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‘Come with me if you want to plan’: City of Kelowna looks to artificial intelligence

The city wants to ‘terminate’ some of its old ways of processing development applications and permits

The future is here as artificial intelligence is set to help streamline some planning, development and permitting processes with the City of Kelowna.

Over the last few months, the city has been working with Microsoft to develop a chatbot that will answer questions, provide information and, eventually, process certain planning and development permits.

“So you ask it what can I do on my property…it will go through and help you figure out what types of things you can do,” explains Ryan Smith, divisional director, of planning and development.

It could be questions about putting in a pool or the parameters around building a carriage house. The bot will have planning, development and bylaw information at its electronic fingertips.

“Nobody is going to open up our zoning bylaw or go through our Official Community Plan (OCP) and go through the trouble of trying to find the policies that apply to them,” adds Smith. “We’re trying to make it more accessible to residents and the business community.

How the bot works will evolve over time Smith explains and, in theory, it will eventually be able to issue permits electronically.

The project is supported by a grant through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs aimed at improving housing development processes in B.C. municipalities. Smith says Microsoft has also donated in-kind services to the development of the bot.

While the AI won’t be able to do everything it will initially be able to carry out simple tasks and repetitive requests often asked by city hall customers.

“I’ve been here for 20 years starting at our front counter and would answer the same question asked in different ways over and over,” says Smith. “So if we can save 30 or 40 per cent of two or three or four people’s jobs that’s a pretty big deal.”

Smith adds the time savings will allow those individuals to work on more complex files and give more oversight to other parts of the development process.

“We’ve dreamed up the first few steps of what this can do, and once we see it can do that, we’ll see what it can do next.”

He says Kelowna appears to be one of the first communities in Canada, and perhaps North America, to use AI in such a manner.

“We’re definitely one of them. I don’t know of anybody else that is going to use it this way in particular. There are a few other places dabbling with the idea of having artificial intelligence review permit applications.”

The bot is ready for beta testing and Smith says a trial run has proved promising.

“It learned our sign bylaw for example, which can be a little bit challenging, and can answer questions with good accuracy.”

Further testing, through the spring and summer, will include front-line staff at city hall running customer questions through the bot to see what answers it produces and to make sure it’s giving correct and complete information.

“When it’s doing that consistently then we’ll release it to the public,” explains Smith.

That will likely happen in the fall. The city will also share its experience with other municipalities that might be interested in using the technology.

Smith says he definitely sees a future for the bot in one of the busiest planning departments in the country.

“Probably my staff will be telling me, we think it can do this or we think it can do that. We make room to direct more staff at housing reviews and approvals and more complex files. There’s a direct impact on timing and the permitting process.”

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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Recently joined Kelowna Capital News and WestK News as a multimedia journalist in January 2022. With almost 30 years of experience in news reporting and radio broadcasting...
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