How the City of Seattle can improve its relationship with Amazon (and Microsoft, too)

Amazon office buildings and cranes dot the Seattle skyline. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Amazon is looking for a second headquarters city, “co-equal” to Seattle. Seattle’s city Leaders suddenly have an immense interest in their relationship with the city’s largest employer, a company which has ignited the largest economic boom here since the Klondike Gold Rush. A meeting of the behemoths (city and Amazon) is apparently set for Feb. 9.

Meeting with Amazon is a good step. But city government leaders should not ignore other companies which contribute to making Seattle a wealthy, world-class city, especially Microsoft.

How do Seattle’s elected officials improve relationships with these companies while, at the same time, improve services and quality of life for Seattle’s residents? Elected officials should not “give away the city” as the State of Washington did in 2013, giving Boeing an $8.7 billion dollar tax break; Boeing then actually reduced employment in the state.

Here are some ideas:

1. Make Seattle the Alexa Showcase

Amazon has sold somewhere between 11 million to 20 million or more Echo devices with integrated Alexa voice recognition software. Hundreds of other companies are now rushing to implement Alexa capabilities into televisions, speakers, computers and even bathroom mirrors. There are more than 30,000 skills for Alexa, yet most users only ask for the weather, play music or set a timer.

The City of Seattle could make almost every city government service available on Alexa:

  • “Alexa, show me my City Light electricity usage.”
  • “Alexa, pay my Seattle Public Utilities bill.”
  • “Alexa, when is the next Seattle City Council public safety hearing?”
  • “Alexa, what Seattle permits do I need for a new bathroom?”
  • “Alexa, someone stole my bicycle last night. Help me file a report with the Seattle Police Department.”

2. Develop Alexa-like capabilities for Public Safety.

The city could develop an Alexa-like capability to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services.  Let’s call this new capability Sherlock.” It would, like Alexa, understand natural language as used by first responders. First responders should not be looking down at a screen or typing on a keyboard when racing to a 9-1-1 call, but could use a voice assistant. Such a capability, if developed here, could be sold to police, fire and emergency medical services worldwide.

Examples:

  • Law enforcement: “Sherlock, I’m stopping a white Toyota Camry Washington license XYZ123 at the corner of First Avenue South and South King Street.” In response to this statement, the “Sherlock” capability would access department of licensing databases and verify that XYZ123 is, indeed, a white Toyota Camry, would check if the car has been stolen, would check if the registered owner has a valid driver’s license, and also check to see if the car had unpaid traffic fines or had been used in a crime, returning all that information to the police officer.
  • Emergency medical services: “Sherlock, I’m treating a child who, according to his parents, has swallowed the pesticide malathion.  Tell me what the symptoms of malathion poisoning are and how to treat it.”
  • Firefighting: “Sherlock, I’m responding to a fire in a warehouse which stores the hazardous material Acetone. Tell me how to fight the fire and what precautions I should take to protect firefighters and other people nearby.”

3. Provide some glue for Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.

Microsoft and Amazon have agreed to integrate their voice assistants.

The City of Seattle could help by putting the integrated assistants into computers on employee desktops and in public kiosks. Contractors and homeowners walking into the Ccity’s building permit center might be able to use Cortana on a computer kiosk to walk them through all the steps of getting a plumbing permit or side sewer permit, asking the relevant questions and putting the results onto a form which the applicant signs digitally.

Amazon’s Lex has automated speech recognition and Microsoft’s Azure has a premier chatbot service. Such capabilities could be built into the city’s many phone lines for electric, water, traffic and other services, allowing residents to interact, pay bills and obtain services 24 hours a day, simply by speaking into their phones.

