Markham’s AI-Virtual Assistant Proves the City is Worthy of its High-Tech City Reputation

Jun 22, 2023

Markham has earned its reputation as a key player in Ontario’s Innovation Corridor by hosting technology giants like IBM and Qualcomm alongside some of the country’s most promising startup talent and cutting-edge research institutions. But it’s not just the firms that are innovating, Markham is proving it is a technology leader itself incorporating artificial intelligence to revolutionize the way citizens access information on city services.

In June, the city announced Virtual Assistant 2.0, an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled chatbot providing users with 24/7 access to information on Markham-related topics on everything from garbage pick-up and program registration to events and accessing city services.

“Ensuring the City of Markham remains a leader in technological innovation is a priority and part of our Digital Markham Strategy,” says Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti. “Of equal importance, we need to ensure the public has easy access to information that is accurate, and available when they are searching for it.”

Virtual Assistant 2.0 is the city’s most robust use of AI yet. In 2020, Markham became the first municipality in Canada to utilize the AI-enabled virtual agent “IBM Watson Assistant for Citizens.” That first iteration was set up to answer COVID-19 questions and, had fielded 42,791 web and mobile chats before being retired recently. In 2022, Markham announced the launch of the Elections Markham Virtual Assistant, also powered by IBM Watson Assistant. The chatbot allowed voters to get reliable and accurate information surrounding the municipal election.

Developed in collaboration with teams from IBM, Converge, and Comm100 the updated Virtual Assistant combines IBM Watson Natural Language Understanding capabilities with IBM Watson Discovery technology drastically expanding the types of questions it can answer.

The new AI-powered service puts Markham in a small but growing class of governments across Canada using AI in their operations. Markham’s new chatbot 2.0 is integrated with their contact centre and allows live agents to take over from the bot in the case of escalations. As an early adopter, Markham plans to continue pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a high-tech city.

Deb Pimentel, VP for data, AI and automation at IBM Canada says the Markham-headquartered company is proud to be partnering with the city on the project. “(Markham) is a great example of how AI-powered solutions can help government entities increase their administrative efficiency and improve the quality of services to citizens,” says Deb Pimentel, VP for data, AI and automation at IBM Canada. “Whether it is being used to solve citizen challenges or to help streamline IT environments, AI is leading the way to scale innovation, insight, and expertise.”