New Free Watson Assistant Offering Uses AI to Answer Urgent Voter Questions

By Elissa Gootman

With COVID-19 expected to complicate voting in the United States, IBM is offering U.S. states free use of its AI-powered virtual agent, Watson Assistant, to give citizens critical information about voting processes and procedures.

Many election boards are already bracing for a deluge of inquiries, as social distancing measures throw typical voting arrangements into flux. To help ease the burden, IBM is offering states Watson Assistant on the IBM Public Cloud, at no charge, for at least 60 days.

Drawing on its advanced Natural Language Processing capabilities, Watson Assistant can address citizens’ inquiries online or by phone, creating conversational experiences. The virtual agent scours a range of publicly available sources to give accurate, up-to-date responses to common questions, even when the relevant information is changing quickly.

The offering follows IBM’s decision, earlier this year, to offer organizations around the world access to Watson Assistant free of charge for at least 90 days, to help answer questions related to COVID-19. Between February and August, use of Watson Assistant increased 65 percent, as organizations in 25 countries used it as part of their pandemic response.

Keeping Idaho Voters Informed

One of those clients was the State of Idaho. Governor Brad Little announced in late March that amid concerns about the spread of the disease, voters in Idaho’s May 19 statewide primary election would cast their ballots exclusively by mail. To handle a wave of questions about the new process, Idaho’s Secretary of State took advantage of IBM’s offer and set up a virtual assistant on the state’s website.

Within two weeks, visitors to the site were able to get quick answers to questions about mail-in ballots and voter registration. Because the virtual agent operates on the IBM Public Cloud, it can respond to sudden spikes in demand while reducing clients’ cost of maintaining computing capacity during quieter periods.

Now, Idaho is planning to extend its use of Watson Assistant to answer questions about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election—and beyond. IBM hopes other state and local governments will take advantage of the free offer, to do likewise.

“In the weeks leading up to our mail-in primary, Watson Assistant was able to handle over 3,300 conversations with Idaho voters,” said Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck. “That was a huge weight off the shoulders of our staff. It freed us up to serve Idaho voters even better than we were already doing, and it also allowed us to serve our counties better. We’re now exploring how we can use Watson for the remainder of this election season and beyond, to help convey information about the other services and functions we provide for the people of Idaho.”

Managing a Flood of Requests

IBM’s Watson Assistant voting offering uses Watson Discovery to cull data, news and documents from external, public sources, including federal, state and county websites. It also includes access to more than 25 pre-trained “intents,” or queries, specific to voting logistics and processes. Watson’s Natural Language Processing capabilities enable it to parse the exact wording of a citizen’s query and recognize the intent expressed, making it more flexible than earlier-generation bots.

"Early in the pandemic, we mobilized Watson and its Natural Language Processing technology to help organizations quickly deliver critical information and services to citizens, customers and employees,” said Daniel Hernandez, General Manager, Data and AI, IBM. "With success there and the upcoming U.S. election, we are now mobilizing Watson to manage the flood of information requests and questions from citizens regarding voting logistics and resources.”

 For more information about how businesses in any industry can use Watson Assistant, visit: