Placer County, established in 1851 and home to six incorporated cities and towns, is a county in the state of California located in the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada regions. Placer County has seen its population grow to approximately 400,000 residents, an increase of over 50% since 2000.
Placer County was recently awarded third place in the 17th annual Digital Counties Survey, where the top counties across the country were recognized for their commitment to leveraging technology in innovative ways. Part of this recognition included becoming the first local government in California to deploy an AI chatbot to better serve its community.
In order to provide better service to its growing population, the county wanted to go beyond the traditional self-service IVR systems and hiring additional administrative staff and instead look to transform its customer experiences with a digital-focused engagement strategy. It recognized the need to offer real-time, on-demand access to information through platforms that could operate around the clock, at scale, and provide efficient interactions with its residents when and where it is convenient for them.
Through its Community Development Resource Agency, Placer County launched a multi-faceted initiative they called “eServices,” with an objective to offer customers access to information and services that would typically require an in-person visit to its offices.
Some of the eServices initiatives included digitizing its online application processes and offering online access to maps, permits, and appointment systems, but Placer County knew that it also needed a user-friendly, customer facing on-ramp into their new digital ecosystem in order to help customers quickly find and access the appropriate resources and tie it all together.
The start of the new experience needed to meet its customers when and where they were as needs arise: on their mobile devices, or through a voice-command on the nearest Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa enabled device.
While off-the-shelf solutions for website chatbots and automated IVR systems are plentiful, deploying true “conversational AI” solutions that can handle voice interactions with static and dynamic intents is still an emerging field. Placer County worked with the Dito and Google Cloud teams to develop an AI solution that would enable its community to engage in a more interactive, modern, and conversational manner.
The “Ask Placer County” (the phrase used to initiate a session) chatbot, accessible through both web and voice interfaces, was developed through a combination of Dito’s configurable chatbot framework and Google Cloud Platform technologies including Dialogflow, App Engine, Cloud Datastore, Google Assistant, and Actions on Google.
The Dialogflow-based solution offers robust natural language processing, is expandable to include multi-lingual support, and is able to surface the knowledge base of questions and answers stored in Cloud Datastore. An administration console was also developed in order to deploy the solution throughout the agency and self-manage the repository of information.
Placer County’s “Ask Placer County” virtual agent solution works across multiple voice platforms, such as Google Assistant with Dialogflow, Amazon Alexa, and mobile/web interfaces to more efficiently support its community. Residents and stakeholders can now access a dynamic, conversational self-help solution that offers real-time answers and resources in a way that aligns with the digital experiences they are accustomed to.
By capturing and analyzing the questions being asked, the county is able to fine tune the training of its chatbot to be better equipped at handling future conversations while also gaining a deeper understanding of how to provide better answers and future services to its community. This insight into which questions are being asked also allows the county to determine which resources and information are the most important to its citizens, and quickly supply the chatbot’s knowledge base with answers to any questions not that are not yet handled.
As an extension of this initiative, Placer County is exploring ways to expand the deployment of its chatbot solution to various other departments and to in-person kiosks within their offices.
Google Cloud Platform
- App Engine
- Cloud Datastore
- Google Assistant
- Actions of Google
“In serving the public, it is our obligation to provide as many ways as possible to access information and support including chatbots, websites, 508 ADA compliance, telephony and other such tools and services. This is where integration and platform-agnostic concepts begin to move into the spotlight. AI by itself is rather boring and, in many cases, pointless. However, when integrated with chatbots, user interfaces and telephony solutions, the use cases begin to expand exponentially.”
– Benjamin Palacio, Senior IT Analyst, Enterprise Solutions @ Placer County (via techwire.net)
“Ask Placer [County] presents a major opportunity because, for the first time ever, the number of active users of messaging apps, such as chatbots, has surpassed social network users… Placer County is one of the first, if not the first, local jurisdiction to use both Google Assist and Amazon Alexa to provide information and respond to customer questions. Placer is trailblazing the use of artificial intelligence to provide better county services.”
– Shawna Purvines. Principal Planner @ Placer County