Kainos, a leading provider of Digital Services and Platforms, has announced the winners of its Microsoft-supported ‘Build-a-Bot Challenge’ that ran as part of the two day NI Civil Service (NICS) ICT Conference at the Slieve Donard Hotel in October.

The challenge saw six teams work hard over the course of two days to create a high performing chatbot using cognitive services on the Microsoft Azure platform.

The chatbots created had to be capable of ‘conversing’ with real people, helping them to find information and complete tasks on NIDirect.

The winners of the challenge created a sophisticated and intuitive chatbot which showed real potential to further enhance user experience by reducing processing and wait times significantly when interacting with common NIDirect services.

The team discussed how the chatbot could be further developed to include voice recognition and both speech-to-text and text-to-speech options as a possible future service enhancement to NI Direct.

Eimear Rooney, Business Consultant at Kainos said: “The challenge demonstrated the sheer potential that exists to create further efficiencies and improve customer service for citizens by implementing chatbots, and the innovation and upskilling that comes through collaboration between different organisations.

“The winning team created an interface that provided a first class user experience when dealing with what can be a complicated application process. The chatbot showed the same flexibility and have the capability to hide the complexity of the journey from the user and crucially, it was able to use conversational, natural language.

“The point isn’t to replace humans, but rather to allow them to carry out work that is more valuable and less time-consuming, whilst simultaneously improving how we use data and how people do business.”

Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services at the NI Civil Service said: “This challenge has provided an insight into the ‘art of the possible’ and helps unlock the benefits of digital technology, which can bring about more meaningful engagement with citizens.”

Nigel Cunningham, Public Sector Account Manager at Microsoft added: “We were delighted to be involved in this challenge, which clearly showed the great potential to speed up access to services via NI Direct, whilst retaining a ‘human’, personalised experience for users.

“Chatbots are quickly becoming a key part of any forward-looking digital strategy, allowing organisations to build competitive advantage and revolutionise how they interact with, and sell, to their audience online. The teams involved in the Build-A-Bot challenge had a wide range of development experience. They were all able to establish a new communication channel by leveraging features and functionality available on the Microsoft Azure Platform” he said.

The winning team included Damien Coney (Kainos), Darren Anderson (NICS), Fiona Hart (NICS) and Jonathon Douglas (NICS).