Owners of speakers connected to interactive voice technology can do seemingly anything with a, “Hey, Google,” or “Hey, Alexa”—from ordering pizza to checking the weather to starting their car. But what in addition to hailing a rideshare vehicle or finding the latest basketball scores, you could ask your Amazon Echo what your property is zoned for? Or for a summary of the latest city council meeting? Or when the city tennis courts open for the season?
For residents in the City of Lake Forest, Calif., nestled in South Orange County, city-related information at their voice command is now a reality, thanks to a custom Alexa skill powered by Twilio Autopilot and voice interactivity technology.
Incorporated in 1991, the City of Lake Forest has a long tradition of innovation and embracing technology as part of long-held fiscal responsibility and resident experience priorities. Its approximately 85,000 residents have a strong sense of civic pride, having decided on their own to incorporate and become a city, and carry that expectation into desiring a top-notch resident experience.
As Director of Management Services Brett Channing explains, Lake Forest considers itself “a contract city,” meaning rather than hiring city employees for municipal services like building inspections and street sweeping, “We have a contract vendor that will take on those basic municipal services and we oversee it.”
Adds Jonathan Volzke, senior communications and marketing analyst for the city, “It’s part of the DNA of the City of Lake Forest to do everything as efficiently as possible. Everything we do, we’re ensuring we get the best value for residents and for our taxpayer dollars.”
The flexible model allows the city to scale up and down to meet city growth and demand, as well as invest in technology to improve resident life. As the City of Lake Forest has experienced large development growth over the past five years—due in large part to more businesses investing in the area and acquiring land from the closure of the nearby El Toro Marine base—the City has looked for ways to keep civic engagement and resident “customer experience” high.
The city prioritizes connections with residents. For instance, while many cities have ceased creating a city-wide magazine, the City of Lake Forest publishes and mails a city magazine to every home six times a year—just one strong connection point the city takes very seriously.
But as channels have proliferated and residents no longer get their news primarily from newspapers or magazines or even websites, city officials sought ways to continue engaging with residents on new channels.
“As different modes of technology and ways people have to communicate come online, we take a look at everything and decide, is there value there for the investment?” says Volzke, the senior communications analyst.
During each generational communications shift, the City of Lake Forest has been there, from newspapers to websites to mobile apps to social media. The city operates a rich, popular website, has created a mobile app, and is active on social media.
Volzke even notes that the City of Lake Forest broadcasts and takes questions for its City Council meetings on Facebook Live—a level of transparency and tech-savviness virtually unheard of in municipalities across the country.
Given this focus, city leaders quickly noticed the emergence of interactive voice technology. Says Volzke: “We want to ensure we’re really reaching everyone in the way they communicate. It’s why we’re starting to move into voice interaction. If people are comfortable with Amazon Echo, Google Home, [Apple’s] Siri, and different voice channels start to come online, we want to ensure we’re there to communicate with them that way.”
The City of Lake Forest decided to build an Alexa skill for Amazon Echo, powered by Twilio Autopilot’s conversational AI platform. Autopilot provides all the tools and software needed to design, build and train omnichannel intelligent assistants powered by machine learning. Working with Twilio partner Dabble Lab, it took city staff about six months to build the fully customizable Alexa skill, enabling residents to ask everything from the time of the next city council meeting to how many trees there are within city limits.
Channing, the director of management services, found the best part of building with Twilio APIs and Twilio Autopilot has been the customizability and control the city has over what they’ve created. Previously, he mentioned, they had been developing another software tool for residents and had gone with something a vendor had developed for hundreds of cities. The rigid, non-customizable, out-of-the-box offering didn’t meet the City of Lake Forest’s needs and getting any changes “became a very frustrating experience,” says Channing.
He adds: “One of the more frustrating things we run into is having software or a tool we’re using and having to keep going back to a developer to make changes and tweaks. After asking ‘Hey, can we add this function or this feature?’ and hearing ‘Nope, we can’t do it that way,’ or ‘We’ll look into it,’ and then nothing—the flexibility that [Twilio] provides has been very nice.”
The small city staff has seen significant time savings as well, with the increased efficiency of being able to easily customize the city’s Alexa skill themselves through Twilio Autopilot, without having to rely on teams of outside developers or a rigid vendor—or having to hire a lot of development experience themselves.
Volzke, Channing, and other city officials are invested in continuing to develop, refine, and add to their Alexa skill. Volzke imagines creating even more efficiencies by relieving more foot traffic to the always-busy permit counter, instead enabling residents to ask requirements for building permits or structure standards through their interactive voice devices, or being able to report potholes or road obstructions through hands-free voice apps in their cars.
“A lot of the questions and information people seek from us via phone or the web are things we’re able to move to these [interactive voice] skills and let people interact and pull city information 24 hours a day,” says Channing. “As more and more people become comfortable with these devices in their homes, using the city’s Alexa skill will be as natural as using the Domino skill or the ESPN skill.”
We want to ensure we’re really reaching everyone in the way they communicate. It’s why we’re starting to move into voice interaction. If people are comfortable with Amazon Echo, Google Home, [Apple’s] Siri, and different voice channels start to come online, we want to ensure we’re there to communicate with them that way.
Both Volzke and Channing see more channels, more voice interactivity, and more AI in the City of Lake Forest’s communications future.
“We’re trying to be at the forefront of this burning technology,” says Channing. “There’s almost endless opportunities to incorporate artificial intelligence systems into what we’re doing to provide customer service to residents.”
Current plans include expanding to Google Home and other channels, adding full-function chatbot capabilities, and expanding the question set the Twilio Autopilot-powered home assistant can draw from. Says Volzke, “We need to be adaptable as things change within the city or information, we need to be able to get that up and onto the platform so residents can access it immediately.”
As for how they plan to evaluate new channels, City of Lake Forest officials cited thoughtful, measured exploration and the ability to build for the future through platform technology like Twilio.
“Cities don’t look in weeks or months or years. They look in decades,” says Volzke. “We need to put things in place so they’re going to last.”
A lot of the questions and information people seek from us via phone or the web are things we’re able to move to these [interactive voice] skills and let people interact and pull city information 24 hours a day. As more and more people become comfortable with these devices in their homes, using the city’s Alexa skill will be as natural as using the Domino skill or the ESPN skill.
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