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Enfield joins Microsoft in CitizenBot project


Cooperation on artificial intelligence framework comes as council says deployment of Amelia service agent has been delayed

The London Borough of Enfield is working with Microsoft on a new application of artificial intelligence (AI) for local government, while acknowledging that its existing plan to deploy a cognitive customer service agent is behind its original schedule.

Representatives of the borough and the company outlined the state-of-play at UKAuthority’s Rise of the Bots conference, pointing to the potential to develop a system that could be widely used in local government.

Rocco Labellarte (pictured), Enfield’s assistant director of IT, said the system could be built once and deployed widely with configurations to match the needs of different councils.

“It means we’re building it once for the whole of local government, but then every part, because it’s a little different to every other part, can configure it in a certain way,” he said. “It’s building on the concept of a chatbot and building in other things such as natural language processing and image recognition.”

Tim Gregson, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for local and regional government, said the bot is being developed to work across a number of platforms including web browsers Skype, Facebook Messenger, text messaging and intelligent agents such as Cortana and Amazon Alexa.

He said the technology demands a new set of skills and understandings, and that it requires the inclusion of languages to manage the demands of local government processes, both customer-facing and for internal purposes. Another element is an effort to develop a “core building block” around citizen identity.

Amelia slowdown

Enfield’s earlier foray into artificial intelligence, the adoption of the Amelia virtual service agent, has meanwhile fallen behind schedule. As recently as the end of last year there were plans for it to be launched for selected services during the spring, but Labellarte said the deployment has proved extremely complex and forced a reassessment.

“Over the past year we’ve gone from being really cutting edge to the technology not being ready for primetime,” he said. “We’re 6-18 months away from real primetime in terms of this becoming industrial.”

Nadira Hussein, Enfield’s recently appointed head of ICT, said the focus is now on a proof of concept for the delivery of core processes such as council tax collection and planning.

“The big question for me is that it’s great to be deploying the technology and thinking in the AI space, but where does it fit within our spectrum of legacy infrastructure, things that we need to do and get right in ICT service delivery, and how we can make the business cases to invest,” she said.

“We have to make this meaningful and ensure the business understands why we want to invest in these technologies. Unless we can bridge that gap my personal view is that it’s seen as corporate technology and the business gives the feedback ‘What about our local requirements?’”

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