Concerns raised over council plan to use 'digital assistant'

Breckland District Council Overview and Scrutiny Commission

The plan to introduce a 'digital assistant' to help manage residents' queries was raised at a meeting of Breckland District Council's Overview and Scrutiny Commission. - Credit: Noah Vickers

A Norfolk council has outlined plans to use artificial intelligence (AI) to help with queries, prompting some concerns around the security of people’s data. 

At a Thursday meeting of Breckland District Council’s scrutiny committee, the council’s customer experience manager, Adele Newsome, explained that “within a matter of weeks” of the Covid crisis in March 2020, the council had become a “virtual call centre”.

Ms Newsome said Breckland now had “a once in lifetime opportunity to build on the momentum of how our customers interact with us as a council” and that it hoped to have a “digital assistant” available in the coming years.

Green councillor Timothy Birt asked: “It isn’t clear that residents will always be able to talk to a real person without delay, I just wonder if we could have some clarity on that?” 

He added: “The report doesn’t really give us any indication as to whether it [the AI] works. What evidence have we got that we can actually deliver the performance through this AI? Anybody who’s actually used Alexa or Hey Google is going to know that these systems are relatively easily defeated.”

Tim Birt

Tim Birt, Green Party councillor at Breckland - Credit: Breckland Council

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Finally, Mr Birt raised a question around data security: “AI requires access to vast amounts of data to even stand a chance of working, so who is going to have access to that data? How are we going to ensure that it’s secure?” 

Ms Newsome responded by saying the council was not yet looking in detail at introducing the AI, and was first considering a restructuring of its customer services team. 

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On the issue of access to real people however, she assured Mr Birt: “The customer will always have the option to talk to a live agent, or an artificial intelligence agent, whoever it is they wish to speak to, and we wouldn’t take that option away.”

On the issue of data security, Ms Newsome added: “We’re looking at, wherever possible, no data being stored within this new platform, that’s one of the principles behind it.”

She added: “We are constantly working with our data protection officer to ensure we’re doing all we should be doing to mitigate or manage any data security issues at all.”

The commission resolved to look more closely at the AI in a future meeting. 

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