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AI for building e-governance beyond the crisis

The Estonian government is working on a digital solution that would cross-reference information on the corona-crisis response from all state agencies and provide it coherently to its citizens through chat-bots. Marten Kaevats, National Digital Advisor for The Government Office of Estonia, was willing to talk about this initiative and how to build a governance architecture beyond the crisis.

“Let’s be clear – this is not just about chat-bots,” Mr. Kaevats explains. “Every online-store has a chat-bot nowadays. What is important here is what is going on behind the scene – in the bureaucratic machine of the state. We are making sure that information from every state agency is consistent, translated from bureaucratic jargon to common language and made accessible in the most intuitive way. And we are doing it without centralised control in a distributed way.”

According to Mr. Kaevats, the crisis has stressed a need for an updated approach to services and information that the state offers its citizens. This approach provides the answers to several bottle-necks: people have to look for information about their particular need from many different sources, information is not always consistent, it is presented in a language not comprehensible for many, and state agencies have little feedback about whether this information is what people actually need.

“It is a step forward from what we have already: X-road, the digital infrastructure that all state agencies use; a principle that all data from citizens should be asked for only once and that agencies cross-use databases; and the security systems are in place for solutions such as digital ID and signatures, and these opportunities are not abused. The new system follows our idea of the next stage of digital public services that has been named #KrattAI. This is an interoperable network of public sector AI-s which will work from the user’s perspective as a single, united channel for accessing public services.”

“So imagine that you are in financial difficulties because of the crisis. We have a chat-bot called SUVE, created by the Hack the Crisis hackathon, already at work. We want to teach this system to connect to all information that might be useful for you in crisis. So that after you have identified yourself and said “I need money and food” the bot would say “I see that you are a taxi driver. Please say “yes” if you want me to make an application for financial aid based on your average monthly income,” Mr. Kaevats envisions. “And then it would go on connecting you to food assistance from your local government based on your location or job applications for drivers.”

This system will help gather data on the questions that people have. According to Mr. Kaevats, the official crisis hotline regularly “goes red” after the Government’s press conferences. Gathering data on what confuses or worries people helps to respond to their needs adequately.

Work has already begun with the help of volunteers from the Estonian Language Institute who help to turn bureaucratic language into lay language and compress it into 150 characters. Furthermore, Mr. Kaevats says they are expecting to add emotional response capacity to the AI with the help of Feelingstream, an Estonian company.

“People who look for help are often in stress. The aim is to make the person leave the conversation in a better mood than he or she initially had. For this we want this AI to adapt to the empathetic level of the person, and be up to point when they are stressed and more relaxed and conversational when they are in a good mood.”

The work on the virus-response AI that started with the help of a handful of volunteers has now involved more than 100 people.

“I suspect that in regular circumstances this would have taken 5 years of sitting in boring meetings. Now we have been able to do it in two weeks,” Mr. Kaevats muses. “As they say, never miss a good crisis.”

Photo: Annika Haas (EU2017EE) retrieved from Flickr

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