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City of Knoxville deploys a web and SMS chatbot

By using a chatbot from text messaging vendor Quiq, the city of Knoxville, Tenn. can give its residents information on the coronavirus, the 2020 census, and the city's social services.

The city of Knoxville, Tenn., for several years maintained a website, a call center and social media pages to keep its close to 190,000 residents informed about the city's social services and changes to city policies.

Yet, with the 2020 U.S. census, plus the novel coronavirus sweeping through the country, the city wanted another tool to get up-to-date information quickly to its residents. So, the city built and deployed a web and SMS chatbot.

The chatbot, built with software and text messaging technology from customer engagement vendor Quiq, can answer basic questions about the coronavirus. That includes information on what COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is; how it spreads; efforts residents can take to stay safe; and efforts the city is taking to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Users can interact with it on the city of Knoxville's website, or through text messages.

The chatbot also provides information on the 2020 U.S. census, as well as the city's social services, said Russ Jensen, director of 311 and 211 for the city of Knoxville. Residents can call both 311 and 211 for information about local government services.

SMS chatbot, coronavirus, Knoxville, Quiq
The city of Knoxville, Tenn., deployed a chatbot from vendor Quiq to give residents information about the coronavirus.

Setting up

It took about two weeks for Quiq to build a web and SMS bot, Jensen said. Originally, the bot was meant to just handle questions on the 2020 census, but the fast spread of COVID-19 prompted the city to add information about the coronavirus.

If the web and SMS chatbot only had to provide information on the census, it would have taken a day or two to build. The everchanging situation with the coronavirus, however, added about two weeks to the build.

Jensen also ran into a problem with integrating the Quiq chatbot platform with the city's website, a problem that he conceded was the city's, not the vendor's. While he declined to elaborate on the glitch, he noted that the problem was fixed when the city's webmaster created a dedicated page for the web chatbot on the city's site.

Besides those problems, the bot was easy to set up, Jensen said. A week or so after it was up and running, he and his team added new information to the web and SMS chatbot about the city's social services. Jensen said he was able to easily do that himself.

"If I can set some of this stuff up virtually anyone can do it," he said with a laugh.

If we had to, we could go full-on chat capability.
Russ JensenDirector of 311 and 211, city of Knoxville

For Jensen, the web and SMS chatbot offers some assurance that the city call center can stay open even with employees unable to work in the central office. Currently, employees are still working from the office. Stepped-up efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, however, could shut down the office and restrict employees' ability to handle calls.

"If we had to, we could go full-on chat capability," Jensen said.

Full automation wouldn't be ideal, because senior citizens may have trouble using the bots, and some people, particularly those who are panicked, would rather speak to a human over the phone. Still, the chatbot platform is "a safety net," Jensen said.

Even when the pandemic has subsided, Jensen said Knoxville will continue using the Quiq chatbots.

The bot platform, he said, has "turned out to be even more beneficial than we probably thought it would be." The city will keep using it to provide residents with information on social services and will update it with new information as new situations arise.

Jensen also plans to integrate the chatbots with Facebook Messenger.

The bot has been used over 500 times so far with no complaints, Jensen said. Users can respond to the SMS bot at their convenience, texting it when they are able to.

Adaptation

The coronavirus has sparked a new wave of AI and RPA adoption among enterprises, as the virus has forced businesses to contract, direct their employees to work remotely or lay off workers.

According to Quiq CEO Mike Myer, the pandemic has brought in a wave of new business to Quiq, as well as requests from existing clients for expanded systems.

"We're on fire," Myer said. "We've probably seen more activity in the last three weeks than we've seen in the last three months."

The pandemic will likely change the world in the long term, he said. It will move more businesses away from call centers and into chatbots and conversational AIs.

"I think there will be a little bit of a reversion back to where things were" once the pandemic has passed, Myer said. But, he added, that won't negate the dramatic inroads into enterprises, whether public or private, that chatbots will have made during this time.

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