4. Catapult Seattle into the forefront of the Augmented Reality revolution.

The National Institute of Standards (NIST) recently launched a challenge grant for city governments, providing funding to help them map the interiors of many buildings as a 3D model using LIDAR. These models, in turn, could help locate people calling 911 to report a crime, medical emergency or fire. Such models would also help Amazon, Microsoft, other tech companies and building management services better manage their buildings and keep occupants safe. The City could partner with Amazon, Microsoft and others to do this mapping, materially improving public safety for workers and residents.

And again, modeling most of the City’s commercial buildings using this technique would set a leading-edge goal for cities worldwide to emulate.

5. Implement next-generation 311 (or ANY 311) in Seattle.

What phone number do you call if you have a life-threatening emergency? 9-1-1, of course.

What number do you call if the rain is backing up the storm sewer into your driveway? 206-386-1800. What if your power goes out? 206-684-3000. And if you want to report a crime, but it is a not an emergency? 206-625-5011.

The list of numbers goes on and on.  One unique number after another – it used to run to over six pages in six-point font in the blue pages of the phone book (when there was a phone book).  And most of these hundreds of phone numbers are only staffed 8 AM to 5 PM on city business days.

This situation is ludicrous, especially since most major cities have implemented 3-1-1.

“Life threatening emergency – call 9-1-1;  Anything else? Call 3-1-1”.  And 3-1-1, like 9-1-1, is staffed around the clock, 24×7, 365 days a year.

Besides simple convenience for the taxpayer, there are many other advantages to a 3-1-1 system. Elected officials – Mayor and Councilmembers – can see all the problems in their districts or citywide. They can find hot spots for complaints about poor streets, garbage pickups and much more. They can even find correlations between complaints about refuse or poor lighting and crime or other problems, and direct services to address such issues.

Working with tech companies to implement 3-1-1 along with natural language processing, chatbots, a 3-1-1 automated website and similar capabilities would introduce a significant new service for Seattle’s residents.

6. Make next-generation 911 a reality in Seattle.

How do you get help in an emergency?  You telephone 9-1-1 of course.  But suppose someone just stole a package off your front porch, and your home video surveillance system has a great photo of the criminal.  How do you get that to 9-1-1? The capability does not exist today. Amazon, as the leading provider of “packages on front porches” has a material interest in helping its customers who are also Seattle residents get video and photo information about package thieves to Seattle police rapidly. Such an app or capability could easily be exported and used by other cities across the nation.

Suppose you can’t call – you are victim of domestic violence and your abuser is in the house with you.  Can you text 9-1-1?  In 11 counties in Washington – and many other places across the nation – the answer is yes. Not in Seattle.

A member of your family has a heart attack. Can you have a video phone call (Facetime or Skype) with a 9-1-1 operator to talk you through the steps of checking for signs of a heart attack and starting CPR? Not in Seattle.

These leading-edge services are available in many cities. Seattle must have them, too, and our technology community can help.

7. Provide entrepreneurs-in-residence for city departments.

San Francisco pioneered this concept, where developers and entrepreneurs from private companies are embedded in city departments to rapidly produce new applications to improve services. The app MobilePD, which improves police-community relations, was developed by such a partnership in San Francisco. Here in Seattle, the Police Department worked with Code for America to develop the app RideAlong which provides police and paramedics help for dealing with people in crisis. San Antonio recently issued a set of seven challenges, looking for innovators to help it solve basic problems such as streamlining the process for low-income residents to get help with utility bills to getting a mobile application to improve parking and problem solving at the Alamodome.

Amazon, Microsoft and other technology companies are the engines of Seattle’s 21st Century success. Seattle’s elected officials have blamed these companies for our traffic woes, for homelessness (partially the City’s own creation with immense property tax increases) and the other unfortunate consequences of our prosperity.

Why don’t we partner with them to produce new and innovative solutions to these problems?  Solutions which can be replicated and used by cities worldwide, as befits our world-class city, Seattle.

What will it be, Mayor Durkan and City Councilmembers: continue to curse the sources of our prosperity, or work with them to craft solutions to our big city problems which can be replicated worldwide?