E-gov: When the town hall has all the answers you need

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The European Commission has just nominated the “Hands” project, aimed at facilitating communication between citizens and public administrations, as the best e-government initiative of 2007. But while “Hands” is yet to be applied, for over a year citizens in the Belgian city of Waterloo have been able to ask for information from the town hall through an easy-to-use robot.

Just like the famous detective in the Sherlock Holmes  books, Waterloo citizens can also rely on a trustworthy ‘Watson’ to find all the relevant information they are looking for. Indeed, the program, which runs on the town hall website, is named after Holmes’ famous assistant and enables users to ask every kind of question related to public activities in a colloquial form.

If you need to know where the closest bookshop is or how to pay council tax, simply contact Watson and it will either give you a straightforward answer or put you in direct contact with the most appropriate person in the town hall.

The software was developed by Wygwam, a Franco-Belgian IT company. It has been operating for over a year on the Waterloo website, and is the first initiative of its kind among the public sector in Europe. Some private companies already possess digital tools to facilitate communication with consumers via their websites, but the development of similar projects as e-government initiatives is still significantly lacking.

A principal feature of Watson is that it works through a chat instead than via a website. “Citizens do not have to look for information on the Internet. It is the town hall that comes to them in the technological environment they are most used to,” commented Alain Leroy, Wygwam director for Belgium and Luxembourg.

The initiative mainly targets young people, “those who are likely to ignore the majority of the public services available in their cities,” added Leroy.

Moreover, the Waterloo town hall website offers an online television service onto which everybody, after registration, can upload their own videos (including advertisements), a concept that if applied on a bigger scale would revolutionise the whole advertising sector.

However, the European Commission preferred to give its annual e-services award to a project offering the same advantages to users as Watson does, despite being still at an experimental stage.

Hands (Helping Answers Decision Service) allows citizens to communicate with public administrations using everyday language. It has been tested on some European city websites. The Italian city of Bologna is the frontrunner of the initiative, but at the moment there is no opportunity for local citizens to use the software.

In the e-services awards, second place went to eBooks on Demand, a service network making millions of books available online through close cooperation between thirteen libraries from eight European countries. The EUropean PAYment circuit (EU Pay), a simple, multi-channel payment collection mechanism for public authorities, was third.

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