The City of Charleston this month became the latest local government in the region to sign up for a chat service to help residents communicate with staff.
Now, citizens can report potholes or missing pets and ask questions of the service, such as, “How do I get a business license?”
The city announced the launch of the locally based Citibot service July 8. Residents can text “hello” to 833-990-2427 to get started. No app download is required.
Citibot, co-founded in 2016 by Bratton Riley, developed a chat tool that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help residents talk with their local governments.
The text messaging software responds to citizens directly on their smartphones, and gives users an avenue to relay a message to city staff if their questions weren’t answered.
Charleston’s adoption of the software follows the City of North Charleston in mid-2017 and Charleston County in mid-2018. Though it employs only four people, Riley said Citibot is now live in 75 governments around the country.
Local governments struggle to communicate efficiently with their citizens, Riley said. Chat software like Citibot’s helps cut out the labor of responding to the same types of inquiries repeatedly for city employees, he said.
Riley — whose father is former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley —said he has a passion for local governments and the public servants who work for them. But, he said, governments tend to be five to 10 years behind the technology curve because of cumbersome procurement processes. He said the coronavirus pandemic has only increased people’s need for information from their governments, and municipalities “are starting to wake up” to the need for technology to respond to their citizens’ needs.
“COVID has forced a segment of governments to look at innovation and how they can better use technology to move them through these ups and downs,” he said.
To help fund its work bringing the messaging tools to governments during a pandemic, the S.C. Research Authority awarded Citibot a grant in late June. The money was among $1.5 million distributed to South Carolina companies working on coronavirus solutions. Citibot is offering governments a free two-month starter service that can send key COVID-19 updates to users.
In the bidding process, Citibot beat out three competitors with the top score by far, according to City of Charleston procurement records. The company first applied to run a chatbot service for the city in late 2018.
Citibot also feeds data about what citizens are asking to city staff. Employees can also track how long it took to respond to a resident’s request or concern.
Once residents voluntarily opt in to the service, Citibot can also send emergency notifications when a hurricane is approaching, for example. The application will cost the city roughly $18,000 per year.
Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.