Non-stop information with the virtual CBS assistant

/ Author: Masja de Ree
© Sjoerd van der Hucht Fotografie
Did the economy grow in the past quarter? How much rent am I going to pay next year? In the not too distant future, we will be able to ask Statistics Netherlands (CBS) questions like this 24/7 by talking to an application. This application, which is being developed as part of the Information Dialogue innovation programme, will produce an automatic reply. This means CBS is making its information even better and more readily accessible.

Speech recognition

The initial phase in the development of this application is nearing completion. Jolien Oomens and Sara Houweling have been the driving forces. The first step towards this new application was taken in Oomens’ own living room. ‘I used my own server and connected it to the Google Dialogflow speech recognition software as well as to the open data of CBS. The next day, my design was able to answer this one question: what is the total population of the Netherlands? It’s not much of course, but I knew then that it’s possible to access CBS open data through speech recognition!’

Research phase completed

One week after, Oomens demonstrated her idea in front of the Director General. ‘He asked me to further explore this idea,’ says Oomens. ‘I was happy to join in,’ says Sara Houweling, who had been involved in the Information Dialogue innovation programme for some time. ‘I thought it was a great idea. It’s how I believe we should work: rather than keep on talking about it, start off something small and then go from there.’ How do you ask the questions, how do you unlock the open data, how do you deal with privacy? Everything was covered in the initial research phase. Meanwhile, the research phase of this design has been completed. Oomens: ‘We have unlocked a number of topics, including for instance questions about migration, births and deaths, economic growth and the rent calculation tool.’ Houweling: ‘We are trying to prepare as many questions and answers as possible. But the speech recognition software is also very helpful as it can recognise similar questions.’

‘Eventually, we contribute to CBS’s social function. And that is a really nice thought’

Feedback from users

Using the rent calculation tool, people can find out how much their rent will be after a rent increase. Houweling: ‘This is an often-used tool. In the design phase, we organised this tool in a way that users can have an actual dialogue with the computer. In fact, you want users to be unaware of the fact that they’re talking to a computer. But this is problematic. People putting a question orally tend to have high expectations; much higher than those who put questions in writing, which would also make their questions more precise.’ Using the scrum framework, an implementation team is going to continue developing the application. Houweling: ‘We aim to have the first user version ready as soon as possible. User feedback will help get us on track. We still have a lot of hurdles to take. But we’re taking small steps in the right direction.’ Oomens: ‘In the end, I hope we are able to reach a new target group for CBS with this design, and provide even better services to the existing target groups.’

Working at CBS

Sara Houweling has degrees in Mathematics (Bachelor’s) and Econometrics (Master’s). Before joining CBS 18 months ago, she had worked as an IT consultant for five years. Jolien Oomens joined CBS right after graduating in Mathematics (Bachelor and Master), and has worked there for one year. ‘At our BIT Solution Services department, we are looking at how CBS can take advantage of new developments in ICT,’ she explains. Houweling: ‘The good thing is that we get a lot of room to make suggestions. By doing so, eventually we contribute to CBS’s social function. And that is a really nice thought.’

CBS innovation programmes
Together with the Advanced Data Collection and Big Data innovation programmes, the Information Dialogue forms an integral component of the renewed innovation strategy which was launched by CBS at the end of 2016. These three innovation programmes have arisen from major changes taking place in society. For example, the combining of different data sources and the changing needs of users.