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:
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.