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Chatbot project points to potential in waste and recycling


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Waste and recycling provides the most promising service for the development of chatbots and AI in local government, according to the findings of a recent discovery project.

Oxford City Council has run the project with digital product agency Torchbox as part of the Local Digital Fund programme coordinated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Its report on the effort identifies waste and recycling as the most appropriate service of four for the development of a prototype chatbot under an alpha project. For all of the others – planning, revenues and benefits, and highways – there are issues that raise large questions about how much the technology could contribute.

The discovery project involved a series of user research exercises, stakeholder interviews, collections of data and ‘show and tells’ among a group of local authorities with an interest in the project.

Positive factors

The report says that a handful of factors in waste and recycling contribute to it looking like the most appropriate service for chatbots: most users among the public are looking for information or making simple service requests; the process involves simple interactions; and AI could be used in providing proactive communications such as alerting people of changes in bin collection times.

In addition, the service accounts for a large proportion of calls to councils and there are relatively few reasons, which means it would be easier to train chatbots to provide effective responses.

This could do a lot to help achieve the prime aim of the project – to help reduce the number of calls that need to be handled by staff in council contact centres – and there is a lot of consistency in how councils deliver the service, which could make it easier to share the investment in a chatbot.

It prompts a recommendation to build a prototype that could be shared between councils.

Less attractive

For the other three services there are factors that make the prospect less attractive:

Planning involves a lot of complex and subjective interactions and exchanges that need a human intervention; but there could be some scope for the use of AI in proactively providing updates and notifications on applications or objections.

Revenues and benefits is a complex and emotional subject, with users often being distrustful when they approach a council, in which chatbots could create confusion.

Highways accounts for a smaller proportion of enquiries, but these are very fragmented in their nature and this would make it costly to train and maintain a chatbot to provide responses.

 The report also points to a series of best practice measures and urges councils to think carefully about “jumping in” to a chatbot or AI solution without properly exploring the user needs.

It also calls for them collaborate in developing solutions, as it can provide economic benefits. If every council builds its own chatbot it could create a fragmented ecosystem and an enormous duplication of effort.

Organisational challenge

In an accompanying blog on the project, Neil Lawrence of Oxford City Council, the project lead, says: “The primary challenge in developing a shared chatbot platform for local government is not a technical one, it is an organisational one.

“Councils must agree to co-operate and then collaborate in building an overall model for a research area that can adapt to the variety of ways of handling the chosen area, as well as adapt to the variety of terms used across England for that area.”

He adds that, while an open source version of a centralised platform chatbots is an attractive idea, it could be more expensive than utilising an existing cloud based proprietary platform.

Image from iStock, yes shev

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