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City: Access to Amazon Alexa 311 data is limited

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In April, Albuquerque announced it had integrated its 311 nonemergency hotline with Alexa, the digital assistant from e-commerce giant Amazon. City staffers say they believe Albuquerque is the first municipality in the country to use Alexa for generating service tickets.

The Albuquerque 311 skill for Amazon Alexa can answer 115 common questions, as well as initiate service requests for graffiti removal and other issues. City staffers say they kept privacy concerns in mind when coding the program. (Marie C. Baca/Albuquerque Journal)

By saying, “Alexa, open Albuquerque 311” into an Amazon Echo, Dot or Android Alexa app, users can receive an answer to 115 frequently asked questions about the city and its facilities, or report missed trash pickups and abandoned vehicles, among other functions.

That process, which occurs over the internet and does not typically generate a phone call, creates data that are shared with both Albuquerque and Amazon.

The project comes at a time of heavy scrutiny of technology companies and the personal data in their possession. Matthew Maez, the city’s digital engagement specialist, developed the program – known as an Amazon Alexa skill – in collaboration with software company Oracle, which provides the technical system through which the 311 call center operates. He said the program was shepherded with privacy concerns in mind and developed so that personal data are shared only under limited circumstances.

“The way we’ve coded it reflects our interest in only collecting the information we need on a case-by-case basis,” Maez said.

A 311 Alexa session about a missed trash pickup, for example, could elicit a follow-up question about the address of the pickup that might then be included in a service request shared with the city. A session that does not create such a request, such as a question about the hours of the ABQ BioPark, is shared with the city in aggregate.

Maez said that to the best of his knowledge, Albuquerque is unable to parse out individual data from those sessions shared in aggregate with the city.

In response to a public records request for all Albuquerque 311 Alexa sessions since the launch of the program, the city provided the Journal with a spreadsheet containing information from 65 sessions that generated service requests.

The city has received about 400 sessions since April; the majority did not lead to requests for service and were thus not reflected in the spreadsheet, according to Maez.

Most of the 65 sessions that generated service requests were test cases initiated by the city. Those that were not did not appear to contain information about the Alexa customer using the program, though some of the test cases involving requests for service did include a telephone number and address.

Maez described Amazon’s role in the program as primarily that of a “vehicle,” and said his understanding is that “if (Amazon) did try to use the data, it would primarily be to enhance Alexa’s language recognition capabilities … to see how someone in Albuquerque pronounces something, and then learn from that.”

In a statement, an Amazon spokeswoman said data stored through Alexa are used to “answer your questions and fulfill your requests. … We also use that data to train and increase accuracy in order to improve your experience.” She said customers are able to delete any of their voice recordings by accessing their account settings.

The city’s 311 call center receives 60,000 to 90,000 calls per month, and the hope is that Alexa will eventually reduce that volume by 15 percent. The plan is not to cut call center staff, according to Maez, but to give those employees more time to handle complicated issues.

New Mexico and Alexa made national headlines last year when law enforcement said the digital assistant called authorities during an alleged domestic assault in Albuquerque. The company has disputed the account, saying Alexa is unable to call 911.

Maez said 311 is explicitly for nonemergency calls, and if Alexa is used to report an abandoned vehicle through 311, Alexa asks the user if they believe the vehicle may have been stolen. If the user answers yes, Alexa directs them to contact law enforcement.

As for the response to the program from Albuquerque residents, Maez says it’s been positive.

One surprise: Although he assumed it would appeal primarily to digital-savvy millennials, it’s received a particularly strong response from senior citizens.