Surrey BC

Published: July 24th, 2015

One of Canada’s most intelligent cities just got a whole lot smarter.

Surrey, BC says it has become the first city to deploy IBM Watson’s natural language capabilities.

The purpose is actually quite mundane; it’s to help local residents more quickly find answers to their questions regarding city services, whether it’s how to make a noise complaint, or how to contest a parking ticket.

“When you’re doing self-service of any kind, you’re doing a lot of documentation and it can be very difficult to get information simply through a Google search,” said Brian Hurley, president of Nepean, Ont.-based Purple Forge Corp., which implemented the solution.

While his company became a Watson Ecosystem Partner for this project, it is no stranger to creating self-service software.

The company, which did the last mySurrey app for the city a year ago, looked at Siri, Kortana, even Google Now before deciding on Watson’s natural language and cross-platform capabilities.

“Watson offers a lot of value,” Hurley said. He explained that using the app – which only has 1,000 – 5,000 downloads in the Google Play store – instead of speaking with a 311 rep equals on average $4 to $6 in savings per call.

There is also no wait time – Watson’s cloud-based analytics capabilities are wrapped in a custom database of some 3000 documents that Purple Forge put together with the city of Surrey to allow it to find answers instantly.

That being said, Watson doesn’t know everything.

“That’s one big misconception I think,” Hurley said, citing an example such as “Where can I find parking?” which is a real-time geographic function not currently present in the AI.

“It only knows knows what you tell it to know,” he said.

That being said, the app is currently in a pilot phase.  Hurley said that there are analytics capabilities built in to observe how the app is being used and improve on answers, with the possibilities of functions (such as parking) to be added to the software later on.

“Right now it’s just about managing peoples’ expectations,” he said and laughed.

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