Photo: Jussi Hellsten.

Helsinki is conducting agile trials to utilise artificial intelligence and robotic process automation in City services

Helsinki aims to be the best city in the world in the utilisation of digitalisation. In order to achieve this goal, Helsinki is conducting agile trials that explore how artificial intelligence and robotic process automation can be utilised in City services.

“I believe that artificial intelligence, robotics and data are at the core of future developments. They will also impact the services provided by the City of Helsinki to a substantial degree. The most important thing about these trials is to gain new ideas that can then be scaled to suit the production of various City services. The trials also represent a shift in thinking whereby the aim is to make the City organisation’s operating culture more conducive to experimentation,” says Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori.

New AI trials based on lessons learned from earlier ones

The City of Helsinki is developing internal innovations in the City’s Experimentation Accelerator, which began its operations in the autumn of 2019. In 2021, the City completed its second campaign of agile trials, which tested ten ideas submitted by City employees for the use of artificial intelligence and robotic process automation. The City personnel submitted a total of 60 trial suggestions for the two campaign rounds, 17 of which progressed to the trial phase. The quantity indicates that there is great deal interest within the City of Helsinki organisation with regard to the possibilities of artificial intelligence. The new campaign involved a wide variety of trials ranging from the quality monitoring of student information to a chatbot that can handle matters related to business trips.

”Through agile trials, we can learn to understand how we can use artificial intelligence to build even better digital solutions for the residents and our own employees. We hope that the lessons learnt from these trials help us to avoid expensive and long projects that fail to meet actual needs. We also want to renew our culture and policies and make the city a bit more agile,” Helsinki’s Chief Digitalisation Officer Mikko Rusama sums up.

The proposals that progressed to the trial phase received €10,000 in funding for implementation in cooperation with corporate partners. The City aims for genuine agility in the trials, and the target for proceeding from an idea to execution is 90 days.

It should be noted that, due to coronavirus restrictions, the trial campaign’s arrangements were entirely virtual. Applications were open from May to June in 2020, and the trials were carried out during the autumn of 2020.

“The Experimentation Accelerator is used to refine innovations and support experimental activities that leverage digitalisation within the City organisation. The trials have also confirmed that it is often not necessary to replace an entire work phase with a robot. In many cases, robot assistance is enough. The trials also provide us with valuable information about the limitations in the data collected by the City. In this context, we sometimes notice that it may not be feasible to automate work tasks in a way that emulates how a person would complete them. Instead, it may be best to redesign the entire process,” says Project Manager Ville Meloni.

Artificial intelligence and robotic process automation can facilitate work through the automation of routine tasks

The starting point for the digital development of the City of Helsinki is to facilitate the daily lives of Helsinki residents through the digitalisation of services and to help customers find services more efficiently than before. The same applies to City employees: digitalisation expedites work through the automation of routine tasks. In this regard, solutions such as AI-based recommendation engines, chatbots and the machine-assisted identification of electronic signatures may become extremely important in years to come.

The City’s new trials focusing on artificial intelligence and robotic process automation sought answers to a variety of questions, such as the following:

  • Can artificial intelligence help with the management of employment?
  • Can artificial intelligence benefit work shift planning?
  • Can artificial intelligence help gain a more realistic and accurate situational picture of traffic emissions in Helsinki?
  • Could artificial intelligence help with the analysis of performance reviews to enable the development needs of employees to be supported better than before?
  • Can robotic process automation be used to facilitate the quality monitoring of student information?
  • Can a chatbot guide and advise business travellers?
  • What is the benefit of a neural network-based AI identifying signatures in PDF documents?

AI-assisted services must be clear and easy to use above all else

In the context of the artificial intelligence and robotic process automation trials, it was often found that an AI is exactly as smart as its teacher. A human is needed to teach the machine, and any inaccuracies in the data or the teacher’s thinking are reflected in the AI’s actions. As such, products and services based on artificial intelligence should be assessed from a variety of perspectives from the very start of the project. Among these viewpoints, the customer’s perspective is the most important to ensure that the end product is clear and easy to use. A cumbersome and illogical service will be quickly abandoned.

An important criterion for the trials was to document the lessons learned and share them with the entire City organisation. This will help later AI developers avoid the initial pitfalls related to aspects such as procurement and data security issues.

At the same time, it is important to ensure that the operating logic of the AI-assisted services is transparent. AI-assisted services enable City employees to save significant amounts of time. Even now, there are plenty of potential applications for recommendation algorithms, in particular, in the context of library services and training courses provided by the City, for example. In terms of the trials, it is also important to identify which technical solutions could be more widely viable for the City organisation. This ensures that the City gains the most benefit from AI systems.

The City has had many corporate partners in its experimentation accelerator activities. The planning of the trials was supported by Ai4Value, Aureolis, Deloitte, Digital Workforce Services, Helsinki Intelligence, Houston Analytics, Gofore, Lekab, Microsoft, Reaktor, SAS, Siili, Silo.ai and Sofor. The implementation partners for the trial project were Gofore, Lekab, Reaktor, SAS and Siili.

More information:

You can learn more about artificial intelligence trials here (in Finnish).

Learn more about the City of Helsinki AI Register here. It indicates how the City utilises artificial intelligence in its services.