Derby council bosses thrilled with AI technology 

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Some concerns have been raised about it, however

Derby City Council bosses say its new AI digital assistants Darcie and Ali have been a huge success so far and their presence offers “big opportunities” to make more cash savings in the future.

Since April, visitors to Derby City Council’s website and those who call the council’s main phone line can seek help and assistance from AI “helpers”.

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Darcie can help with council services and Ali is available to help Derby Homes customers with housing enquiries.

But bosses reassured the public that “there will always be a human in the loop” if the AI helpers cannot assist them directly after a councillor raised concern for vulnerable members of society.

The use of AI at Derby City Council was discussed at a Corporate Services scrutiny board meeting where thrilled council bosses told councillors that the digital assistants were already exceeding expectations - and more was to come.

It comes just months after the city council introduced a “soft launch” to the new digital assistants. 

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This form of AI was aimed to improve customer services and make them accessible 24/7, while at the same time delivering cash savings for the authority.

Earlier this year, the council house reception opening hours were reduced as the authority invested in new technology allowing for people to get help themselves via digital service screens. 

However, the reception hours have now returned back to 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday after new council leader Baggy Shanker was not impressed with the change.

Senior bosses at the council delivered a presentation at the meeting and said the use of AI technology since April has already met a savings target of £200,000 within the authority’s budget plan. 

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They said the main goal is trying to allow residents to access council services all in one place.

Council bosses are keen to develop the technology in future years. 

This is after the digital helpers answered 14,000 questions from residents on the council’s website with more than 4,000 of those questions being at normal “out-of-hours” times. 

On the council’s main telephone line, the AI helpers have answered more than 100,000 questions from the public.

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Lee Haynes, head of digital enablement and automation at Derby City Council, said: “AI will develop and become better as we go forwards. It’s going from enabling services to be from 9am to 5pm to 24/7. And this so far is without any public marketing of Darcie and Ali.

“Darcie and Ali are just the start of the council’s AI journey so there’s lots more opportunities for the council to look at. Some of these offer big opportunities for cost savings and delivering better services for the citizens of Derby. “

After the presentation, Mackworth councillor Gaurav Pandey said he was worried that some of the population in his ward would not understand the technology and would need a human to talk to.

Councillor Pandey asked: “A lot of the population even in my ward are elderly and don’t understand anything about the technology - they don’t even have devices. If everything is going an AI way, then how are they expected to (get help) when we are reducing face-to-face?”

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Andy Brammall, director of digital and physical infrastructure at Derby City Council, replied: “There is always that fallback. We don’t expect nor are we targeting to expect that everybody or any part of society must transact with the council digitally. Those who can’t or won’t or just don’t want to will always have the availability of speaking to a human via telephone or via face-to-face and that has continued to be supported.

“What we do is size that so if we get to a position where we have 90 per cent of transactions are from people using the digital channels - then the face-to-face and the telephone opening hours can be modified accordingly.”

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