How New Haven, Michigan is Using Alexa to Support Local Businesses and Events

Nick Sawka found a way to combine his skills as a voice app developer with his fondness for his home of New Haven, Michigan, by building an official Alexa Skill for the village’s department of parks and recreation. The Hello, New Haven skill joins the growing ranks of official voice apps for towns, states, and countries. Whether built by a major tech firm or an independent local developer, official voice apps may join websites as sources of information in every community.

New Haven Voice

Sawka approached New Haven’s parks and recreation department this past spring to ask about interest in a town voice app. A Coast Guard veteran who has been building Alexa skills since 2016, Sawka published one of the first 2,000 third-party Alexa skills, an informational skill about the Coast Guard. He wanted to bring his talents to bear on a voice app for the village that would keep locals informed and perhaps boost the local economy right as the COVID-19 health crisis was making things difficult for small businesses.

“Small businesses were the key,” Sawka told Voicebot in an interview. “I wanted to make it possible for the village to give back and build a repository of local businesses and information as a marketing idea.”

Though New Haven is a small community of fewer than 5,000 according to the 2018 Census Bureau Estimate, there are more people with access to Alexa through smart speakers the Alexa app on smartphones all the time. Alexa’s general popularity is why Sawka decided not to also build a Google Assistant voice app, at least for now. After discussing it with the department and presenting his idea to the town council, Sawka received approval to build the voice app in July, releasing the first version in August. New Haven’s Alexa skill is a relatively straightforward source of information about the town. Users can ask about places to get different kinds of food or goods. If asked about where to get pizza, for instance, the skill will randomly pick a business that does so. The random factor is to give those businesses an equal opportunity to get mentioned, according to Sawka. The skill also includes a slew of official details about New Haven, including who is in the local government, when public meetings are held, and upcoming events like the outdoor movie screening pictured above.

“We use a customized API spreadsheet we created for the information,” Sawka said. “It’s a lot quicker to update than going through a web developer and sourcing information from the website.”

Municipal AI

Sawka took the initiative to talk to New Haven, but the village’s decision to approve the creation of the Alexa skill points to how governments of all sizes have begun exploring ways to use voice technology to serve constituents better. The approaches vary enormously, but all have an eye to using voice assistants and AI as a channel for sharing information and providing a service. That’s why the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office built its own Alexa skill to answer questions about government services and events, while Iowa decided to create voice apps for both Alexa and Google Assistant. Meanwhile, Mesa, Arizona’s Alexa skill answers questions and acts as an intermediary to pay utility bills.

Governments are also birthing more narrowly focused AI creations, like the one Idaho and other states are creating using IBM’s Watson AI to answer questions about the election and voting, or the chat-based virtual assistant designed by the California DMV. The trend is international too. Estonia, for instance, is working on a voice and text-based AI to accommodate a whole host of governmental services. The coronavirus pandemic has spurred more interest in the concept as governmental agencies are straining to answer all incoming questions from citizens. Some are turning to the bigger names in AI, but others find that voice app developers like Voicify are better suited to construct the voice apps they want. As New Haven and other villages report successes with the voice apps, Sawka and other local developers around the country may soon be drafted to give their own town a voice.


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