City of Albuquerque hires Alexa to help with service requests from residents

The city of Albuquerque's use of Alexa, which is integrated into its 311 system, earned it a prestigious award, but more importantly, improved its efforts to serve the city's residents.

One of my earliest posts here for Voices Carry talked about the need for voice assistants to move from party tricks to practical, substantial use cases in order for them to be taken more seriously, from an enterprise perspective. And one of the examples I cited was the city of Albuquerque and its deployment of Alexa to help make it easier for their citizens to get quick service.

Last month, Albuquerque, N.M., won the prestigious National 2018 Government Experience Innovation Award from the Center for Digital Government for making 311 service requests available through Amazon Alexa. According to Dustin Haisler, the center's chief innovation officer, Albuquerque's use of Alexa stood out.

"Most of the time these voice assistants regurgitate information: What is the number for the DMV? How do I renew a hunting license? This is the first we have seen at the local level that allows people to actually request trash pickup or a graffiti cleanup," said Haisler.

So, I caught up with Matthew Maez, the city's digital engagement specialist, to learn more about how it is using voice-first technologies to enhance the city's ability to serve its citizens in a way that utilizes new technology and meets their growing expectations for service.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. To see the full conversation check out the embedded video above.


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Matthew Maez

Brent Leary: So, let's talk about some of the things you're doing at the City of Albuquerque. You kind of got interested in using Alexa for the city by ordering a pizza. Is that right?

Matthew Maez: It's kind of a funny story. I had randomly gotten a Alexa device from my brother for Christmas the year before and a couple months later Domino's announced that they had a new Amazon Alexa skill where you could just tell your Alexa, "Hey Alexa, order me a pizza," and that evening I went straight home, gave it a shot. And for me, I thought if it's this easy for me to order a pizza, we should do our best as a city to make it that easy for citizens to report issues or ask questions to the city of Albuquerque.

Brent Leary: Traditionally, how have your constituents asked for things?

Matthew Maez: Prior to this, the primary way that citizens would ask for help, service, questions was first by calling our 311 call center. We have a great call center. It's been open since 2006. Really, probably the best, most positive branch that the city of Albuquerque has with our customers and our 311 call center really is the front door to the city of Albuquerque. Citizens can ask just about any question, report just about any issue, regardless of the department, and 311 can get that issue to the right place.

We also have a pretty substantial website and most of my day goes toward maintaining that website, making sure the information is up to date and user friendly, so citizens can report issues online.

We also have a mobile app and we've had a number of mobile apps. Most recently, we just launched the One ABQ app, which is designed by a local vendor here in town and allows citizens to report issues in a way that the citizen is focused. Very similar to the 311.

Alexa is a new platform and really, we say Alexa because that's where we started. It's our goal to be platform agnostic so that citizens ultimately will be able to report issues through voice, through whichever home voice platform they might have. at their home, or office or mobile device. We're just giving them another way to report issues, ask questions, stay informed, keep us up to date on what's happening in their neighborhoods around their home.

Brent Leary: How many citizens are you servicing currently?

Matthew Maez: In Albuquerque, we have a population of about 550,000 people in the city itself, and then in the greater metropolitan area, nearly one million people. The bulk of New Mexico's population is centered in or near Albuquerque.

For 311, I believe we're at two million calls a year, just a little under, in total service requests and our goal is to diversify those channels so that phone calls aren't the only way in which you can report an issue. We want to meet citizens wherever they're at, have a channel ready to address their questions or concerns, which regardless of whatever that channel is.

Brent Leary: Is phone the most used channel or do they do a lot of emailing, or social stuff as well?

Matthew Maez: Phone is definitely our largest for taking service requests. Website is by far the most popular overall [communications] mechanism. We get 14 million hits a year to our website for information. But for getting business done, phone calls traditionally are the primary channel. That is decreasing as we're increasing our portfolio of self-service options. The mobile app has been extremely popular in terms of how many people are using the app.

I think voice hasn't taken off as quickly as we'd like it to. Voice is kind of similar to the early days of mobile applications. At first, it was like, "Why do I need a mobile app for my organization or my company?" Today it would be crazy to not have a mobile app for your organization and I view a similar growth trend happening for voice, but probably faster. I think more people are going to have voice apps. The public's going to expect more organizations to have voice apps, faster than they did with websites and apps.

Brent Leary: What was the reception like when you brought this idea to the city [of Albuquerque]?

Matthew Maez: Well, the first thing was just educating my team and my staff. I think we were still pretty early in the development of voice apps when I brought the idea to the table. And so, I literally brought in my device the next day and said, "Hey this is my vision." How does this resonate with our department leader, city leadership. Everybody was really excited. Our CIO was very much on board and said, "Yeah, I'd like you to devote some time to making this happen."

