L.A.’s New Virtual Assistant ‘Chip’ Is Making the City’s Bidding Process More Competitive

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California


Connecting state and local government leaders

Expect to see the AI explaining other digital services in the near future.

The city of Los Angeles began toying with virtual digital assistants and chatbots two months ago, seeking a data-driven reimagining of customer experience that would re-engage residents with government.

Using Microsoft’s Azure cloud-hosted Cortana for a proof of concept, the city configured the VDA, named Chip, with answers to 200 business assistance questions in a couple days.

The bidding process in Los Angeles presented a great first use case to help vendors identify opportunities, understand the North American Industry Classification System code and compete for contracts—lowering costs for government.

“Our government services are using real, iterative feedback,” Ted Ross, the city’s chief information officer and general manager of the L.A. Information Technology Agency, told Route Fifty in an interview. “We think this is one of the many facets of being a smarter city.”

Online 24/7, Chip gauges the probability it answered a question correctly based on subsequent questions asked. Initial responses Chip was programmed with were tied to site FAQs, but additional answers are added based on those probabilities to make the tool smarter—machine learning. Two months in, and Chip is up to 900 answers.

Business Assistance Virtual Network support, which was once fielding 80 to 100 questions a week, now sees a mere 30 to 40 with Chip handling most of the load. Not a bad foray into conversation as a platform, considering L.A.’s digital personality was quietly rolled out at night and hasn’t been advertised.

Chip had seen 180 queries by the next day, 3,221 queries across 1,042 conversations in the first two months, and it serves about 100,000 businesses. Another benefit is that Chip frees up human resources.

“It’s a morale booster for call center folks because they’re fielding more high-end, complex questions rather than answering the same ones over and over,” said Michael Donlan, Microsoft vice president of state and local government business in the U.S.

Calls to the center cost $2 to $7 each, so the city is also saving money.

In a couple more weeks, Chip should be satisfiably refined—though that process will continue, said Joyce Edson, the city’s deputy CIO.  

From there, the city will consider applying Chip to other use cases it’s been brainstorming: events; new municipal initiatives; routine employee onboarding and training; 311 calls for assistance with bulky item pickup, graffiti and potholes; and tax season aid.

Chip’s API allows it to be integrated into other L.A. data systems to ingest information and formulate responses.

“We think it’s really important to refine some of these capabilities,” Ross said. “Lots of governments bang a very big drum and deliver not so big a product, but we make sure our work is great and then spread the word.”

Phase II of Chip’s use will also introduce other languages, Donlan said, and possibly language translation in real-time.

L.A. hasn’t received any negative feedback about Chip since the rollout, and data shows positive results.

“We haven’t had anybody call us to say they loved it or they hated it,” Edson said. “But we see their questions are being answered.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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