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You may think that technologies like AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) are in an experimental phase, but governments around the world are already using them to make life better for the people they serve. I recently recorded a podcast with some colleagues who are working on exciting technology projects. If you want to hear how government bodies are taking manageable steps to transform how they work in 2019 and beyond, you’ll want to check it out.

Transformational technologies are already here

We’re inundated with data. Every second, our digital systems create new data points from transactions, tax payments, and citizen service requests, or collect information from sensors in our physical networks like weather data or transportation information. AI tools can automatically analyze that data, combine it with other data sources, and help people surface insight more quickly—letting governments make faster and smarter decisions.

And thanks to advances in processing power, AI has become more capable and accessible. Private and public sector organizations of all sizes can now begin using AI at a fraction of what it would have cost them ten—or even five—years ago.

However, as you’ll hear in the podcast, very few governments understand the full capabilities of AI, how it works, and how they can apply it to their jurisdictions. Getting started is the biggest hurdle.

Some administrations remain cautious

Despite the rapid advances in technology, governments, as ever, have been slow to adopt it. One reason for this is caution around data privacy, but another is the naturally conservative nature of large governmental organizations. Britt Oldenburg, a Microsoft public sector lead based in Toronto, told me that with scrutiny on budgets, governments prefer to see technologies tried and tested before they’re ready to spend public funds on pilot projects.

Also, many governments are still running on IT systems that are 20, 30—sometimes 50—years old. Integrating new, agile, cloud-based approaches is not as simple as flipping a switch. Brian Debel, who helps public-sector organizations in Denmark with their digital transformations, foresees a transition period where hybrid solutions will be the norm.

Data privacy a top concern for citizens, governments

People are becoming more aware of how much data they share, and how organizations collect, use, and store that data. Governments, by extension, are understandably cautious about mining their own citizens’ information—regardless of the intended outcome.

In the podcast, Microsoft Customer Success Manager Spencer Stern talks about the importance of good data governance. Spencer works across the Midwest with government agencies and says that governments should place greater emphasis on transparency and privacy than their business counterparts.

How government agencies can get started with AI and the IoT

Given the potential barriers above, where can governments find a quick win with AI? The answer, according to our experts on the podcast, is to start with data that’s already in the public domain, like FAQs on government websites. Building a chatbot (with an easy-to-use framework) to serve that information back to citizens is a solid first step. This provides an automated interface for common questions—it could be programmed to handle simple transactions like applying for pet licenses or booking garbage collection.

This type of project will reduce the cost of processing these requests and provide faster service. Importantly, it can also build trust with the communities who use government services and help governments understand how to tackle larger AI initiatives. For example, one project might provide digital integration of transportation networks, where cars send data on traffic conditions via the IoT, which is then analyzed centrally and used to control traffic lights to allow ambulances to pass.

To borrow a baseball analogy from the podcast, we’re in the third inning of a nine-inning game. It’s not too late for governments to step up to the plate when it comes to AI and the IoT.

Listen to our podcast to find out more about how governments are using intelligent technologies to improve public services.