive. It knows what you mean. It's far more accurate — it feels like you're talking to a person."

Zoom out: State and local governments — flush with pandemic relief funds, but short of municipal workers — are eager to find ways to serve residents efficiently, and digital assistants look like a good answer.

  • They're also in keeping with "smart city" goals of using technology to deliver or augment citizen services.
  • "While agencies find significant cost savings from deploying digital assistants, officials emphasize the consistency of service as valuable to citizens," per StateTech magazine.

Zoom in: Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah were early adopters of chatbot technology — as were cities like Austin, Boston and Phoenix — but the digital assistant Amarillo is rolling out is a next-generation version that'll likely be more robust.

  • One city that may have beat Amarillo to the punch: Edmonton, Alberta, has a preliminary digital assistant that's being used for transit and waste services, with more features to come.
  • Los Angeles has also been at the forefront, integrating Alexa into its website (so you can say, "Hey, Alexa, ask L.A. City...") and introducing a virtual assistant for businesses, named Chip.

Between the lines: Amarillo is busy rolling out broadband to half the city, and has been doing a lot of outreach to immigrant communities — newcomers from Somalia and Vietnam, for example — to raise awareness and get permission to install new high-speed internet infrastructure.

  • "A digital human project means nothing if half your city can't use it," Gagnon says.

The bottom line: Gagnon estimates that 60%-80% of Amarillo residents will be satisfied to do business with the online helper.

  • But "some people are just not going to want to talk to a digital assistant — they're just not," he says.

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