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NorCal Cities Using AI Chatbots for Potholes, Parking Tickets

The goal is for real people to spend more time answering residents’ questions instead of doing work that can be, well, robotic.

Residents in cities across the country looking to report issues like potholes and graffiti, or just to ask a question, know the number to call: 311. But, increasingly, cities across Northern California are turning instead to AI-powered chatbots versed in dozens of languages to answer residents’ questions and intake service requests.

The idea is that as artificial intelligence technology gets better at mimicking human responses and retrieving answers to questions, chatbots can take the workload off 311 operators and free them up to handle more complex requests.

Interest and investment in AI technology, particularly when it comes to chatbots, has taken off since OpenAI released its ChatGPT interface in November.

That’s the case in California cities like Stockton, Roseville and Fairfield. Fairfield, for example, started using a chatbot in early 2022 available from a company called Citibot, whose software makes it easier for residents to ask questions and input service requests without having to get a hold of a live agent, said Bill Way, the city’s communications manager.

“We have an arch that goes over our downtown on West Texas Street, so we decided to call (the bot) Archie,” Way said.

He said it cost about $20,000 to get the program running on their website, plus an annual fee. Residents can ask it questions about things like where to sign their kids up for soccer or to report issues they spot around town, like graffiti, streetlight outages, illegal parking and other common urban annoyances.

Archie pops up on Fairfield’s website as a chat window and can also fill out and send work requests after going back and forth with a resident to get the right details, inputting them automatically to the right city department.

“Years ago, on our old website, when we did a heat map, the most popular feature was the search window,” Way said. Essentially, the program can index city web pages and provide faster, more streamlined responses to questions in a conversational style, or put users in touch with a person.

It’s not perfect. Ask Archie how it’s doing today and it responds: “Sorry, I’m having trouble finding an answer for you,” and asks users to rephrase their questions or offers to route a question to a city staffer.

Oftentimes that staff is Way, who said the bot saves him the time he would have spent inputting the requests manually for a city of about 120,000 people.

Archie is powered by Amazon’s Lex AI chatbot software, which is versed in more than 70 languages, said Citibot CEO Bratton Riley. That’s a boon for cities like Fairfield, where Spanish and other languages are commonly spoken.

But that multilingual feature doesn’t always perform perfectly, either. Ask Archie “¿Hablas español?” and the bot seems to become confused, suggesting links for either a Spanish language plan for the city’s parks or the police department.

In part to fix those hiccups, Riley is working on integrating OpenAI’s ChatGPT interface into the software starting in October, so that users can more easily converse with the software to ask questions and get answers. He said Arlington, Texas, which uses Citibot, will be the first city to get the upgrade.

Over Zoom, Riley demonstrated how the GPT software can quickly pull up information when he asked the program about the short-term rental policy in Calgary, Canada, another city client. The system fluently responded with a bullet-pointed list complete with a date when the policies become effective, and sourced its response to the web page it had drawn the answers from.

Sourcing is generally a weak point for chatbots that have ingested billions of pieces of data, but Riley’s machine is like talking to a mildly pedantic person who has only ever read city websites. That means it is not ingesting information from across the web into its knowledge base, and is less likely to deliver incorrect answers, he said.

About “60 percent to 70 percent of inbound requests into 311s are questions; they’re not service requests,” Riley said. If the chatbot can more easily and fluently respond to residents’ questions, it would make it easier for cities to respond more quickly, he said.

San Francisco, a city nearly seven times the size of Fairfield, is not looking into this kind of technology. Riley said he’s reached out to the city multiple times since 2020 but has always been rebuffed, which agency spokesperson Angela Yip confirmed in an email.

The city’s 311 system does not use chatbots, although it has an app where residents can report issues, according to Yip. She declined to make 311 Director Nancy Alfaro or Deputy Director Carson Chin available for an interview, and she did not address a question about who had made the decision not to use chatbots.

Yip said via email that the current version of the 311 app, launched in April, has some AI technology built in that scans uploaded photos and descriptions of problems and can suggest a type of service, and help route requests to the right agency. According to Yip, 311 explored chatbots in 2017 and 2020, before the current advancements in the technology.

Riley’s product varies in price based on a city’s size and whether it goes for the add-ons like allowing residents to text with the bot, along with interacting with it through the city web page.

Roseville, just northeast of Sacramento, plans to get the bot up and running in the coming weeks as part of a larger project to update its back-end software that tracks reports of city issues, said Brian Jacobson, Roseville’s public affairs and communications manager.

“We’re hoping it improves efficiency from our end,” Jacobson said of adding Citibot and the additional software, which he said is projected to cost $375,595. That includes being able to pull fine-grain reports on the common city issues.

Riley, the Citibot CEO, emphasized that the software is not designed to replace operators who take 311 calls, but to help them keep up with demand.

The goal is for real people to to spend more time answering questions instead of doing work that is more, well, robotic.

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