Okay, Alexa/Google/Siri

Written by Nina Mohanty, LSE

As part of Digital Leaders Week in London, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with Capita on the use of chatbots and headless user interfaces in the public sector. So often we think of new technology in relation to the private sector. In this workshop, representatives from various backgrounds including housing councils, charities like AgeUK, and more voiced their concern that tech giants have far more resources to make public sector institutions obsolete in their digital offerings. Time and time again, it was stressed that because bots and headless user interfaces are “emerging technologies,” it is the time to explore digital solutions.

That being said, I wanted to share some of my takeaways from the event.

While Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home and Apple’s recent less-than-shocking announcement of the HomePod at WWDC17 have moved headless user interfaces from fringe technology to mainstream technology, few understand what exactly it is. Simply put, headless user interface is software capable of running a device without the need for a graphical user interface.

It’s all good and well that Alexa can tell me when my appointments are, what the weather is like in San Francisco is (generally a nice, comfortable 18C in case you’re wondering—a light jacket suggested), and how many gold medals Usain Bolt has earned, surely there is more than basic day-to-day information retrieval available?

Capita has been working with social housing councils to develop new use cases to include simple asks such as, “When is my rent due” and “How much is rent this month?” to “When is the recycling collected?”

A recent Gartner study found that by 2020, 30% of web searches will be conducted via HUI. So yes, information retrieval is useful and none of us can remember what time the bins need to be put out. But what if we could automate services like repairs and even book appointments? What if we could utilise voice recognition technology and HUI integrated into backend CRM systems to create better customer experiences?

What if HUI could be used to provide a better quality of living for those generally ignored consumers like the elderly and vulnerable? Imagine if in assisted care facilities, grandma or grandpa could say, “Good morning, Alexa” and Alexa could respond, “Good morning, Jane/John. Today is June 21, 2017. Thanks for checking in. Don’t forget to take the pills for Monday on your bedside table”? NBC’s Saturday Night Live parodied Amazon Echo with the elderly but there was something to it!

The discussion also covered the practicality of using chatbots in place of call centres, which tend to be costly and tend to generate fairly standard questions. We’ve seen chatbots used widely used in the public sector already (I booked into yoga via Adidas Women this morning via chatbot and my bank prompts me with a chatbot when I visit its webpage), but the capacity to use chatbots for information retrieval or even sorting basic problems in the public sector (Hello Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (that’s the IRS, for my American friends) – what does it mean to file with dependents?) should be leveraged moving forward into this digital age.

Of course with any discussion of any technology came the criticisms and skeptical comments. “But what about data privacy and data security?” we all demanded. At present, who owns the data and where would it be stored? How would it be shared? How easily could this data be accessed by third parties? But then there is also the issue of voice recognition and prompts, also known as invocations. Will the voice recognition software understand different accents? A child’s voice? Will it be able to understand slang or phrases that aren’t the exact cues the software expects? How many combinations of invocations would need to be programmed to be truly effective?

Ultimately, the workshop was eye-opening to the challenges public sector firms face. While private sector technology aims to innovate constantly, we wonder constantly about consumer adoption and reach. The simple idea of using digital technologies to reach typically overlooked demographics while still working for a better experience for the end user shouldn’t be groundbreaking. To be sure, there are many wrinkles that need to be ironed out. But moving forward, the public sector should work hand-in-hand with private companies to bring about these improved experiences.


This post first appeared here and was reposted with permission.

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