I’ve recently bought a new toy. Amazon’s Echo Dot is a voice interface that enables me to ask my Alexa digital assistant questions about the weather, Wikipedia and the ongoing misfortunes of my football team. You may have seen Alexa at the Housing Technology 2017 conference in March during Capita’s inspiring presentation.
Alexa comes with an app to download new ‘skills’ (think of them as apps) from the skill store to make Alexa cleverer. Having spent time developing a skill with the sole purpose of annoying my son – “Alexa, tell Dan to do his homework” – my thoughts turned to housing. I quickly produced a demo to provide a fictitious customer with a rent balance and to remind them of an upcoming repair.
In reality, there are hurdles to overcome before we can do this; for example, linking our tenancy accounts, security and understanding the flow of an Alexa conversation. I think it’s telling that some of the major early-adopting sectors, such as banks and bookmakers, haven’t yet launched account skills themselves. I look forward to the day when I can lose money by asking Alexa to “put £2 on England to win” shortly before they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
This lack of obvious skills implies that these are stumbling blocks for all, although far from insurmountable and no doubt being looked at.
While we’re not yet in a position to give tenants their balance, let’s focus on what we could do so that we can start learning.
We’ve produced a simple skill to provide Cotman (part of the Places for People group) tenants with overview and signposting information. We can think of this in terms of an early website, providing information about a company before we were clever enough to make it functional. In our case, tenants can ask Alexa “how do I find a home?”, “how do I make a payment?”, “how do I report a repair?”, “what is universal credit?”, and “how do I register for online services?”.
In common with many people, I see this type of voice/screenless technology as being a future disruptor in computing so I’m keen to start experimenting early. By launching this skill, we can not only provide useful information to Cotman tenants but also start to understand the expertise required to build effective voice interfaces and to get skills certified, which was a challenge in itself. We will also gauge usage levels and interest so that we can determine future development ambitions, timelines and platforms, such as Google Home.
If in the near future I can ask my bank the state of my current account, there’s no reason the housing sector shouldn’t provide this information to its tenants too. Next stop chat bots…
John Shipman is the digital services manager at Places for People.