- Citibot, an interactive chat service for local governments, has released its "Citibot Web Chat" platform for municipal websites, enabling chatbot technology driven by artificial intelligence (AI) to answer citizens' questions about the new coronavirus (COVID-19).
- The platform expands on Citibot's existing communications tools, including text chat and interactive text alerts. The addition of a web chat feature eliminates the need for users to know the correct number to text to get in touch with the city.
- The City of Williamsburg, VA, which has worked with Citibot since 2018, is among the first municipalities to integrate the web chat offering on its website. Mark Barham, director of information technology for the city, told Smart Cities Dive that the new service is "quite important to us as part of our communications strategy," as it "puts the functionality in the hands of the citizens" while simplifying and accelerating communications.
As the son of former Charleston, SC Mayor Joseph Riley, who served 10 terms over 40 years, Citibot CEO Bratton Riley was raised with an awareness of the challenges of public-facing government work.
In 2017, Citibot developed its original text-based services with a specific focus on bringing automated communication capabilities to local governments. Now with the addition of Web Chat, users will be able to navigate government websites that are "rich with content," Riley said in a statement.
Williamsburg, VA, home to Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, initially tapped into Citibot's digital communications offerings to cater to public demands. "We are primarily digital first, and we're going to make sure that how we communicate with people is ... how they want to consume it," Barham said.
While Williamsburg has a sizable population of older and retired residents, it is also home to nearly 7,000 college students when class is in session. This age disparity could make strategic communications planning challenging for a city, as these populations may differ in technology use and understanding, yet Barham said that has not been a problem in Williamsburg.
"I don't know that we ever really differentiate between, this is what the older folks want and this is what the college kids want, because I believe that our population is quite technologically savvy and they appreciate the fact that they can use a web chat or they can go on Facebook or send us a DM through Twitter or something like that," Barham said. "It's never really been an issue for us in that regard."
That made adding Citibot Web Chat to the city's existing suite of tools a no-brainer, he said, especially amid the current health crisis. "There's a million things we've got going on" to keep up with the daily demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barham said, "and answering routine questions is not one of them that we want to be doing."
For cities that hope to advance their own digital communication services in the era of COVID-19, Barham suggested trusting and believing in the requests of residents.
"For us, Citibot is a great tool, but it's one of many. We don't rely on a single tool to get information to citizens or allow them to get information back to us," Barham said. "Just hope that your citizens are probably smarter than you think and certainly a lot more technologically savvy than you think, and to trust them and put it out there and say 'here it is' and see how it goes."
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