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Technology gives residents a new voice

Douglas County works to make information more readily available

Posted

Douglas County just came up with a way to connect the community in a 21st century way, allowing locals to ask Alexa about what's going on around town.

John Thompson, the county’s data services manager, combined two technologies to better serve the public. Now, Amazon’s Echo — a hands-free speaker that users control with their voice — can tap into Socrata, the online platform that makes local government information more accessible.

Echo users simply say, “Alexa, enable Douglas County,” and the device then answers questions about upcoming events, what's new or closures.

“Instead of putting data out there and walking away, we wanted to use it so that the public can benefit,” Thompson said.

The idea sprouted when Douglas County Assessor Lisa Frizell and Treasurer Diane Holbert brainstormed ways to break down barriers between government data and community awareness.

“Citizens rely on us. It’s incumbent on us to inform them,” Frizell said. “And Douglas County is a fairly sophisticated place.”

With the help of Crestone Digital, a Denver-area software solutions provider, Thompson came up with an Alexa Skill that's brand new to the Front Range. Alexa now tells users about community calendar events and read off the county's newsroom feed. In the future Thompson hopes to add more features, like school closures.

The cost came in below $50,000, which Thompson said is low.

“This is brand new. It's not like you can buy the product off the shelf,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly, it's been fairly inexpensive for us.”

The county hopes the feature will enable the community to better understand and connect.

“We see open data, and what we're trying to do with Alexa is to remove those (information) silos, and reduce frustration,” Thompson said. “Kind of a one source of truth sort of thing.”

Socrata, the online platform that the Alexa Skill gleans all of the information from, has allowed Douglas County businesses and residents easier access and more transparency with the government's financial data since 2015.

“Platform visitors can dig into the financial data with the ability to summarize at a fund, department, division, category or line-item detail, and choose how to view the data — in table, snapshot, or timeline format,” said Elise Oras, Socrata's spokesperson. “Visitors can also use the Open Data platform to receive information on community news, local parks, property data, employment data, and so much more.”

Specifically, locals can view senior services, or the breakdown of how the county spends its money. Giving the community access to data means freeing up resources, as fewer calls and emails come in.

“For the county, smarter data usage not only helps public-sector organizations deliver more responsive service. It can also help these organizations reap rewards like cost savings and substantial improvements in efficiency,” Oras said.

Kevin Merritt, Socrata's CEO, notes the shift in the way information is given out, and how an informed community can function better.

"Modern, digital governments are moving from reactive to proactive data sharing. Data has become a self-service resource residents can explore, download and embed,” Merritt said. “It helps them grow their businesses, strengthen their communities, and understand better how the government is working on their behalf."

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