The Data Briefing: Chatbots and the Rise of Conversational Commerce and Citizen Experience

Apr 20, 2016

Ten months ago, I wrote about the rise of the post-app world in which mobile personal assistants would do the work of five to 10 apps combined. These mobile personal assistants, now known as chatbots, would work through conversational interfaces (voice and instant messaging, for example). The idea is to build more natural interfaces for people to access information services and perform complicated online tasks.

Robot with chat bubble

Facebook has now joined in the new conversational commerce marketspace along with Google and Apple. Amazon and Microsoft are also offering their chatbot applications and products as consumers begin experiencing app fatigue.

A recent article from Techcrunch stated:

“Here’s the hard truth: Building apps for the sake of apps has run out of steam. Data really is king. Without it, you’re playing the lottery versus Blackjack. Developers and entrepreneurs are better served thinking about how automation on top of existing data sets can transform new businesses, as opposed to adding a new layer of notifications.”

Here is how chatbots will bring value through conversational user experience. People will interact with the chatbot through Web pages, instant messaging, chat, texting, emails, mobile apps and even virtual reality/augmented reality. The user experience design will be based on text, voice, video or even virtual world interfaces. Behind the user interface is a machine learning engine that draws upon APIs*, databases, apps and the Internet of Things to produce the interactions and services. According to an expert in digital technologies, the use cases for chatbots range from information lookup and customer service to automating processes and workflows.

Screen capture of the Facebook Messenger bots section on

The chatbots will need a lot of data to power their services. This is where U.S. government datasets and APIs come in. As discussed in earlier columns, the U.S. government provides essential data such as weather information, census data and business information. The challenge is that, even if some of the data is provided through APIs, there are many datasets that are only available as Excel spreadsheets and flat files. Federal agencies are making great strides in releasing more datasets in machine-readable code, but are the datasets and APIs readable by the chatbots?

There is also another great opportunity for federal agencies. Chatbots, through good conversational user experience design, can improve how federal agencies interact with citizens. Chatbots promise reduced barriers to accessing government services through highly scalable services that people can access in a more natural manner. I am not sure which agencies are experimenting with machine learning in providing citizen services, but I believe that chatbots will be in the strategic plans of agencies shortly, both as a way to help fuel the emerging conversational commerce market and to provide better government service to the public.

Disclaimer: The mention of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are used for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or by any of the federal agencies.

*API – Application Programming Interface. How software programs and databases share data and functions with each other. Check out APIs in Government for more information.

Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends.

Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.