L.A. Is on Alexa, and Suddenly It Feels Like the City Has Entered the 21st Century

Our local government just became one of the first in the country to utilize Amazon’s digital assistant

Next week Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot owners will be able to ask “Alexa” about upcoming city council meeting times and agendas, as well as receive newsflashes from the city. Next month device owners will be able to ask Amazon’s digital assistant about events at nearby libraries and parks. Someday you may even be able to request 311 services and information (such as fixing potholes and erasing graffiti). It’s all part of the Information Technology Agency’s ongoing efforts to connect the government and its citizens using new technology.

While many of us were receiving Echoes and Dots as gifts over the holidays, the city, as reported by Venturebeat, enabled an Amazon “skill” (which is a techie way of saying a specific set of abilities enabled in a product) that allowed Angelenos to ask Alexa about official city holiday events.

“The Holy Grail is city services,” Los Angeles Information Technology Agency CIO Ted Ross told Los Angeles magazine. “From the comfort of your living room, to be able to make a service request without making a phone call or even pull up the mobile app, which are also great services.” Ross said his office is working with other platforms as well, including Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant, but Alexa’s popularity is what caught the staff’s attention, and so it’s where they’re dedicating their time.

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If the idea of having city councilman Bob Blumenfield’s biography just a voice command away does not thrill you, have patience. City council info is a first step towards cooler offerings, which could help bridge the large gap between citizens and their local government. If you use something, and if you like a service, you’ll value it, and you’ll be more apt to value the people who provide the service. That’s a win-win. The fact that it may take a digital being to give local government a human face just happens to be kind of hilarious. But since the city launched its MyLA311 app, 24 percent of its 1.5 million service requests now come in through the app, making the app the face of the city for many of us.

“We have a vision for Los Angeles to be a true digital city, a city that uses digital services to connect all of its residents regardless of your location or socioeconomic factors, etc., we believe it’s a powerful way to engage them,” Ross said. “There will always be the traditional ways, community town halls, and our council members work passionately to interact with people face-to-face, but when you have four million residents, you can’t have enough town halls to talk to everybody. People are going about their busy lives. We want to be a government that is readily available to them.”

Los Angeles is currently one of the few cities to offer a “skill.” Las Vegas does, too. To activate yours, go to the LA City Skill on Amazon. The words “Ask L.A. City” will activate local features, which, as we said, will be added soon.