Gas and Oil Prices Now Available by Phone in New York County

Speech-recognition technology allows county residents to quickly find the best deals.

by / March 5, 2003
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Westchester County rolled out its newest public service in late February -- a voice response, speech-recognition system that allows county residents to use a telephone to find the lowest prices for gas and heating oil.

County officials said this information has been available on the county's Web site for some time.

"Our gas and oil surveys have been one of our most popular Web services," said County Executive Andy Spano. "However, we realized that not everyone has unlimited access to the Web and, often, those are the people who could use this information the most. We wanted to make it available to everyone and as easy to get as possible. This is just one more way we can use the latest technology to improve our services to the public."

Spano also said the service is unique because no other county government is providing this type of consumer information with speech recognition technology.

To use the service, callers dial 995-8710. A greeter welcomes them to an information line and asks whether they want prices for gas or oil. The words "auto gas prices" prompt the sound of a car engine turning over and the caller is asked what town or ZIP code they're interested in and what grade gas they prefer.

The answer might sound something like this: "OK ... the lowest price for premium gas in or near White Plains as of today's date is at Mobil located on 212 Tarrytown Road. Premium is $1.899."

Inspectors at the county's Department of Consumer Protection update the price surveys regularly, and the director of the department, Elaine Price, said there is often be a wide discrepancy in prices throughout the county.

"The price surveys consistently show a price differential of 20 cents in some towns, and as much as 30 cents difference between the highest and lowest stations in the county," she said. "Drivers should remember that prices do fluctuate, but the stations that which are usually lower in price stay lower in price compared with other stations."

"It's the ideal application," said Norman Jacknis, head of the county's information technology department, which developed the system. "Most people are in their cars when they're thinking about gas prices, and while they probably don't have access to a computer, they often have a cell phone."

Jacknis said the speech recognition technology involved has been researched by artificial intelligence researchers for decades and is now at the point where it's usable in the field by the average person.

He also acknowledged the technology is not 100 percent perfect -- and can certainly be "defeated" with a little effort -- but it's still good enough that it can provide a useful public service.

The county also intends to use the technology to track internal time and leave and save on administrative costs. For example, employees will soon be able to call a special number to say they're sick or request days off. The information would be automatically forwarded by e-mail to their supervisor - reducing the need for clerical help.

The system may also be put to use to further public safety.

Jacknis said he hopes of eventually linking the technology with maps developed by the county's GIS staff, which would allow a person to make a phone call, give their address and ask for the closest hospital.