As the rapidly evolving COVID-19 public health crisis impacted Markham, the City needed a proven technology platform to deliver current and trustworthy information to citizens around the clock.
By deploying the Watson™ Assistant for Citizens virtual agent, the City of Markham delivers reliable, consistent and accurate information to residents about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on City services.
Accessible from any device anywhere, anytimeto meet the public’s need for pandemic-related information 24 hours a day
Understands key COVID-19 pandemic-related topicsto answer pressing questions about the pandemic and its impact on City programs and services
Constantly trained and refined through machine learningto improve answer quality with each user session
Business challenge story
The pandemic comes to Canada
On a cold Thursday morning in late January 2020, an ambulance pulled up to a hospital in northeast Toronto and a feverish 50-year-old man with a cough entered the ER. As the medical staff prepared for another case of the flu, the patient added another bit of information that changed everything — he had just returned from Wuhan, China.
After testing positive for a COVID-19 infection, the Wuhan visitor was transferred to an isolation room and became the first known case of coronavirus in Canada.
As the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise in Ontario, and in York Region, Markham officials looked for innovative technology-based tools to keep City residents safe by providing trusted, up to date information about the pandemic.
But then, one of Markham’s leading technology companies reached out to local City leaders with another timely perspective: what if the city didn’t have to wait for a tech-based solution? What if it was ready now?
Answering the call for accurate information
With its Canadian headquarters based in Markham, IBM has been a cornerstone of the city’s technology community since the early 1980s. Markham city officials were pleased to learn that IBM had recently built a COVID-19 communication tool based on AI technology and could have it up and running for the city on an expedited schedule.
When reports started coming out of China in late 2019 about a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, IBM engineers proactively built the Watson Assistant for Citizens virtual agent platform. The tool was specifically designed to help governments, healthcare and academic institutions deliver automated and updated information to the public in an intuitive, conversation-style format.
Watson Assistant for Citizens combines IBM Watson Natural Language Understanding capabilities with IBM Watson Discovery technology to understand and respond to common questions about COVID-19. To make sure users get information from trusted sources, the platform collects its information from the City of Markham website, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Health and York Region Public Health.
IBM and Markham’s Communications and IT staff started working together on the last day of March. Nineteen days later, IBM and the City of Markham introduced the Watson Assistant for Citizens in a special virtual announcement and went live on the city website with the chatbot. And 10 days later, the team launched the telephone virtual agent, accessible using a toll-free number. The City of Markham recently launched the service on the Access Markham mobile app – making access to COVID-19 information even easier.
“As we continue to deliver essential municipal services to the people of Markham, this virtual agent will prove to be an extremely useful tool during this public health emergency. In fact, I would describe it as a critical and necessary tool,” says Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of the City of Markham.
Getting smarter with each conversation
Within days after going online, the Watson Assistant for Citizens chatbot served over 1,000 Markham citizens. Both the online chatbot and telephone virtual agent continue to serve large numbers of users and provide answers to top-of-mind concerns, such as:
- What are COVID-19 symptoms?
- Where can I get tested for COVID-19 in Markham?
- How do I protect myself from COVID-19?
- Are parks and trails closed?
- What city services are available?
- Will my garbage be picked up as usual?
With each text and phone call, Watson Assistant for Citizens learns more about the intent of user questions. The virtual agent becomes more adept at providing answers and referring users to other resources for more in-depth responses. And as COVID-19-related information keeps evolving, updated information is fed to the virtual agent so that it is always current.
To help ensure that the virtual chatbot and phone service are always ready to respond to citizens, the platform is hosted on the public IBM Cloud®. IBM also provided the product free of charge to Markham for the first 90 days and provided technical assistance with initial set-up.
“IBM has always been a great corporate citizen in the city of Markham, and innovation is part of our DNA as a City,” says Mayor Scarpitti. “Thank you to the team at IBM Canada for this important collaboration using transformative technology and for helping us stay safe as we all work together to get through this crisis together.”
City of Markham
With more than 350,000 residents, Markham (external link) is the largest community in York Region and is home to over 650 corporate head offices and more than 1,500 high tech and life science companies. Markham is a leader in attracting foreign direct investment with more than 234 foreign companies located in the City. Founded in the 1790s, Markham is Canada’s most diverse community and enjoys a rich heritage and outstanding community services. Markham has received the Excellence Canada Gold Award for Organizational Quality & Healthy Workplace, and multiple heritage and environmental awards.
Take the Next Step
To learn more about the IBM solutions featured in this story, please contact your IBM representative or IBM Business Partner.