The town of Surrey in British Columbia, Canada, has just launched its own city app, which differs from others in two ways: it incorporates IBM Watson artificial intelligence and uses the equivalent of Apple’s Siri to give a ‘voice’ to the city and its residents.

IBM gives the city a voice with which to respond to residents

In 2012, the Canadian city of Surrey received a grant of $400,000 under IBM’s Smarter City Challenge, plus support from the US computer giant’s experts to turn Surrey into a ‘smart’ city. Three years later Surrey has been adjudged one of the seven most innovative communities of 2015 by the New York think tank Intelligent Community Forum on the basis of its Smart Surrey Strategy programme. The programme has for example led to the creation of an ‘Innovation Boulevard’, a sort of research centre which aims to help drive forward innovation in the medical field,  a ‘Traffic Management Center’ enabling traffic lights to be monitored remotely and their frequency changed depending on the traffic flows, plus the deployment of Wi-Fi hubs throughout the town.

Recently however, people have been talking about another novel initiative take by the city authorities: the My Surrey App. While apps that allow citizens access to a city’s online services are legion nowadays, and there is nothing particularly new in this respect, My Surrey App is nevertheless remarkably innovative as regards the technology behind it. Partnering with IBM has enabled the city authorities to incorporate for the very first time in this kind of app IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence computer system. This means that a citizen can put questions related to city services directly to the app and receive a personal reply as one might from a telephone operator.

Users can ask questions on such nitty-gritty topics as municipal waste collection schedules, the laws in force on watering gardens, and parking places. Brian Hurley, founder and CEO of Purple Forge, the company behind the app, points out that this technology can provide real financial benefits for municipalities as every call fewer made to the city’s telephone switchboards saves around $6. However, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner argues that the ‘human’ aspect is most important here. She reckons that ‟incorporating Watson will increase efficiency and give our city residents a better user experience”.

View of ‘My Surrey App’ on Apple Watch

By Aurore Geraud
Journalist