Sullivan County has launched a program that is designed to reduce the time its staffers have to spend on the phone answering basic questions. The program has been dubbed Virtual Agent and is described as “an artificial intelligence-driven program.”
A provider of technology services, SpringML, which is headquartered in Pleasanton, California, was brought in to work with the county’s Information Technology Services Division in deploying Google’s service named Dialogflow CX that makes Sullivan’s Virtual Agent function. The computer software uses various bits of text and clickable buttons to chat with users of Sullivan County’s website. It is billed as providing answers to common questions along with other information about government operations and services.
Sullivan County says that it is the first government entity in upstate New York to be using Google’s Dialogflow CX.
“We invested in this technology with the twin hopes that it will quickly lead web users to the information they seek and will reduce the time county staff spend on the phone answering basic questions,” County Manager Joshua Potosek said. “Preliminary results are promising, and we will continue to enthusiastically study usage of the Virtual Agent to see if expansion is warranted.”
When users sign onto the county website, a box opens in the lower right part of their screen that introduces itself as the Virtual Agent, provides a list of clickable topics and a blank field where the user can type in questions.
“Whether someone asks a full question or just types in a keyword, the Virtual Agent will provide an appropriate response within a few seconds,” Potosek said. “If it doesn’t have the answer, it will still give a phone number to call, so that people are not left hanging.”
In the early testing, the scope of Virtual Agent has been limited and it only covers questions about the County Clerk’s Office, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the County Treasurer’s Office.
“My staff answers dozens of calls a day, and if the Virtual Agent can reduce that amount, our team can focus on answering the kind of questions that really need our attention,” County Clerk Russell Reeves said.
The county has invited members of the public who try the system and have comments to get in touch with Dan Hust, its communications director. The county said it plans to use public feedback as it evaluates the usefulness of the Virtual Agent over the next few months.
When the Business Journal tried out the Virtual Agent, the computer program was quick to respond with bits and pieces of stored information when buttons with labels such as “passports,” “pistols” and “taxes” were clicked.
When questions were typed into the field that is labeled “Ask something,” Virtual Agent was less than successful in providing answers to the questions. The Business Journal asked, “What’s the telephone number for the county clerk?” The Virtual Agent replied, “Is there anything else I can help you with in taxes?” Next, the Business Journal asked, “What are the county’s office hours?” Virtual Agent replied, “Yes appointment is required to visit.” When the Business Journal asked for the name of the county clerk, Virtual Agent replied, “Can you state your query clearly? What else can we help you with?” Virtual Agent did not display a phone number to call for help.