Brisbane City Council teaches IBM Watson sarcasm to understand citizen sentiment

It took seven weeks for Big Blue's AI to learn to speak 'council' and pick up the tone of social media posts.

Brisbane City Council (BCC) has developed a new way of understanding its customers, turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to trawl through the information it already had, to learn something new.

Brisbane is the second biggest city council in the Southern Hemisphere, after Auckland; super imposing Brisbane onto Melbourne, the area would encompass 33 councils. It's a large catchment, boasting 1.3 million interactions annually just where customer service is concerned, not to mention libraries or public transport data.

Speaking at the Criterion Conferences' Improving the Customer Experience across Government event in Sydney on Wednesday, BCC customer services manager Shane Hackett said the council started its AI project by simply asking to be shown anything it didn't know.

"I looked at all of the different sources of information; I took every single social media post in the last three years, every single comment a library customer has made in writing or a librarian had typed in to their system, our internal staff surveys ... I took that information," Hackett said.

"I ended up getting 20 million pieces of data from three years -- this was info we had just sitting there all across council."

BCC turned to two Queensland firms, Max Kelsen and Sprout Research, to utilise AI to mine that data.

See also: Max Kelsen using Google's Cloud to help beat cancer through machine learning

"We gave them a pretty broad brief. In fact, the brief pretty much was, 'tell us some things we don't know'," he explained.

"It took them seven weeks to teach IBM Watson speak council. They taught it our acronyms, they taught it our structure, they taught it all about council."

It wasn't just "council" that Big Blue's AI machine had to learn; it was also taught how to read sarcasm.

"One particular statement that said, 'The usually brilliant Brisbane City Council did a great job with the traffic management', if you look at that without the sarcasm element, that was a positive -- usually brilliant -- but it was actually a negative," Hackett said.

"That's really important, because there's a lot of sarcastic people around, especially on social media. There's a lot of sarcasm in Brisbane."

The entire project only set the council back AU$40,000, as Hackett said the data was already there.

"This kind of task is pretty well as basic as it gets," he said. "IBM Watson is working to predict cancer -- this is pretty basic stuff as far as AI goes."

The outcome, Hackett said, was that BCC achieved a new way of looking at the information it already knew, but didn't know the significance of.

"It's about listening to what you're getting told already," he added.

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