How Surrey, B.C. uses artificial intelligence to deliver city services

Cities are complicated machines and they don’t come with an operator’s manual. Citizens with specific, sometimes arcane questions about city services often find themselves in a maze of 1-800 numbers or poorly organized websites.

Purple Forge is using IBM’s Watson super-computer to create AI research assistants to help residents navigate their municipal infrastructure.

The company’s first live deployment comes courtesy of Surrey, which has automated much of its citizen-facing informational services in an app. My Surrey users can either type or speak questions, at which point the system searches through thousands of pages to deliver—usually—the correct answer.

Unlike a traditional search engine or even Apple’s Siri, which defaults to a web search when it can’t answer a query, Purple Forge’s system usually delivers a full answer, according to chief executive Brian Hurley.

If, for example, you ask, “How many chickens can I own in Surrey,” you’ll get a concrete answer – in this case, it’s 12 for every 0.4 hectares of land, excluding roosters.

“If you go and try to find the answer to that question on the website it’s certainly going to take you longer than just typing it in,” Hurley says

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