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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Virtual people help bridge digital divide
Lewisham council webpage, Lewisham
Lewisham is using technology to reach out to citizens
Virtual people could soon be helping residents of Lewisham in London, UK, find out about the benefits and help they are due.

Lewisham Council is leading a project to develop computerised avatars that can hold conversations with citizens about services, to tell them whether they qualify for benefits or to get their views on local issues.

Different types of avatars are currently being tested and the finished system is due to go into service in the autumn.

Three other European cities are helping with the project and could be taking on the technology once it has been proved among Lewisham residents.

Smart talk

The UK Government has set local authorities and councils a target of getting their services online by 2005.

In general people do not like interacting with machines, they would rather have a warm body

Antoinette Moussalli, Lewisham Council
As a result many local authorities have set up websites to give citizens more information about what they are up to.

The most ambitious have started to use e-commerce type software to streamline the way they work, help residents sign up for services and find out more information.

But this embracing of the web could leave behind those citizens who are unwilling or unable to learn how to use a computer or get to grips with the world wide web.

"In Lewisham we have been very conscious that there are a number of people that are left out because they do not have IT skills," said Antoinette Moussalli, head of European and International affairs for the London council.

In an attempt to reach these people Lewisham has developed a system based around avatars, computer-generated people, which talk to people instead of forcing them to use complicated web forms.

"In general people do not like interacting with machines; they would rather have a warm body," she said, "but an avatar is the next best thing."

European adopters

Currently the avatars are being tested out among the disabled and elderly groups that they are intended to help.

A double-decker bus fitted out with 14 computers is travelling the borough finding out what residents think of the system.

Angela the avatar, Avanti Project
The project is trying out different avatars
The Lewisham project is experimenting with avatars that look human as well as cartoon ones.

Behind the avatar is months of work that has mapped out the way in which Lewisham council does its work.

This has been tied together with conversation maps to make the avatars able to answer questions on a wide range of topics.

"It does not quite replace a person but some people may feel more comfortable with it," said Ms Moussalli.

Users ask questions and respond to the voice of the avatar by typing but eventually it is hoped that people will be able to talk directly to the avatar.

Other cities are taking part in the project and could take on any working technology it produces.

The other partners are Edinburgh, the Kista suburb of Stockholm and the city of Ventspils in Latvia.

Part of the funding for the development of the avatars and the conversation engine has been provided by the European Commission.

See also:

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24 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
21 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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