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Intelligence boost lets Tim understand you better

Timaru District Council’s customer service chatbot ‘Tim’ has gained some intelligence, but needs your help to better understand what you’re asking.

The chatbot, which Timaru was the first council in the country to adopt, has been upgraded with technology called ‘Natural Language Processing’ which enables people to ask questions in their own words, rather than just clicking through a menu of options.

Timaru residents can help train the Artificial Intelligence that powers Tim, just by asking their queries and using the feedback buttons to indicate if Tim’s response was helpful or not.

Timaru District Council Customer Services Manager Grant Hamel said that we need the community’s help to ensure that Tim better meets the needs of our customers.

“Staff and a small number of testers have been putting Tim through its paces the past few months. The more questions Tim gets, and the more feedback he receives if he has understood or misunderstood things helps grow his understanding of the specific needs of people in Timaru,” he said.

“When you think about the wide range of things the council does, then the even larger number of ways you can ask for the same thing you can see that it’s a big challenge.

“Behind the scenes we are monitoring the feedback, tuning the AI, improving Tim’s responses, and adding additional information where Tim is being asked questions that he currently can’t answer.

“It’s a challenge worth undertaking though, once Tim knows how to interact with our consumers using text input, it’s a major step on the path to bringing him into the voice assistant ecosystem.

“One day in the future you could be asking Siri what colour bins to put out or Alexa when your dog registration is due, all of which would be handled by Tim. The further we integrate our systems in future you could be asking your phone to renew your library books or find out how much your rates bill is.”

Since launch, Tim in his basic form has handled more than 21,000 enquiries, enabling people to better access information on the website and freeing up customer services staff for more complex enquiries.

“Many customers like to get the answers they need for themselves, without making a phone call or a trip to a customer service centre,” said Grant.

“And Tim can handle multiple conversations at once, so there’s no queue for attention. And he doesn’t go home at the end of the day - he’s there to help 24/7.”

The chatbot project has required input from every area of council, and especially close collaboration between the Council’s Customer Services and IT Departments, according to Symon Leggett, Council’s Group Manager People & Digital. “It’s also innovative for local government in New Zealand, and we believe internationally.”

“In addition to improving service to customers, we’re targeting operational efficiencies and learning what we can from a small scale introduction of AI,” says Symon.

“In future, Tim could also have a valuable role internally, helping council staff access information faster. And potentially we could introduce some functionality, such as booking building inspections or reporting an issue.”

“But for now, we’re asking Timaru to help us train our AI powered Tim, so he gets smarter and more useful over time.”

The technologies powering Tim are Google’s Dialogflow AI service, and council’s existing web management platform Squiz Matrix.


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