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Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov

Acquia Labs Alexa

Acquia Labs’ conversational collaboration with GeorgiaGov Interactive makes life easier for all Georgians

Sometimes, the information originating from our local government — whether we need it simply to be better-engaged citizens, to move to a new state, or to renew an expired license — can be difficult to find, even with the most impeccable information architecture in place online. We can spend precious minutes scrolling through websites or on hold with a government hotline only to find that the information we need isn’t within an agency’s purview.

The advent of conversational interfaces like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon Echo has unleashed a torrent of innovation in the area of removing hindrances from our lives when it comes to making credit card payments, hailing a taxi, or playing our favorite music. But what if they could winnow away some of the time we spend on interacting with our government? And what if you could talk to a government representative from the comfort of your own home?

Acquia Labs is thrilled to announce a pilot project exploring conversational interfaces with GeorgiaGov Interactive, the digital services arm of the Georgia Technology Authority that serves Georgia state agencies. Over the course of this three-month project, we’ll be building an Alexa skill that anyone with an Amazon Echo device can take advantage of, whether it’s to know everything about food stamps in Georgia or to perform simple inquiries like transferring an out-of-state license, acquiring an early election ballot, or registering for a fishing license. In short, get ready to “Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov” your questions!

You can view a video of the prototype Alexa integration below:

Alexa, ask GeorgiaGov

Getting information to citizens faster

One of the leading motivations for this project is the prospect of being able to get citizens their information much more quickly than they could otherwise. Georgia.gov has a carefully conceived information architecture and user experience, but the sheer amount of information can often be overwhelming for anyone unaccustomed to the information architecture.

An Alexa skill operates under the same limitations. While you can certainly build a skill where all possible answers to questions will be available at the user’s fingertips (or at the tip of their tongue), how does an Amazon Echo user know exactly what to “ask GeorgiaGov” when they may not even be sure what it is that they’re asking about?

We decided to take a middle-of-the-road approach where both Georgians familiar with the site’s information architecture and those coming to the conversational interface without much understanding of the website can feel equally at ease using the skill. As such, the Alexa skill will make it easy for any user to provide a topic in their area of interest, and “GeorgiaGov” will respond with sample questions from that section of the website. At the same time, a user who knows what their query is with greater specificity can question Alexa directly and receive only the corresponding response.

Moreover, we’re powering the Alexa skill using site search on Georgia.gov rather than coupling it tightly to the site’s information architecture and editorial interface. By keeping the Alexa skill agnostic to a site’s information architecture, we can help to cater our conversational interface to other governments’ and even other organizations’ needs. We can also appropriately generalize this approach to all requirements: acquiring content, exposing it for consumption, and interpreting user-generated responses for a variety of needs at scale whether at the local or national level.

Widening access to information

There’s another significant reason to use conversational interfaces like Amazon Echo to interact much more with government. Georgia.gov has been a pioneer of web accessibility for many years. In 2002, Georgia piloted a time limited text-to-speech telephony service which would allow for website information and popular services like driver’s license renewal to be offered to citizens. In addition, Georgia.gov welcomes users of assistive devices, for instance by encouraging others to implement straightforward accessibility solutions and publishing clear and comprehensive accessibility guidelines.

“We have long placed a very deliberate emphasis on connecting Georgians with the government information and services in the way that works best for them,” says GTA’s Nikhil Deshpande director of GeorgiaGov Interactive. “Thanks to a pursuit that began with creating a consistent user experience across state agency websites more than a decade ago, then leading the way in embracing responsive design and accessibility, we’re well-positioned for this next frontier of digital ecosystems. Making our content available via new channels like Alexa is an important next step for us.”

Amazon Echo skills appear to derive a great deal of inspiration from historical text-to-speech renderings. Not only do they allow for users to utilize a conversational device from the comfort of their own home; they also enable users to consume content more granularly than a text-to-speech rendering would otherwise permit. This means that we can get the right information to users faster, in a highly individualized and eminently accessible fashion.

Upholding the spirit of open source innovation

We at Acquia Labs believe strongly in the capacity for open source innovation to further the world around us in unexpected ways. After all, when businesses share their code and transition from a focus on proprietary foundations to a reliance on open source software, the resulting benefits gained by everyone act as a tide to lift all boats and as an accelerating force for progress. We contend that innovation labs shouldn’t be an exception to this philosophy, despite their reputation as subterranean caverns of top-secret projects.

Because the Georgia.gov website is built in Drupal 7, we’re enriching the Drupal community by sponsoring a Drupal 7 backport — thanks to the indefatigable Chris Hamper — of the Alexa module written by Jakub Suchy. We want anyone to be able to take advantage of the wins we’ve achieved. Just as the Acquia ecosystem is committed to the open source ethos, we also believe that innovation labs have a responsibility to share their findings with the wider world.

In March 2017, I spoke on a panel at SXSW Interactive, where we talked about why we're seeing the emergence of more and more innovation lab programs. I also touched on the role of open source, shared the GeorgiaGov story, and explained Acquia's approach to innovation.

Conclusion

Our new partnership between Acquia Labs and GeorgiaGov Interactive heralds an exciting new paradigm in a conversational web that has until now been largely focused on business and consumer applications. We can help our government run more efficiently by delivering crucial information more quickly. At the same time, we can also help citizens, including users of assistive technologies, access and engage with that information. In doing so, we can stretch both civic engagement and digital experiences farther than they have ever gone before.

How can Acquia Labs help your organization achieve its innovation priorities and think beyond? To learn more about working with Labs, contact our sales team and mention Acquia Labs during your conversation. Together, we’ll build exciting digital ecosystems that challenge old paradigms — just like our innovation partnership with the state of Georgia — and map out the new digital universe.

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