Word gets around: Chattanooga adopts Facebook chatbot for open data

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As part of our effort to help cities improve public access to public data, we’re encouraging local governments to experiment and learn from each other. That’s why we’re excited to see that Kansas City’s Facebook chatbot has already inspired a similar effort in Chattanooga!

When Tim Moreland recently read Sunlight’s report on Kansas City’s Facebook chatbot, the director of performance management for the City of Chattanooga immediately recognized the tool could help Chattanoogans.

“Philosophically, it fit right in with what we’re all about,” Moreland said. “I thought, let’s do it!”

His philosophy is one that Sunlight emphasizes: to achieve maximum social impact, government data needs to be easy for residents to understand and access. In a word, it needs to be open.

“The city of Chattanooga – we love open data.” Moreland told us, in a phone interview.

“But open data just for open data’s sake is a waste of everyone’s time. How is it being used and useful? One of the main barriers is understanding what’s on the portal, and what [residents] can do with it.”

When Moreland saw Kansas City’s proof-of-concept, he decided to give it a try in Chattanooga.

“Having a chatbot that can walk people through and give examples seems like a complete no-brainer,” he said.

While Moreland hasn’t been able to directly connect with Kansas City’s data officer (Eric Roche) yet, he found it easy to “reverse-engineer” a bot of his own using Chatfuel, a startup that enables people to create Facebook chatbots.

“I saw the platform they used and how they set up their Chatbot,” he said. “It gave me some good ideas on the approach to take and how to set it up.”

What’s next?

As in Kansas City, Chattanooga’s bot is still in the preliminary stages. Moreland has “hard-coded” the bot’s suggestions for popular datasets, rather than using complex machine–learning to generate suggestions. He also hasn’t done any advertising or promotion of the bot yet. For now, it’s in beta, with a few users trying it out on their own, but he plans to promote the bot more so can see how more users interact with it.

The Chatfuel platform’s ability to report on user interaction with the bot has potential for cities looking to improve user experience with open data. You can see where they got lost or what they’re looking for, Moreland explained.

In the near-term, he thinks the bot can help him understand more about how the city’s residents are interacting with municipal data.

Moreland’s long-term goal is to understand different types of users of city open data and move them up a “ladder of engagement,” from people who simply know that open data exists all the way up to people who become advocates themselves for open data and tools.

Today, the city has a hard time figuring out how many people are at these different levels or how to “level them up.” To gain more insight, Chattanooga has started using a “Citizen Activation Network” (CAN) –– a play on NGPVAN’s “Voter Activation Network,” which the database is based upon –– to learn more about how citizens are using open data portals. The city plans to eventually integrate data from the chatbot into the city’s CAN database.

In the future, Moreland would love to see more cities adopt and build a chatbot themselves.

“If future people were interested, I would like to duplicate and share it on the Chatfuel platform,” he said.

We’re glad to see Chattanooga adopt Kansas City’s idea and launch its own chatbot, adapting it for the city’s own initiatives. We don’t know yet whether Facebook chatbots will make open data easier to use for residents everywhere, but this is another promising example of how cities are building upon the experiments of their peers.

As more cities release open data, it’s critical for them to take the next step, building better ways to facilitate meaningful use and reuse by the communities serve. We’re thrilled to see them experimenting with new approaches and learning from each other to do so.

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  • Sonar is an open-source chatbot that supports Facebook, Slack, Alexa, and can be extended for SMS Text, Skype and others. Sonar uses using Amazon servers and ArcGIS open data API.

    It is currently an experimental prototype, and welcome for collaboration with other developers and cities.

    https://github.com/esri/sonar