How Surrey, B.C. uses artificial intelligence to deliver city services

Ottawa-based startup Purple Forge is piloting a program that uses’s IBM’s Watson AI technology to answer common resident questions

 
Someone using the MySurrey app on a smartphone
The MySurrey app from Purple Forge. (City of Surrey)

Cities are complicated machines and they don’t come with an operator’s manual. Citizens with specific, sometimes arcane questions about city services often find themselves in a maze of 1-800 numbers or poorly organized websites.

Purple Forge is using IBM’s Watson super-computer to create AI research assistants to help residents navigate their municipal infrastructure.

The company’s first live deployment comes courtesy of Surrey, which has automated much of its citizen-facing informational services in an app. My Surrey users can either type or speak questions, at which point the system searches through thousands of pages to deliver—usually—the correct answer.

Unlike a traditional search engine or even Apple’s Siri, which defaults to a web search when it can’t answer a query, Purple Forge’s system usually delivers a full answer, according to chief executive Brian Hurley.

If, for example, you ask, “How many chickens can I own in Surrey,” you’ll get a concrete answer – in this case, it’s 12 for every 0.4 hectares of land, excluding roosters.

“If you go and try to find the answer to that question on the website it’s certainly going to take you longer than just typing it in,” Hurley says.

 

 

Automating information and making it easier to find is going to save municipalities big, he adds. Hurley estimates that between 50 and 80 per cent of questions city staff deal with, either by phone or email, already have publicly available answers – they’re just not easy to find.

Making it easier for citizens to find that information will free staff up for other purposes.

“It just makes more tax dollars available for the city to provide additional services, or new types of services that aren’t provided today because they just don’t have the financial resources,” Hurley says.

Surrey is Purple Forge’s first city, but it’s looking to add more. The company has partnered with Telus, which is reselling the app to cities in Western Canada.

Hurley, like many entrepreneurs involved with AI, believes much of the current angst about technological job obsolescence is overblown.

AI and robots may make a wide swath of human jobs redundant, but they’ll inspire a much larger wave of new, better jobs.

“You used to have people shovelling coal to keep the steam engine going, and just because you went over to diesel and electric … it didn’t mean you weren’t providing the service,” he says.


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