Automatic for the People

Like lots of others, I think its worth noting San Francisco’s innovative use of Twitter. San Francisco residents can now use Twitter to send a message to an operator at the City’s 311 call center and receive a Tweet back.

This is exactly the type of interactive use of Twitter by governments I had in mind when I wrote about Twitter 2.0 for the public sector a few months ago. Still, now that I see an actual use of Twitter by a government to interact with citizens, I’m wondering if this approach can be improved upon, to make it more efficient for governments and still user friendly for citizens.

While San Francisco’s use of Twitter is indeed convenient for citizens, it has many of the same cost implications for government. Tweets to 311 operators must still be processed “manually” – someone has to read the content of a Tweet (even if its prefiltered based on message content) and assign a follow up action, or respond directly if its been assigned to them. And even though San Francisco is reportedly using the very interesting Twitter-CRM product CoTweet to make this process more efficient, I wonder if there isn’t a better way to do this.

I think this would be a perfect scenario to deploy an interactive IM/SMS BOT. Citizens could interact with an application to report common 311 service requests – potholes, traffic-light outages, abandoned vehicles, etc. As long as certain keywords / hashtags are used in the message content (something that probably needs to be done if Twitter is used instead anyway) it should be pretty easy to process reliably in an automatic way. Moreover, using an IM/SMS BOT would allow the process to have multiple steps, where the application and the citizen could exchange information successively.

For example, a citizen using a BOT to report a traffic signal outage could receive a an automated response asking if there are any noticeable power outages in the vicinity, or telling them to send a follow up message when the repair crew arrives (to audit response times). The possibilities are enormous.

Requests that could not be processed automatically could be routed to a live operator and handled the traditional way. This would more efficiently allocate the finite resource of 311 operators — human operators would only intervene in the processing of 311 service requests when they could not be processed automatically.

Here’s hoping that someday very soon, we’ll see a government go “automatic for the people” with 311 service requests.