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Commentary: Seeing Return on Investment in Chatbots, AI, ML

“Although Placer County has been working in the chatbot realm for a few years, only now have we expanded to a sitewide solution,” writes senior IT analyst Ben Palacio. “Now we see a solid user feedback loop! The great part about this is that we now have feedback, even if indirect.”

Since the beginning of 2019, Placer County has been working on chatbots, leading California counties in adopting Google’s Assistant and Dialogflow platforms.

I vividly recall one resident asking about the value of this project in a public meeting, with concerns about its cost-effectiveness. At the time, this was what I would consider a very “heavy” question, since it was then a new technology and we had not seen the results yet. The vision was apparent to us, but there were no metrics or analytics to provide a solid answer.

Fast-forward to today: Without this research and development, we would not have a clear understanding on how it should work, nor see such great results! Anyone can push out buzzwords like AI or ML ¯ but really, what is AI? And should we trust it? The answer is simple: Yes. Artificial intelligence at the level of a chatbot is not deemed dangerous.

Now let us back up a bit and answer the question about the value and cost-effectiveness. First, return on investment (ROI) is not always something you see overnight. Now that we have moved into a new era of chatbot technology at Placer County, with the recent deployment of a new chatbot developed by Frase.io, integrated with CivicPlus’ content management system, we are seeing trends ¯ and we now have some great metrics on how we can better serve our community.

For example, during the recent River and Bridge fires in Placer County, we received many questions regarding various things that would help people during the duress of an emergency. The questions asked may not always have a correct answer, but we can review the requests and correlate them to other information and questions to provide better feedback and information accessibility moving forward.

Although Placer County has been working in the chatbot realm for a few years, only now have we expanded to a sitewide solution. Now we see a solid user feedback loop! The great part about this is that we now have feedback, even if indirect. We can adjust responses and answers to meet the needs of residents. Although it is not a new technology, this new AI will take time to learn and get better. Right now, it might seem a little rough and some answers might feel misleading, but it is a long-term investment. Results have already improved and will only get better from here.
Benjamin Palacio is a Senior IT Analyst on the ESSG-Enterprise Solutions Team in the Placer County Information Technology Department and is a CSAC-credentialed IT Executive. The views expressed here are his own. He may be reached at bmptech@cebridge.net