Interacting with Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) got a whole lot more convenient Thursday as the agency officially rolled out a multilingual chat feature on its website.
It's just the first enhancement DVS plans to bring online as the agency seeks to improve customer service and simplify onerous tasks such as checking driver's licenses and plates status, updating insurance information and getting answers to the most common questions Minnesotans ask.
"DVS can be very bureaucratic," said Pong Xiong, director of DVS, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety division that issues driver's licenses and oversees licensing of motor vehicles. "We want to make it easier for people and make [DVS] a fun place to go."
The agency this week also quietly launched MyDVS, where customers can create a profile and upload personal and banking information that in the future could allow them to have their license tabs automatically renewed.
DVS recently started a pilot with kiosks at deputy registrar's offices in Rochester and South St. Paul, where customers can skip the line and renew their tabs at machines similar to those used for self check-in at airports. Plans call for kiosks to pop up at more public locations, such as malls and grocery stores. DVS also plans to show off the machines at the Minnesota State Fair, Xiong said.
The Virtual Assistant chat feature, powered by Google technology, provides information in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali, the four most commonly spoken languages in Minnesota, Xiong said. DVS recorded more than 45,600 sessions during a beta-testing period from March through May, leading to 6,172 self-service transactions.
Yasmin Adem, whose family immigrated to Minnesota in 2006, said having the chat bot speak in her native Somali has been a boon and creates digital equity. It allowed her parents to get what they needed without having to rely on her to translate, she said.
"It's empowering to gain access to driving and any other resources," Adem said. For non-English speakers, "it's exciting to see the state is including them in the conversation."
Visitors to drive.mn.gov can click a "Help" button at the bottom right corner of the agency's website to have the Virtual Assistant direct them to resources without having to scour multiple pages in hopes of finding what they're searching for.
Talking to a DVS representative on the phone or visiting an office is still an option.
The chat feature's debut ahead of October, when undocumented immigrants — many whose first language is not English — will be eligible to obtain driver's licenses is a "happy coincidence," said Nicole Archbold, director of community affairs for the Department of Public Safety. The Virtual Assistant emerged from a larger language access project to help new Americans and non-English speakers access state services, she said.
"This puts power in their hands," Archbold said.
DVS officials in the future hope to add more languages and even a speech option for those who are not proficient in reading or writing. The assistant will get smarter and over time will respond in dialects common in Minnesota, Xiong said.
"I don't know if the chat bot will get to a point it gives you a 'Dontcha know,' but maybe," he said.