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GDS works on giving voice assistants better access to GOV.UK

24/08/18

Mark Say Managing Editor

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is aiming to make it easier for voice assistants to search GOV.UK for information.

Echo device on table

A blogpost on the work programme by GOV.UK product manager Sam Dub and head of graphic design Mark Hurrell says that, while some voice platforms can already draw on the central government website for speakable answers, this could be improved by using structured data to give search engines extra context to help make sense of the pages.

It says the approach to this needs to be cross-platform, cross-government, consistent and scalable, and that it is drawing on the schema.org structured data standard to make it possible.

The GDS team has already taken some steps in using the schema.org standard to implement schemas for news and guidance pages, and a ‘How to’ schema for step-by-step journeys.

It is also talking with providers of the major knowledge engines – which combine with the voice platforms to provide answers to questions – on the easiest standards based way for them to use data published on GOV.UK through an API. While there is already an API for content on GOV.UK, an experiment has begun with a new one to provide a limited set of highly structured content.

Obstacles

But Dub and Hurrell indicate that there are significant obstacles in the way of developing voice services for more complex online processes. These include the need to verify identity, problems in inputting personal data and the fact that many voice services hold records of conversations, which undermines data privacy.

“These are significant blockers for many government transactions,” they say. “But we’ll continue to keep a close eye on the voice landscape, and hopefully as the technology improves we'll start to see some new features and cross-platform standards in these areas.”

The effort reflects the trend towards the use of smart speakers, with research firm Ipsos MORI having estimated in March that 8% of adults in the UK own one. In addition, Google reported in 2016 that 20% of searches on Android devices were made by voice – a figure that has likely increased since then.

The GDS Innovation Survey, published earlier this week, included the finding that many local authorities, agencies and government departments are already exploring how to they can use voice to deliver information and services.

“For GOV.UK, working on voice is an opportunity to meet the rising expectations of users and make government more accessible,” the blogpost says. “As government we need to approach voice services in a consistent way.”

Image by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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