Illinois' chatbot hackathon produces 'incredibly creative' tools for state government

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As part of the state’s plans to partner more frequently with the private sector in search of new ideas, the Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology hosted a chatbot-themed hackathon this week.

After putting out a call to software developers in the Springfield, Illinois, area, about 70 people from in and outside government attended a two-day event starting Tuesday that resulted in several products that officials say could soon be adapted for use in state government.

Sponsored by Microsoft, the event started with an overview of the developer’s cloud software platform, Azure, and transitioned into teams of public- and private-sector participants developing chatbot technologies that state Chief Information Officer Kirk Lonbom called “incredibly creative.”

“What was really interesting is that the different teams seemed to focus on different areas of the technology,” Lonbom told StateScoop.

One team focused on the voice-enabled chat aspect of the technology, Lonbom said, while another team built a tool that integrates a “community” of chatbots to power an “experts as a service” platform.

The winning team came from the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which developed a chatbot that allows users to apply for hunting licenses and handles other common requests.

A team from the Illinois Department of Revenue built a chatbot that serves as a front-end for its commonly asked questions database that Lonbom said is “almost production-ready.”

Chatbots are an emerging trend for state and local government in 2017. Mississippi and Atlanta are just two among a growing number of governments exploring how the technology can provide painless inroads for residents looking for government services. In Illinois, Lonbom said the technology is a promising way to ease the process of doing business with state government for residents.

“If you look at any state government, our information is probably all out there at different agency websites, but the ability to bring a one-way in to our customers is a huge, huge piece,” Lonbom said.

Illinois is supporting the idea that there is “no wrong door” to do business with the state, Lonbom said — no matter what someone tries to do to get information from state government, they should always find what they’re looking for, and do so with no additional frustration.

And for government, Lonbom added, it translates into operational efficiency — fewer calls to the help desk.

The CIO told StateScoop that additional follow-ups will come in early January as his office explores how it can turn the chatbot tools into a sustained effort that improves state government service delivery.

For chatbots and otherwise, Lonbom said office intends to work with the private sector in this fashion with increasingly regularity in 2018.

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Chatbot, Cloud Computing, Data & Analytics, Digital Services, Emerging Technology, hackathon, Illinois, Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology, Innovation, Kirk Lonbom, Microsoft, Partnerships, State & Local News, States, Tech News
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