There was a little bit of a blind curve. We had experience developing mobile apps. As this was our very first voice apps it was a whole new learning process for us. We did some research on our own; we talked with our partners. Oracle Service Cloud is the software that powers our 311 call center. I spoke with our Oracle reps and brought this vision to the table with them, and they were really interested in this.

They knew that their software would be capable of interacting with voice services but they had never used the service cloud for that purpose before. They signed on as a partner to co-develop this with us as a pilot case. It went really well. They were fabulous partners to work with and it's still a partnership that we're working on to this day.

Brent Leary: There is a distinction here in terms of integrating your Alexa skill into your 311 system; that's something that hadn't really happened before in terms of [municipal] government usage.

Matthew Maez: That's right. We certainly weren't the very first city or government organization to have an Alexa skill, but to the best of our knowledge we're the first municipality to integrate into a CRM system. What's really great is the way that we incorporated this skill. If I wanted to report a lost dog or graffiti or a missed trash pickup and I did that through Alexa, it would take you through the same process as though I was calling the 311 call center. We worked with our agents at the call center to make sure we have the right business process and that we're asking the right questions. They put customer service first and they really work hard to develop a process to make this as positive experience for our citizens as possible. So, we worked with them to know not only what you ask but how do you ask it. How do you start a conversation and how do you end that. We simulated that with the skill as well.

At the end of the day, whether I'm reporting graffiti over the phone or through our Alexa skill, citizens should have a very similar experience.

Brent Leary: Was there any apprehension or any push back from the traditional IT folks to integrate this into your CRM/311 system?

Matthew Maez: I think there is lots of concerns any time you try something new like this. This was a big new effort. There were a lot of different things we had to consider. Certainly security is always our number one concern. If we can't be trusted with our citizens data, we shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

We had to make sure we had a secure integration between our CRM, and a big part of this was also making sure we're choosing the right issues to report through the system as well. We don't take in any service requests that contain HIPPA information. We make sure we're only taking in the issues that everybody is comfortable with. Our citizens to our legal department are comfortable with taking in at this time.

We have to stay on top of it too. It's all an emerging and evolving field. Not just saying we did this and now we're done, but what do we do next. How does this still change.

I think our biggest concern or sense of apprehension is what does the successful deployment of this technology mean for the city. I get asked a lot, does this mean that we're going to have to have fewer call center agents. Or are we going to replace agents with Alexa?

The truth is no. Not at all. The way that we view this is if we can offer some of the more standardized common intake questions off of the phones and through self-service like the mobile app. Like Alexa. That frees up agents to dedicate more time to the citizens in our community who have very real and complicated issues. That's where they need somebody who has the time to dedicate to work through those challenges.

Brent Leary: Let's talk a little bit about any kind of feedback that you received from your constituents. I know you're still early days, but have you gotten any feedback?

Matthew Maez: Way more people ask questions, then report issues, but that also emulates our call volume. We get more FAQ's than service request calls anyway. Maybe not surprisingly we get more issues about topics that relate to the home. Like missed trash pickup, or neighborhood litter violations.

We find that citizens tend to report graffiti more from a mobile device because they're right there, they can snap a photo and report it on the walk, rather than having to remember to report it when they got home. If I got home and in the rare occasion our solid waste department forgets to pick up my trash. It makes a lot of sense to me to just log in report that to my Alexa device and be done with it. I think that trend might change as more and more people start to use the Alexa device on their mobile devices; we might see more out of the home issues getting reported.

From citizens who've used the app I think a lot of main users are early adopters. Albuquerque is a tech focused city. For those early adopters this is a really exciting sign of what this city is able to do for a large population. People are really excited and proud. It's become a point of pride for some of the members of our community that we even have this technology at all.

We have people who aren't used to voice services or are having to learn how to navigate it so there is some education. It's not uncommon for me to walk through a new user how this works. What's exciting is once it does work for them, they become ambassadors for that. They might talk to the people on their block, their neighborhoods associations, and share. Once people start to use it they seem to be really enthusiastic about it.

Brent Leary: Talk a little bit about how it has impacted your support agents?

Matthew Maez: I think from our support agents there was that apprehension around what does the technology mean. When they use it and they actually hear how Alexa walks customers through their process I think they fell a sense of pride because we're modeling it after the best practices that they've developed. So there's a level of comfortability with that. They're doing a similar thing that she is doing. They're filling out the same fields, walking people through the same process.

I don't think they're using her on a daily basis for their purposes, but when they get home they might be sick of talking to the call center, and if they have to report their own issue, they'll just tell Alexa instead.

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