Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) has become the first council in the country to trial Amazon Alexa to provide services for citizens.
The experiments with the voice-controlled personal assistant emerged as part of a digital transformation strategy dubbed "Right Here Right Now" that began in 2010. The council saved £14 million between then and 2015, half of which is estimated to be down to the digital overhaul.
The core of the strategy is an online community for residents and businesses called My Account. It encompasses customer transactions, real-time data and automated processes in a system based on the Salesforce Community Cloud software. Through the partnership with Salesforce, AVDC approached Amazon to begin trials of Alexa.
The device can help residents request council services through the My Account platform without them needing to use a computer, by asking Alexa about rubbish collections, for example.
"In the background, it goes away and creates a record and puts it into Salesforce, and those who are administering Salesforce know Thomas has missed his bin, a bin has been ordered and it’s coming next Wednesday," explains AVDC CEO Andrew Grant.
The council is developing different skills with public sector digital services provider Arcus Global to use the system as a customer service desk, writing new scripts along the way for whatever residents may request.
They're currently testing it to help people with diabetes arrange for their insulin pen needles to be collected from home. The collection of such sharps waste involves a specific method of disposal.
Alexa can ask which colour bin it's been put in and when the resident wants it to be collected. It can then use the information to arrange a specific day on which the council can come.
"It’s taking a lot of the routine tasks and putting them into an AI environment in a sympathetic way," says Grant. "When we do need to put through someone that you need to talk to in a more detailed way, at least we've taken the cost down of the initial inquiry, and put the expert as close to you as possible rather than several steps later in the traditional method."
Alexa has enjoyed rapid uptake commercially but is still finding its feet in the public sector. Amazon was happy to collaborate with the council to help the company assess the potential applications.
"They want people to create new apps in the skills and they were very excited that we were playing around with it," says Grant.
Grant predicts that the experiments with AI could extend beyond connecting people at home to basic council services into adding different databases from other areas of the public sector. Citizens could use Alexa to request new prescriptions from their GP, adding a valuable new interface to vulnerable or lonely residents.
“It's giving more liberal access to people that are vulnerable or at home or are lonely, or partially satisfied," says Grant. "It gives it's a much more democratic way of getting people services they want, rather than them having to phone us up or even to come in. It's pushing that cost down, but also the value up of other interactions with the council."