Sullivan County tries a new technology

smallUlivan County launched a program aimed at reducing the time its staff spend on the phone answering basic questions. The program, called Virtual Agent, is described as an “artificial intelligence-powered program.”

Pleasanton, Calif.-based technology services provider SpringML was brought in to work with the county’s information technology services department to deploy a Google service called Dialogflow CX to enable Sullivan’s virtual agents. The computer software uses various text and clickable buttons to chat with users of the Sullivan County website. It is advertised as providing answers to frequently asked questions and other information about government operations and services.

Sullivan County says it is the first government entity in upstate New York to use Google’s Dialogflow CX.

Sullivan County Government Center. Photos are from Google Maps.

“We invested in this technology with the hope that it will quickly direct web users to the information they seek and reduce the time county staff spend on the phone answering basic questions,” said County Executive Joshua Potosek. “The initial results are promising and we will continue to study the use of virtual agents enthusiastically to see if there is a need to expand.”

When a user logs into the county’s website, a box opens in the lower right corner of the screen introducing itself as a virtual agent, offering a list of clickable topics and an empty field where the user can enter a question.

“Whether someone asks a complete question or just enters a keyword, the virtual agent provides an appropriate response within seconds,” Potosek said. “If it doesn’t have an answer, it still gives a phone number to call so people aren’t left hanging.”

In early testing, the Virtual Agent had a limited scope, covering only issues with county clerks’ offices, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the county finance office.

“My staff takes dozens of calls a day, and if a virtual agent can reduce that number, our team can focus on answering issues that really need our attention,” said County Clerk Russell Reeves.

The county has invited members of the public who try out the system and have comments to get in touch with its communications director, Dan Haster. The county said it plans to use public feedback in the coming months as it evaluates the usefulness of virtual agents.

When Business Daily tried out a virtual agent, a computer program quickly responded with stored snippets of information when buttons labeled “passport,” “handgun” and “taxes” were clicked.

When a question is entered into the field labeled “Ask something”, the Virtual Agent cannot successfully provide an answer to the question. Business Daily asked, “What’s the phone number for the county clerk?” The virtual agent replied, “Is there anything else I can do for you with taxes?” Next, Business Daily asked, “The county office What time is it?” The Virtual Agent replied, “Yes, an appointment is required to visit.” When Business Daily asked the County Clerk’s name, the Virtual Agent replied, “Can you clarify your question? We also How can I help you?” Virtual Agent did not display a helpline number.

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