You can play your favorite tune or order pizza using Amazon's Alexa digital service, but you might not know that the city of Los Angeles has been exploring ways to expand Alexa's uses to engage Angelenos.
Amazon, which delivers the digital service through its Dot and Echo devices in a march to overtake competitors like Google and Apple, encourages developers to build up Alexa's skills. The city has jumped aboard.
“One of the great things about Alexa is that I can just ask her about an upcoming City Council meeting that’s coming up and she’ll tell me where it’s at, whether it’s been canceled or not,” said Andres Cuervo, director of the FuturizeX, a technology organization at UCLA, and Palms Neighborhood Council representative.
Cuervo has used the LA City Skill on his Alexa since it came out in December. But the city wants Alexa to do more than just give out calendar events.
Ted Ross, general manager of the L.A. information and technology agency, said he eventually wants users to be able to ask Alexa questions about city services and get answers.
"So you can ask questions to your Alexa on how to replace a blue trash can for recycling or how to fill a pothole," Ross said. Residents could also file city service requests, like removing graffiti.
The city is still gathering information about how many people are using the app. But according to Ross, Los Angeles is leading the way in using the technology, with few cities experimenting with Alexa despite its potential to connect with residents.
Still, there are privacy questions with services like Alexa: for example, what data is being collected about you and how is it being used? Ross insists there’s no reason to worry.
“The consumer information is kept between the customer and Amazon,” he said. “We gain no information on our side other than the basic types of statistics you get off a website.”
Not so fast, according to Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital privacy.
“What we are talking about is the system that is capturing a lot of personal information and sending it into a cloud where it is accessible to a private company...," Tien said.
But Tien said it mainly falls on the developers of the technology to be cautious.
"They have a responsibility to make sure that the way these technologies work actually does work positively for everyone and that they understand what the risks are," he said.