Governments Become More "Natural" With Search Tools

12/23/2023

As natural language search gains traction in the public space, an associated technology also is finding more interest: the use of chatbots, including ones that offer responses in multiple languages.

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it that could become a guiding idea as state and local governments boost digital communications and services, often via artificial intelligence.

Local governments such as Grand Rapids, Mich., and the borough of Prospect Park, N.J., are testing an increasingly popular form of search designed to connect residents and officials with ever more precise civic information.

The idea, common in e-commerce, revolves around using natural language to unearth data often buried in legislation, meeting minutes, the deeper layers of municipal websites or other digital hiding places.Natural language search, or NLS, means that people can go to a website and type in — or speak — a query that reflects how that person would ask that question in personal conversation. NLS, which takes into account the context of search terms, seeks to better understand the detailed intentions of users than the older methods of Boolean searches that rely on relatively static keywords.Here are examples of how NLS could work in local government. It comes from California-based Polimorphic, a three-year-old government technology provider that has put up its new AI-powered NLS search tool for testing in those two locations:

“I’m opening a café to serve coffee by day and wine by night. What permits do I need?”

“How do I make a public records request?”

“I just moved to Grand Rapids. What do I need to do?”

The new tool goes “beyond just finding matches” to produce answers to such inquiries, Parth Shah, the company’s CEO, told Government Technology. The tool learns from the government’s website, using only sources from the site, puts it all together and provides answers, he said.He likened the process to transforming a digital maze into “something understandable.” That, in turn, can reduce 311 calls or angry complaints to city hall customer service workers — an attractive proposition for officials.

“With better search results, residents need to make fewer calls to Borough Hall, freeing up our staff to dedicate time to resident issues that do require person-to-person interaction,” said Mayor Mohamed Khairullah of the borough of Prospect Park in a statement. “Meanwhile, residents' ability to quickly find essential information, regardless of language barriers, democratizes access to crucial information across our diverse community.”

Officials, meanwhile, can use the natural language search and the tool’s AI to generate reports on a variety of issues, Shah said.Shah, who has a background in machine learning from MIT, said his grandfather’s experience as a utility director in India sparked his ongoing interest in workforce and customer service in government.

Shah’s company has raised more than $3.7 million, according to Crunchbase, and was part of CivStart’s 2022 gov tech accelerator program, which just absorbed a fresh cohort.

Natural language tools are gaining ground in government.One recent example comes from Illinois, where the state’s Department of Children and Family Services has started using natural language processing software from Augintel. The technology is meant to help agency employees gain a firmer grasp on data and narratives about cases.One analysis of the possible future of natural language tools in government foresees those tools encouraging more "one-stop shopping" in the public sector — that is, having a single portal through which residents can conduct such government business as tax payments and permit applications without having to navigate to or bookmark multiple pages.