Google Assistant and Alexa can now answer questions about U.K. passports, bank holidays, more

    Wondering how to apply for a new passport, which organizations offer free childcare, or when the next bank holiday might be? If you’re based in the U.K. and you’ve got a speaker, smartphone, or smart display powered by Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, you’ll be able to get answers to those questions hands-free starting this week.

    As spotted by Android Police, the U.K.’s Government Digital Service (GDS) — the cabinet office unit charged with maintaining and streamlining online government information and services — yesterday announced that voice assistant users can now surface more than 12,000 pieces of information on Gov.UK, including things like “What age can I retire?” and “What is the national minimum wage?”

    According to Head of Gov.UK Jennifer Allum, access to more info will be added down the line.

    “We want to simplify people’s interactions with the government, making information clear and accessible to everyone,” said Allum in a statement. “These results are promising because voice services can be a really convenient way to get information, particularly for people who find computers and phones hard to use.”

    The thousands of newly searchable factoids are the work of a small team within GDS tasked with making it easier for search and knowledge engines — including Google Assistant, Alexa, and other intelligent assistants — to parse and source data from Gov.UK. Late last summer, they tapped Schema.org — a joint effort to improve the web by adding structured markup to webpages — to implement schemas for informational and news articles and step-by-step guides, and they pledged to integrate “more concise” answers into future and existing Gov.UK content.

    Voice assistants are improving in their ability to provide accurate answers to questions thanks in part to these efforts, but they’re not perfect. In a study conducted by Loup Ventures last year, Google Assistant was only able to answer 88 percent of 800 questions correctly versus Apple’s Siri at 75 percent, Alexa at 73 percent, and Cortana at 63 percent.

    For its part, Amazon has made a concerted effort over the past few months to supply Alexa with new data sources. This summer, the company began sourcing hours of operation, descriptions, and addresses from Yext, a data management platform that counts Taco Bell, Arby’s, Marriott, and Rite Aid among its clients. December saw the launch of Alexa Answers, an invitation-only program that allows people to submit answers to questions that, if approved, are distributed to the millions of Alexa users around the world. And Amazon recently integrated Alexa with Wolfram Research’s Wolfram Alpha computational engine to improve its math and science knowledge.

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