How Aberdeen City Council’s helpful chatbot can now answer twice as many queries

Aberdeen City Council became the first local authority in Scotland with a virtual assistant when it launched its AB-1 chatbot with Microsoft in 2020. 

The Council, which is committed to embracing technology to create positive change, has continued to innovate. It wanted to improve public service delivery further, while adapting to the increasing pressures on local authorities across the country.   

It has now launched an improved version of AB-1 in Azure, which has helped it to optimise and scale the chatbot. New generative AI capabilities also mean it can understand more complex questions and respond with more detailed answers.   

The AB-1 chatbot logo

Revamping the digital front door to council services   

Enabling citizens to help themselves to round-the-clock support, AB-1 handles queries on topics such as refuse collection, school term dates and council tax. The Council also has an internal version of AB-1, answering questions about topics such as wages and annual leave for the Council’s 8000 staff.  An upgraded version of this internal chatbot is coming soon.   

And while the original chatbot reduced the number of calls and emails to the Council, freeing up staff for more meaningful and in-person work, the latest version of AB-1 is producing even greater efficiencies.   

“Early testing shows AB-1 is now answering twice as many questions, and we expect volumes to increase,” says Andy MacDonald, Executive Director of Corporate Services at the Council. “Customers can now get most of their answers online.”  

Training Aberdeen City Council’s chatbot with new generative AI technology   

Chatbots require training to help them understand human language, to learn to fulfil specific tasks, and to understand how to respond to queries in the right way.    

Microsoft supported Aberdeen’s developers during the creation of the original AB-1. It’s now helping the Council to optimise and develop the upgraded chatbot’s training, using Copilot Studio. The team is also making sure that the chatbot’s feedback mode is enabled, so it can keep analysing and learning from past interactions.   

“Copilot Studio’s newly available generative AI capability was leveraged to train the latest AB-1,” explains MacDonald. “Microsoft led the initial build out of the first version of new AB-1, and Aberdeen’s developer team worked with Microsoft to ensure they can lead on further enhancements.” The new chatbot is being grounded in Aberdeen City Council knowledge, using generative AI training to ensure the right data gets indexed. This means the virtual assistant can give properly informed and focused help, rather than more generic responses.  

There are plans to potentially give the new AB-1 access to even more data sets, such as service history and geo-location, which could help the chatbot deliver even fuller and more accurate responses. These would be designed in line with the principles of ethical use of AI. The Council hopes that the chatbot will ultimately be able to preempt questions and reply with proactive suggestions.   

Working towards a polyglot chatbot   

When AB-1 launched it featured a unique ability to take some basic questions in Doric, the regional dialect. The Council is now finalising a forthcoming edition with an enhanced understanding of Doric, which will also be able to support several other languages. These will include some of the most widely-spoken languages in the area, such as Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Russian.  

“The upcoming release will support taking questions in Doric and providing answers in English,” says MacDonald. “But for other languages, translation services will be used to translate both the incoming request and the chatbot’s response. We are focusing on the common languages in the area, but many more languages can be used.”   

Aberdeen City Council and Microsoft look to the future 

Aberdeen City Council and Microsoft have worked closely together to prioritise innovation. Further versions of AB-1 are set to follow, alongside other technology deployments designed to simplify and enhance council services.   

The Council is continuously developing its social care app, created using Dynamics 365, while the app’s key software components are being re-used to accelerate work in other services such as Educational Psychology. Meanwhile, some staff are using Copilot for Microsoft 365 in an early adoption programme which is likely to be extended. Aberdeen’s developments exemplify how the public sector is leveraging new technology to adapt and transform.