Get to know the GovTech team behind Ask Jamie, the government chatbot
Chatbots are becoming increasingly popular as a means for customer engagement. The Singapore government now has its own chatbot —Ask Jamie— that can field questions from citizens and provide them with the relevant answers.
Here’s a scenario most of us would be familiar with: you call up an organisation’s 24-hour helpline to make an enquiry, only to listen to a robotic voice read you options like, “Press ‘1’ if you would like to find out more about service A. Press ‘2’ if you would like to find out more about service B”.
You feel your patience wearing thin as the interactive voice response system goes down its list, a frustrating parody of a guessing game, until finally, it arrives at something that sounds remotely related to your actual enquiry. You press ‘7’, and the machine starts rattling off another list. You give up.
Thankfully, with the advent of chatbots, a more direct route to information is now available. These virtual assistants, relying on a machine learning technique known as natural language processing, are clever enough to hold a conversation and provide answers to specific questions. Today, if you visit the website of a Singapore government agency, you’ll notice on the right side of your internet browser a tab called ‘Ask Jamie’. This is the whole-of-government virtual assistant, a pleasant-looking chatbot ever ready to assist citizens.
Ask and it shall be answered
The idea of creating an intelligent chatbot for government agencies was seeded in 2014, after a survey revealed that approximately half of the queries by visitors to government agencies were general enquiries. For example, people may want to know their eligibility for the Baby Bonus scheme, or what MediShield Life is about.
“Such questions have relatively straightforward and standard answers, which a chatbot is well positioned to handle,” said Ms Lorraine Ong, executive manager at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech). “The conversational way of interacting with Ask Jamie is also more intuitive for citizens,” she added.
Trained on a vast repository of Q&As between citizens and staffers at government agencies, Ask Jamie has gotten proficient at identifying keywords in questions and giving accurate replies. Should a question prove more complex than it can handle, Ask Jamie knows how to escalate it to the relevant party, either via a form or via a live chat. Importantly, any officer that subsequently responds to an ‘escalated’ query will have received the conversation history between Ask Jamie and the enquirer, which helps set the context for follow-up correspondence, Ms Ong explained.
From conversations to transactions
Now almost five years old, Ask Jamie is picking up some new tricks to make interactions between citizens and the government more seamless. Going beyond answering questions, Ask Jamie can now mitigate some transactions as well.
“For example, if you want to do an online opt-in for your CPF statement, you can actually do that using Ask Jamie. If you go to the IRAS portal, you can even use Ask Jamie to check if you need to file taxes this year. You’ll be directed to log in using SingPass, and you can proceed with transacting from there,” said Mr Zhuo Shaowei, manager at GovTech.
Furthermore, although text may be a convenient medium of interaction with a chatbot, Ms Ong and Mr Zhuo highlighted that Ask Jamie can now recognise speech as well.
“We now have Ask Jamie Voice, where the virtual assistant answers calls directly, using voice recognition to convert speech to text [which is then processed],” said Ms Ong. This function has been rolled out with the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Education, representing the first step towards better integration of virtual assistants into a broader ecosystem of multi-avenue citizen engagement.
“As technology continues to improve, we want Ask Jamie to evolve to become more functional and helpful,” Mr Zhuo noted.
Tips for interacting with Ask Jamie
For readers who want to hold an efficient yet meaningful conversation with Ask Jamie, here are some best practices to keep in mind:
1. Read the list of ‘most popular’ questions first
Each government agency has compiled a list of frequently asked questions it receives from citizens. When you click on the Ask Jamie tab, these questions are surfaced immediately, with links to the relevant answers.
2. Pay attention to the ‘Are you looking for’ options
As you type in your question, Ask Jamie will try to predict what you are searching for and provide suggestions, much like the autofill function in the Google search bar.
3. Ask one question per sentence
For example, instead of asking ‘How can I appeal a traffic fine and what are the grounds for appeal?’, consider splitting your question into two separate sentences, i.e., ‘How can I appeal a traffic offence?’ followed by ‘What are the grounds for appealing a traffic offence?’.
4. Be concise
Keep your questions short and sweet. Remember, the chatbot is looking out for keywords in your question, so don’t confuse it with an essay of background information describing the circumstances leading up to your query.
5. Speak slowly when using Ask Jamie Voice
To help Ask Jamie accurately understand what you are saying, avoid areas with loud background noises and speak at a slow and measured pace.
If you want to read about another local famous chatbot, then check out our story on Bus Uncle here.