Surrey's Citizens Get Answers From a Mobile App

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
Mobile apps for citizens of Surrey

The City of Surrey deployed a next-generation system that lets its citizens use an app to navigate through online content and obtain quick, accurate answers.

As cities and other government agencies look to improve the way they interact with citizens, many are turning to mobile apps. However, there are pains that come with all the gains. Interactions change, and tasks that are fairly easy to accomplish on the Web can be challenging on a smartphone or other mobile device.

Moreover, "People expect information quickly and accurately," says Sean Simpson, acting manager for the Information Technology Division at the City of Surrey, a fast-growing suburb of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. "We have a population of about 500,000 and we're one of the fastest growing cities in North America.

"People now expect that they will be able to find information and conduct transactions online, whether it's applying for a permit or understanding how to pay a property tax bill. We have full-service Website but, over the last couple of years, there's been a switch to mobile devices and the rise of an 'any device, anytime, anywhere' mentality. However, the Website wasn't designed for mobile interactions."

As a result, Surrey turned to its app builder, Purple Forge, and IBM's Watson to build a next-generation system to help citizens navigate through online content and obtain quick and accurate answers. The app, dubbed "My Surrey," uses embedded Watson QA and natural-language processing capabilities that allow citizens to ask questions and receive evidence-based answers on an Apple, Android or Blackberry smartphone or on wearable devices such as an iWatch.

Asking Questions, Getting Answers From Watson

The initiative marks the first deployment of a citizen services app powered by Watson technology. The city went live with it in early July.

For example, My Surrey allows a citizen to tap a button on the phone and ask a basic question, such as: "How do I obtain a dog license?" or "What can I do about graffiti?" and receive an immediate response. The app is able to understand the question regardless of the way it is phrased.

In addition, unlike a search engine such as Google or Bing, the app supplies a single answer, Simpson notes. At that point, the user can click a button indicating whether the information was accurate and helpful or a follow-up search is needed. Watson learns over time and adapts on its own to user behavior and feedback.

The city uses Watson alongside traditional capabilities. "It is meant to complement existing means of accessing services," he explains.

The transition to the app went smoothly, Simpson says. Over a few weeks, Watson scraped the city's Website and collected all the necessary data and information. Officials reviewed results for accuracy, validated information and made some adjustments.

Surrey is continuing to fine-tune the app and provide feedback to Purple Forge and IBM so that it can tweak the app to better address the needs of citizens. In addition, the city has plans to expand the use of Watson and add digital wallet, e-commerce and other advanced functions to the app in the months ahead.

Simpson adds that the city will expand the use of Watson to its Website and may add self-service kiosks at key locations, such as libraries.

"Cities are looking for ways to reinvent how citizen's access information," Simpson explains. "The hope is that Watson and the mobile app will make it a lot easier for people to sort through a wealth of information and get exactly what they need. This saves time for users and helps the city operate more efficiently."

Photo courtesy of the City of Surrey

This article was originally published on 2015-09-23
Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).
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