Smart City Update: Oulu is developing new chatbot to make life easier for their citizens

The City of Oulu has started a project for building a new chatbot service called OuluBot. The project is co-funded by Business Finland. The purpose is to make OuluBot a virtual assistant for all everyday questions covering tourism, companies, or city services, where citizens would get answers to their questions regardless of time, place, device, or language. 

” The question might concern the opening hours of a public swimming pool or where a tourist should go in case of illness. The chatbot could use location data, speech recognition or automatic language recognition and translation services, if necessary,” say Chief Financial Officer Veli-Matti Keloneva and Head ICT Designer Sirpa Myllymäki, leaders of the project. 

The aim is to make the chatbot operable on any device (mobile phone, tablet, computer, or even smart TV) and on various digital service channels (phone calls, Twitter, Instagram, Messenger, web pages, mobile applications, etc.) 

” While Google only searches for one thing at a time, this chatbot would direct the user straight to the service. There is no need for a new search,” says Keloneva. 

How does OuluBot work?
Technically, the chatbot searches for information e.g., from relevant City of Oulu web pages, chat history, direction data, databases, and other data sources. If a citizen for example searches for information concerning housing benefits from The Social Insurance Institution Kela, Oulubot could direct the customer directly to Kela’s pages or transfer the chat to Kela's chatbot. This way, the customer’s digital service path would not be broken. 

OuluBot would also allow 24/7 service that is not dependent on municipal office hours. If the citizen has questions which OuluBot cannot answer or it cannot direct the query maker to the right service, OuluBot can redirect the citizen to the City of Oulu customer service during office hours. The chatbot would also support natural conversation. Besides foreign languages (e.g. English, Swedish, German, Chinese, etc.), there is also potential for the chatbot to understand the local dialect as well as colloquial language and office language terminology. 

Responding to the citizen's demands 
A service working on a single window reply basis is a big wish from the citizens. This became apparent at a customer event held in October 2020. 

With OuluBot, we are trying to respond to our citizens’ wishes to run errands and get information about city services quickly and easily. The potential is vast, so it remains to be seen what we can accomplish with OuluBot. Companies and research institutions are also interested in taking part in the project,” Mayor Päivi Laajala says. She is one of the members of the OuluBot steering group.