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Jamie Virtually Knows Everything

If ever you need clarification on government matters in Singapore, just ‘Ask Jamie’. She is an expert on all things government. However, Jamie looks nothing like her avatar. No chestnut brown hair nor a corporate getup. Jamie is a robot, or more specifically, a virtual assistant.

Developed by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), ‘Ask Jamie’ answers questions like, “Where can I read up on Tech News?”, to more burning ones like “When do I need to pay my individual income tax?”. Virtual assistants are proving useful in improving government-citizen relations. In a bygone age of less powerful technology, opportunities for government-citizen interaction were hard to come by. However, with more governments embracing information and communications technology in their services, the gulf that once separated the polity is now narrowing.

How to: ‘Ask Jamie’

Raising an inquiry with a virtual assistant is similar to using a search engine. Ask away and the assistant replies as one would over instant messaging. However, what sets ‘Ask Jamie’ apart from a regular search engine, is its reliance on a Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine. NLP falls under the umbrella of artificial intelligence capabilities.

While not all might take kindly to machine interaction as a replacement for actual interaction with a public servant, virtual assistants might be even more effective than citizens would expect. In fact, citizens might be the biggest winners thanks to NLP.

Long waiting times to get an official response for inquiries are slashed with the instant response ‘Ask Jamie’ provides. Citizens receive comprehensive solutions and targeted responses as soon as they hit the ‘Enter’ key. Even if the virtual assistant is unable to provide a satisfying answer, the government takes heart that at least citizens will be able to direct their inquiries to the right agencies. Furthermore, deaf-mute citizens might benefit the most from the tech initiative as they would no longer need an intermediary to seek public consultation. The overarching principle directing the move toward tech solutions for better governance is “self-help is the best help”.

Jamie’s Future

The dynamism NLP provides as an analytical tool promises more development for ‘Ask Jamie’ in time to come. As the backend database expands, the algorithms which wire the machines become smarter. Soon, virtual assistants and chat bots can be designed to handle complex queries.  ‘Ask Jamie’ developers hope to enable the virtual assistant to become a conversational chatbot with transactional capabilities. This will improve government-citizen interactions in the long haul.

Additionally, ‘Ask Jamie’ will be available on popular instant messaging platforms. Citizens will be able to communicate with government without accessing government website prior to engaging the virtual assistant. Citizens will be able to raise queries and carry out transactions with ease.

One major hurdle that developers of virtual assistants need to overcome is the nuances and evolution of language across time and space. Machines need to be able to cope with these to continue providing seamless and relevant services to citizens.

‘Ask Jamie’ is a big win not just for e-government, but e-governance. Improving citizen’s lives is only the beginning for Singapore’s public service. The gamechanger is transforming citizen experience of government. As a new generation of tech-savvy citizens arise, the level and quality of government interaction will far outweigh those of the previous generation. The reason? Because technology is at the heart of the government’s transformation.

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