‘Alexa, Open Douglas County’
In today's world, we've come to expect information and action at our fingertips. Did you run out of detergent? Push a button and Amazon will deliver more within two business days. Can't remember the first rule of Fight Club? Alexa is there to remind you.
John Thompson, Data Services Manager in Douglas County, Colorado, wanted to find a way to leverage new technology like Amazon's Echo Dot to better serve and inform the public.
"I was talking to our development partner Mike Giddens, who was starting to play with the Alexa interface," Thompson says. "He created a quick proof of concept and scripted something where you could ask Alexa and get answers. We showed this to a couple of Douglas County elected officials and they liked the concept. They asked us to do a pilot with the Alexa system."
Douglas County's Open Data Portal includes electoral data, property data, and more.
Thompson and his team knew they wanted to combine the technology of Echo Dot and Alexa's capabilities with open data.
"What we came up with was the ability to have a dataset that sits on the Socrata portal, our public portal, and uses the SODA API (Socrata Open Data API) to search and find information and relay it back to individuals." In order to get buy-in and participation from all municipalities in Douglas County, Thompson commissioned Giddens and Crestone Digital to create a calendar feature using a Socrata dataset.
"Alexa, ask Douglas County what's happening this weekend."
The community events dataset sits on Douglas County's open data portal. In order to prevent unauthorized events from being added to the dataset, the Crestone team built two front-end pieces that publish to the dataset.
The first is an events submission form. Named individuals can use this form to add event submissions to the dataset. The second is a process by which events managers review submissions and make them live and usable through downstream applications. That approval process is what prevents malicious or embarrassing entries.
Once an event has been approved, it is available to the Alexa voice service. So now, residents of Douglas County can say, "Alexa, ask Douglas County what events are happening next week," and Alexa will begin reading the list.
"It's been fairly well-executed," says Thompson. "It's a different way to make events available. We wanted to advertise things going on in our community. This program leverages the Alexa platform as well as our open data platform all-in-one using the SODA API."
This program leverages the Alexa platform as well as our open data platform all-in-one using the SODA API.
Data Services Manager, Douglas County
Thompson's team didn't want to overtax the workload of any staff, so they ensured the process was as simple and streamlined as possible. Alexa keys in on category, date, and city. For example, there is a filter in place to prevent Alexa from reading events happening months in the future. That same filter works for city and category.
Try it out! If you have an Echo Dot, say, "Alexa, enable Douglas County," to get the app and interact with it.
A big advantage of being the first to leverage Alexa in this way is that Douglas County has claimed their name, even though there are 17 Douglas Counties in the United States. Thompson encourages other governments to be early adopters. "One of the nice things about being first on the scene is that you get to name your app before anyone else does," he chuckles.
Unfortunately, Douglas County can't replicate this on Siri or OK Google because those services work differently. "Echo Dot and Alexa sit completely on the cloud," Thompson explains. "Amazon has made it easy to get into their ecosystem."
Any county considering adopting a program like this will be pleased to learn it is not cost-prohibitive. "It was not expensive," says Thompson. "We have spent less than $50,000. Phase II will be similar, making the entire cost less than $100,000 overall."
Strategic Community Involvement
In order to inform municipalities about the new Alexa option, Thompson's team is relying on word of mouth.
"From Amazon's standpoint, all marketing materials incorporating Alexa's branding must be vetted," he explains. Eventually, they plan to have a link from the Douglas County site to promote the Alexa product and enable your device.
Any municipality in Douglas County can promote events through Alexa with the app, which allows these towns a new opportunity to meet strategic goals.
Diana Gould, Open Program Liaison for Douglas County, explains.
"Castle Pines is trying to bring more people into their city, so they are using Alexa to advertise free events," she says. "Every municipality is different in how they are using events. They come with their own strategies and can use Alexa to support them."
What's Next for Douglas County
"What we envision for version two of this application is another open dataset in which we could have questions and answers for county services," says Thompson.
Residents could, for example, ask Alexa what time county departments open, or when taxes are due, and more. "We want to leverage the SODA API to build a system that goes out, makes a query for the open data we've made available, and returns a response for individuals. We're taking open data and building an app on top that makes it more accessible for all individuals."
We're taking open data and building an app on top that makes it more accessible for all individuals.
Data Services Manager, Douglas County
By digging into the analytics, Thompson's team has been able to determine a large majority of residents are accessing county sites via mobile. They plan to continue to use the analytics that the Alexa voice service provides to improve the service. Alexa captures the questions it does not understand, which means Thompson's team can use that information to learn what people ask in order to ensure they are providing the best information to users.
What advice would Thompson give to others who want to replicate this program?
"SODA API is the stuff," he says. "We really appreciate it. It's the thing that makes this work."
Live Demo of Alexa Skill + Open Data
Check out Douglas County's John Thompson's demo of Alexa sharing the county's monthly event calendar. "Alexa, connect to Douglas County."