It almost seems like Citibot was created just for this moment.
While the Charleston-based startup has been around for six years, the GovTech communication tool found itself as part of critical city infrastructure across the country in 2021.
Founder Bratton Riley started Citibot as an “equitable communication engagement system for local governments,” he says. The goal of the customer service chat feature was to help cities “open their virtual front door to serve more people” and make city services more accessible.
That might look like providing information about business licenses, paying a parking ticket, getting permits for a new building, or logging a complaint.
But as pandemic-related and weather-related stressors pushed cities to the brink in 2021, Riley told Hypepotamus that he saw Citibot as more of a proactive communication tool.
When Hurricane Ida destroyed 30,000 powerlines in New Orleans and took down the 911 system, Citibot started using its web and text products to tell constituents about public shelters and the status of medical supplies.
From Texas to Colorado, Citibot’s technology was deployed after the 2021 snowstorms to help residents find drinking water and other emergency resources.
“We learned a lot last year about those events and how we as a company can more proactively let our customers know how we get through those [events] together,” added Riley.
Riley told Hypepotamaus that being able to help in a crisis harkened back to the 1989 hurricane that hit his native Charleston. As a teenager and the mayor’s son, Riley ran the donation and relief call center in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
Beyond weather events, Citibot was used as a notification system in February of 2021 when the first coveted vaccination appointments rolled out in Brownsville, Texas. In New Orleans, Citibot received praise for its “JAZZ” AI Chatbot, which has been connecting residents to vital information since June 2021.
Building Better GovTech
“Unprecedented” is one of the words that has lost meaning over the course of the pandemic, but local governments have certainly faced unmatched challenges over the last year. Those challenges, Riley says, have created opportunities for governments and GovTech startups alike.
“Some governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to more expeditiously innovate,” he added. “That has helped with a general interest in our system.”
Citibot is currently in 30 cities and counties, with seven more being onboarded currently.
Citibot is continuing to build out its machine learning capabilities to better predict and answer questions residents will have in 2022 and beyond.
Based on the learnings from 2021, Riley said the team is focused on pushing out more real-time updates to people during times of crisis (whatever the next crisis of 2022 might be).
Citibot is expanding beyond text and web chat this year with plans to launch a social media chat feature in Oakland, California. It also has plans to expand to WhatsApp, which Riley sees as a key part of making sure “there is equity and accessibility when it comes to communicating with local governments.”