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State College Part of AI Pilot Project for Community Engagement

by on November 07, 2017 1:38 PM

State College is part of a pilot project using Amazon's Alexa to develop the artificial intelligence platform to answer basic questions about the borough and requests for services.

Borough manager Tom Fountaine discussed the project at Monday's borough council meeting. During his regular report, he also talked about a liquor license application for a new restaurant to be located in The Metropolitan high-rise.

Council members also approved the 2018 consolidated action plan for Community Development Block Grant and HOME grant money and Mayor Elizabeth Goreham proclaimed Nov. 25 as Small Business Saturday in the borough.

State College is one of 10 communities nationwide taking part in the project to utilize Alexa, Amazon's intelligent personal assistant platform used on Echo and other devices, for local government information and requests. The pilot is looking at building skills -- Alexa's equivalent of apps -- "in connection with various basic and fundamental questions and requests for service and information that residents and community members would often ask for the borough," Fountaine said.

"For example, if there’s a bulk waste collection, one of the skills might be to ask Alexa to schedule a bulk collection, then it would go through a work order system and be scheduled for bulk waste collection," he explained. "They might have a question about the time for council meetings. Those things are being worked out. It is a pilot project to determine if it could be successful."

A consortium of municipalities selected the platform for the pilot, which began last month and will continue through the first quarter of 2018. It's built on an effort started last year by the City of Las Vegas.

Council member Theresa Lafer said she had concerns about a corporation being involved with gathering borough information.

"Alexa does not turn off. Alexa keeps everything it hears and sends it to the cloud to a corporation that is not the borough. I do not think using Alexa for the borough, even for public things, is a good way to go," she said. 

"I understand [Amazon] is one of many companies trying to help is improve back and forth connections with every member of the community, and I applaud that effort. I do not like the idea of using Alexa or any other corporation that you can’t turn off."

Fountaine said the pilot will not involve collecting any confidential information.

"Any of the skills, we would be using information that if it were public would not be a breach of any confidentiality or a security risk," Fountaine said. "Part of the purpose of the pilot is ... to figure out if this makes sense and if we can do it in a way that would be protected."

He added that there is no plan to replace any of the ways borough information and services are provided for the foreseeable future.

Council member Evan Myers said the technology is something the borough will have to work with eventually.

"We are going to have to deal with it at some point," Myers said. "It’s just a way for you to ask for it at home rather than typing something out. At the same time we need to make sure the information that we provide is secure. I think we can’t ignore it but we need to move through it deliberately… to make sure the connections we have are secure."

The borough's cost for the pilot was about $150 for the hardware investment.

Restaurant Coming to The Metropolitan

Fountaine said the borough has received an application for a restaurant liquor license transfer to a restaurant to be located in the commercial space of the new Metropolitan high-rise on West College Avenue. 

The license would be for a restaurant that also serves alcohol. The borough is required to act on the application within 45 days. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20 with a borough council vote on Dec. 4.

Fountaine said more information would be available prior to the public hearing.

A spokesperson for Landmark Properties, which developed The Metropolitan, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Consolidated Action Plan

Council approved the 2018 consolidated action plan for allocations of federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships Program funds. Since there was not yet a definite CDBG and HOME budget, borough staff prepared estimates.

The estimated 2018 CDBG allocation is $487,421. A total of $73,113 is budgeted for public services activities. That includes $27,437 allocated to Centre County Women's Resource Center for the shelter staffing program; $16,244 for the Housing Transitions, Inc. Employment and Housing Services Program; $8,800 for the Burrowes Street Youth Haven’s shelter staffing program; $16,244 to House of Care’s staffing program; and $4,841 to Youth Service Bureau Independent Living Program’s program operations.

For public facilities and improvements, $220,392.52 ($220,236.25 in 2018 and $156.27 in 2016 CDBG funds) is allocated for the 2018 CDBG Infrastructure Project for streetlights and ADA curb ramps on Beaver Ave. For housing, $73,113 is budgeted for the borough First-Time Homebuyer Program. A total of $97,484 is allocated for administration and planning.

The 2018 HOME allocation is estimated to be $320,531. A total of $136,225 is budgeted for the Temporary Housing Foundation First-Time Homebuyer Program; $136,225 for the State College Community Land Trust Homebuyer Program; $16,026 for Community Housing Development Organization operating support; and $32,053 for program administration

Contingency plans are in place if the borough receives more or less than the estimated amounts.

Small Business Saturday

Goreham presented Irene Miller, executive director of the State College Downtown Improvement District, with a proclamation declaring Saturday, Nov. 25, as Small Business Saturday in the borough.

The proclamation urged residents to support small businesses on Nov. 25 and throughout the year and noted that the 28.8 million small businesses in the United States represent 99.7 percent of all businesses with employees in the country, responsible for 63 percent of new job creation over the past 20 years.

"State College.. supports our local businesses that create jobs, boost our local economy and preserve our neighborhoods," Goreham said.

Miller encouraged residents to support local businesses year-round.

"You don’t have to wait until Nov. 25 to shop small and support downtown State College," she said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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