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Japan city gov't employees work on holidays after AI to allocate day care places flops

Saitama city hall is seen in Urawa Ward, Saitama, north of Tokyo, on March 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Kaoru Yamadera)

SAITAMA -- Staff of this city just north of Tokyo recently worked through their days off to sort through the giant mess coughed up by an AI system intended to allot authorized child care center spots, and that had been promoted as capable of "doing three whole days of work in just seconds," according to Saitama municipal officials.

The new AI, initially touted as able to deliver day care place notifications around a week faster than usual, is now expected to send out its results for the 2020 school year around Feb. 10 following the system error. Once that is done, the city government will continue with fixes ahead of the 2021 academic year.

In deciding allocations including authorized day care places for local children, the city government considers variables such as the parents' working status, the makeup of their household, whether members of the family are receiving care, and the circumstances of their siblings. Based on these factors, it then decides which day care to enroll the children in. Due to oversubscription for certain areas, some kids are also left without a place.

Until now it had taken some 30 employees an average of around 50 working hours each to distribute placements, but a 2017 test of the AI developed by a company found it could complete the task in just seconds. The city government then decided to introduce the system for its child care place allotments from spring 2020, initially setting aside 6.55 million yen for it in fiscal 2019.

In November 2019, the deadline for enrolment applications for the school year starting in April 2020 passed. Applications for some 9,000 children were submitted for spots in around 390 facilities. According to the city, the plan was to flip the switch on the AI system on Jan. 7 and have its part of the process done by the end of the day. But instead, it came up with an error and failed to start. Repairs by the firm that had developed the AI took until Jan. 10.

The cause of the glitch appears to have been down to factors including a finer setting that dealt with which day care center to prioritize for applicants seeking to place siblings.

The distribution of placements subsequently took place on Jan. 11 and ended that day, but staff for each ward in the city then had to work over the long weekend of Jan. 11-13 to check the AI system's results.

The Saitama Municipal Government's Day Care Division has said that the number of places being sought through the system is expected to increase, and so they cannot avoid introducing an AI to handle it. It also said that once the results of the selections have finished being distributed, it will carry out a thorough check of what caused the issue and then perform stress tests. Once the AI system has been improved, the city government says it intends to use it again for allocations for the 2021 school year.

(Japanese original by Shoko Washizu, Saitama Nishi Bureau)

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