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Industry insights and technology trends for a modern, citizen-centric government powered by cloud

The Future Is Now: Next-Generation Citizen Services

Written in collaboration with Suhas Uliyar, Vice President - Mobile Strategy Product Management at Oracle

The phrase "customer service" has often sounded like an oxymoron to anyone who has endured interminable lines at the DMV, navigated maze-like call centers, or even attempted to get a simple answer from a website. Help could be on the way—and sooner than you think. With advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, government agencies and leading consumer brands are thinking anew about how to not only improve but expand their digital customer services. By using familiar consumer platforms such as Facebook Messenger or Skype, for example, AI-enabled chat bots offer the promise of handling citizen inquiries accurately and automatically, freeing up employees to focus on issues that truly require human interaction.

The Next Wave of Technology Innovation

Technology comes at us in waves. We catch a glimpse of it building—far out on the horizon—not knowing exactly its size and impact. Some much bigger and faster than others—but all swell and develop. Give it time and that wave gets more defined as it approaches—and we can begin to see its shape, size and potential impact. Social media is one of those waves, which gave a voice to the people. For the first time ever, consumers had a platform to interact, learn, share and voice their opinions. It was as if everyone had their own broadcasting platform. Communication went from one to one - to one to many.  Millions were flocking to social networks to share, like, follow and learn. The social networking phenomenon took consumers by storm; it changed behavior and shifted power.

We saw another wave in the shape of mobile apps that gave birth to the phrase "There is an App for That!" There are roughly 2 million mobile apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. On average mobile users interact with 4-5 apps on their mobile devices of which messaging apps make the top 1 or 2 mobile apps used.

We are now seeing another wave on the rise—and it's much bigger—and happening much faster than social networks. And that's messaging apps. For consumers, particularly younger demographics, this isn't new.  Messaging apps have been experiencing explosive growth for years. Popular Asian messaging apps like WeChat, KakaoTalk, and LINE have taken the lead in finding innovative ways to keep users engaged. Snapchat, Kik, Messenger and others today boast incredible user growth. And let's not forget Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which combined have half the 4.2 billion monthly mobile active users.

Artificial Intelligence Enables Smart Messenger Apps

In the last few years, we have seen an appreciation for the data within and around us. Organizations want their decisions to be data driven as opposed to be arrived at heuristically.  Public databases have emerged and are valuable repositories of data and can be used to augment the data within enterprises.  Machine intelligence is shifting the enterprise apps landscape. These AI-powered apps are capable of performing higher-order tasks typically performed by knowledge workers. The current suite of applications must develop intelligence or they will get swapped out for a new generation of applications which take advantage of machine intelligence. The rise of conversational interfaces are pushing the need for machines to understand human language and the knowledge embedded in various application domains.

How Do We Make Apps Smarter?

Machines need to understand domain knowledge and for that, data needs to be canonically represented so that machines can understand and act upon it.  First Google and then later Microsoft have done this for public data in what's termed as "Knowledge Graph"—a graph of entities, their relations and actions. Google today uses this to power Search, Google Now and other applications. The questions now are:

  1. Can we combine public data with the data we have in our databases to create an enterprise knowledge graph?
  2. Could this serve as a foundation to build smart applications based on machine intelligence?
  3. What sort of services can we build on top of that and what kinds of smart applications could this power?

This is particularly exciting for governments wanting to reduce costs through efficiencies, yet delivering a better customer experience.  What better way for a citizen to start having a conversation with government on Facebook Messenger and start asking questions that they're looking to get information on, such as 'what is the status of my student loan application?', 'how is my immigration application progressing?', 'what is the nearest VA hospital near me?', and many more.

On June 28th, GSA hosted a workshop titled Automatic for the People: AI, Machine Learning and Chatbots for Digital Customer Service in Government," which brought together thought leaders from the industry and from government.

So What's the Future?

Is it social networks vs. messaging apps? We don't view it as one or the other. In today's multichannel world, it's about meeting consumers across all their many devices, channels and platforms. The right choice will be Social Networks & Messaging Apps—as each serves different needs and—again—it's a multi-channel communication and engagement world. We are entering a new era of personalized communication that can be automated through Messenger Chat Bots, leading to cost savings for agencies and better experiences for citizens.  Exciting times ahead!

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