Given that Markham was the first Canadian municipality to adopt online voting in 2003, the city's use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve service to residents in the upcoming municipal election isn't surprising.
The recently launched Elections Markham Virtual Assistant is the latest customer service enhancement by the City of Markham.
Markham partnered with IBM to develop the system. IBM's Watson Assistant, an AI solutions "portfolio" used by millions of businesses worldwide, is at its core.
A voter's ability to ask the virtual assistant any election question on their phone, tablet, or computer at any time improves the accessibility of information.
City clerk and returning officer Kimberley Kitteringham calls the new system "a natural extension of our voter helpline."
Providing credible, accurate, and timely information to residents is particularly valuable and relevant. "In the election context, this (system) is huge, because election administrators are now running municipal elections at a time when misinformation and disinformation are sadly quite rampant," said Kitteringham.
The Elections Markham Virtual Assistant is "easier and more interactive than a standard website interface," and therefore, "not a big technical exercise" to use, said Sumon Acharjee, chief information officer for the City of Markham.
A huge benefit, he said, is that it makes city services available round the clock. "Our staff can't be working 24/7, but the technology can help provide (service 24/7) at the fingertips of our clients."
Acharjee spoke about the importance of this type of system to have consistent and effective data available for its users.
The key, he said, is having access to the tools and expertise to capture the data properly, then adjust and refine it quickly as needed based on user feedback. He cited that the partnership with IBM has been valuable in this regard.
Frank Attaie, general manager of technology for IBM Canada, acknowledged Markham's progressive approach to digital democracy. "The City of Markham really does punch above its weight class," he said.
Kitteringham sees the virtual assistant as a "gamechanger for future elections," adding that "it's so critical that we have access for our voters to credible, real-time information and information that is consistent."
She added that the city would be looking for ways to use the technology to "help make our city smarter" and enhance services to its residents.
Markham is "building a new culture where we leverage technology instead of just using technology," added Acharjee.
To use the Elections Markham Virtual Assistant, go to electionsmarkham.ca, tap the City of Markham virtual assistant logo at the bottom right of your screen and type your question when prompted.
For other election assistance, call the voter helpline at 905-477-7000 X8683 or visit email@example.com.
Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Review