Amazon’s Alexa – the voice activated personal assistant – provides a set of built in capabilities referred to as skills. These include providing weather forecasts, playing music and answering questions. Amazon Web Services has now offered designers the ability to build and host skills, such as control of cloud-enabled home devices, to the provision of content for flash briefings.
With this freedom has come opportunities for cities and the start of what might be a radical adjustment in the way that municipalities interact with their citizens and how citizens stay abreast of activity in and engage with the city.
Earlier this year, Imaginuity launched ‘Community Connect’, a new platform which allows a city to create its own skill. This skill can enable the assistant to provide specific city-based information to its users including the opening times of city services such as libraries, or a digest of recent city news.
‘Community Connect’ is by no means the first foray into the adoption of Alexa as a powerful piece of civic-tech or urban innovation. In Los Angeles a skill has been launched to answer questions about city events and in Las Vegas a skill provides information about city parks, council meetings and planning commission meetings. These skills work by pulling information from the municipality’s website and formulating responses to questions from said information.
It is conceptually possible (thought certainly not easy) for Alexa’s skills to include ‘digesting’ PDFs, which would enable the absorb-and-sift approach to answering user questions to be extended beyond municipality websites. This presents potential to transform public planning consultation through increased accessibility of information. In theory, a user might ask Alexa about housing projections in the local plan or key elements of their local park’s regeneration scheme. A user could then go one step further and use this information to meaningfully engage through existing consultation avenues.
Generally, good engagement is dependent on two core things: Firstly, education or access to knowledge and secondly the ease and opportunity to participate. The potential here is that Alexa or other voice activated personal assistants can achieve the former, which in recent years, has become secondary to the focus on government digital engagement platforms, some of which have tended to focus on quantity rather than quality of insight. By also being able to direct people to engagement platforms after the provision of information, Alexa’s municipal skills may not only provide something new but enable existing digital infrastructure to work more effectively.
At Future Cities Catapult, our Future of Planning Programme has been advocating for machine readable planning documentation, which would eventually be standardised and transformed into rich data format. This standardisation would enable cross-boundary policy searches for developers or the public and present a clearer national or regional picture. Headway is being made: Urban Intelligence, a Future of Planning backed SME, has been dedicated to this process and the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto outlined plans to create the “largest repository of open land data in the world”.
Increasing digitisation of municipality documents and the ever-growing potential of Alexa’s skills together with the existing and growing digital engagement platforms provided by municipalities makes it seem like the stars are aligning for this development. However, the biggest limit may prove to be reach.
Presently, only 9% of UK households currently own a Voice Assistant and though this expected to reach 40% by the end of 2018, it would be foolish to consider that anywhere near this number would opt to have a municipality skill. Significant hurdles such as reaching the hard to reach and the seemingly uninterested will undoubtedly remain.
Despite this, in 2018, our Urban Futures and Data Science team will be looking to experiment with the conceptually possible and explore teaching Alexa the London Plan as skill. Watch this space.