Chatbot makes open data user-friendly

More and more local governments are putting their data online, improving governmental transparency, and making it easy for residents to get the information they need. At least, that’s the plan. Although cities aim to make their open-data portals simple to use, it can still be tough for residents to find what they’re looking for, much less know what information is out there to begin with. But thanks to Kansas City, Mo., a Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works City, open data is about to get friendlier — even chatty.

Kansas City Chief Data Officer Eric Roche saw firsthand the value of having conversations to help people get the information they need on their open-data portal, OpenData KC. “I go to meetings in the community or in the city hall, and people ask me questions about our data. Because I’m there in-person, I talk through the issues they’re interested in and what type of content they’re really looking for.”

Kansas City’s open-data portal was already robust and relatively easy to navigate, but Roche wanted to bring this type of assistance with an in-person touch to more people. However, he knew that he couldn’t be everywhere at once. The solution turned out to be right in front of him.

“I found myself chatting with companies [through chatbots] and not sure if there was a person involved or not. I wondered how we could offer this experience to our residents,” he said.

Chatbot technology can provide automated back-and-forth interactions just like real conversations, so it had the potential to imitate Roche’s technique of asking questions to help people explore data to find the right information. Moreover, “the ability for the bot to respond instantaneously, 24 hours a day, is really important for customer service,” he said.

But nothing like the chatbot Roche had in mind existed — and developing one would be a calculated risk. So Roche created an open-data chatbot in his own spare time on a free chatbot platform, honing it with volunteer feedback from the local coding community.

Roche’s efforts have paid off. The first version of Kansas City’s open data chatbot launched on June 20 through Facebook. True to Roche’s original vision, the chatbot has a conversational feel and uses plain and informal language. “It was designed to be a friendly chatbot that is super jazzed about data and talks about it in the same way that I do, with a lot of energy and happiness,” Roche said.

Even though the chatbot just launched, its impact already extends well beyond Kansas City. Communities across the country are looking at what’s happening in Missouri and want their own chatbots to help residents access their open government data. (“Seems like a complete no-brainer,” Chattanooga’s director of performance management, Tim Moreland, told the Sunlight Foundation.)

Kansas City aims to build upon its success. Now that the chatbot is up and running, Roche’s team will refine it based on user feedback. They’re also eager to work with other cities toward the shared goal of making open data useful for residents.

“Part of what I hoped to do with the chatbot was start a conversation, and we’ve certainly seen that,” Roche said. “Now that we have something real that we can react to, everyone can think about how to improve it.”