Citibot Razing Walls Between Cities & Citizens

Setting bots to work at automating basic interactions has become integral to many customer service operations, whether strategic initiative of corporate giant or tiny town. But only the latter, and its larger local government counterparts, has the opportunity to do so using the civic engagement-oriented Citibot.

Citibot, designed to allow citizens to connect with local civic organizations via text messaging or social media chat apps, is the brainchild of Bratton Riley, CEO. The seed of the idea came two years ago, planted when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that Facebook Messenger linked to chatbot technology would be the future of customer service, Riley told me in a recent interview.

Programmers at the company where he'd been working at the time were bullish on chatbot technology, as was his business partner and now Citibot chief technical advisor Tom Wilson, who agreed with Zuckerberg's sentiment. At the time, Wilson told him "this is where communicative technology is going in the post-app world," Riley recounted. "So I thought about it a lot, and shoehorned it into something I'm very passionate about -- local government."

For 40 of Riley's 44 years, his father served as the mayor of Charleston, S.C. "I literally grew up in city hall ... and growing into adulthood really came to appreciate not just all aspects of what local government does but also the people behind it, and what they do on a day-to-day basis," he said.

What most excited him -- enough to start up Citibot -- was the idea of connecting chatbot technology with text messaging, given the pervasiveness of that platform, Riley said.

"I grew up with lot of privilege" -- privilege that included access to local government officials as needed, he explained. "But not many folks have that privilege, so the opportunity to make that kind of access available to everyone by texting is why I created the company."

AI and IoT solutions provider TensorIoT helped make the vision a reality, weaving together a mix of technology including Programmable SMS APIs from Twilio, conversational interfaces from Amazon Lex, and CRM/project management software from Atlassian Trello. As described in a TensorIoT case study, Citibot lets citizens engage with local governments using a special "800" number, through which they can do things like report issues such as potholes, graffiti, and unlit streetlights; ask questions about local events; send messages to government employees; and search curated information on the local agency's website.

North Charleston, S.C., began using Citibot in July 2017, the first of five customers the company has signed up to date, Riley said. Since launching its Citibot initiative, the city has seen a 94% hike in citizen engagement and a 112% increase in the number of issues it's been able to address with the same-sized staff, Riley reported. These statistics speak to the collaborative nature of Citibot, he added -- "it's not an 'us vs. them'" any longer.

Working with smaller cities is "less of a burden because they have less potential software junk" and can more easily integrate with Citibot, but size isn't a gating factor, Riley said. North Charleston has a population of 110,000, and Citibot is working with much smaller and larger local entities. For example, Celina, Texas, which came online in February, has about 10,000 citizens, while Charleston County, S.C., scheduled to launch in May, has more than 400,000 citizens -- and Citibot is speaking with many other local governments, including those with populations of 1 million or more, he added. And, since it supports open APIs, Citibot would be able to work with backend customer relationship management systems other than Trello's, he added.

As Citibot looks to expand its footprint across the country, it's also working on enhancing the chatbot's capabilities. For example, due out soon is a voice integration that would enable a conversational "Siri- or Alexa-style" interface. Riley will be sharing more of his story and perspective this week at Interop ITX, a No Jitter/Enterprise Connect sister event taking place this week. Join him on Thursday, May 3, from 4:00 p.m. to 4:50 p.m., for his session, "The Government Concierge: How AI Chatbots Make Governments More Accessible and Efficient," and hear how Citibot leverages the AWS AI platform and integrates into government CRM and other software systems through its open API.

"What I'm really trying to do is find the champions that understand the technology and believe in accessibility," Riley said. "There are a lot of government mobile apps out there, but apps are so 2012."

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