Traveler's Helper

States are pouring resources into automated travel and commuter information systems.

by / July 3, 2002
If you were lucky enough to attend the Winter Olympics in Utah last February and found yourself lost en route to one of the events, help was just three digits away.

By dialing 511 on their cell phone (or any phone), visitors were greeted by a friendly voice that offered directions to the events taking place during the Olympics. Callers also received up-to-the-minute traffic reports and could find out how to use Salt Lake City's new light rail system.

Though the Olympics are over, hundreds of travelers and commuters in Utah still call 511 every day for information on traffic conditions, directions and transit services. What's unique about the system is that it's voice-activated. Callers don't have to use the phone's keypad to navigate the menu, making the service safe for drivers to use. Instead, they speak simple voice commands to get the information they need. And the answers they hear are the spoken words of a human voice - not live, nor the artificial text-to-speech voice that's often hard to understand, but something called "concatenated speech."

Utah's 511 system is the result of converging technologies that have made the delivery of real-time travel information over the phone an affordable reality for government. Since Utah went live with its traveler system, a small but growing number of jurisdictions have announced their intention to use 511 as well, including a partnership of eight states.

FCC Approves 511

Visitors to the Olympics were able to dial just three digits for travel help because the Federal Communications Commission designated 511 as the national traveler information number in 2000. The FCC's ruling left all implementation and funding issues to state and local governments. Although the FCC hasn't mandated state and local governments to use 511, it made clear the commission would review progress toward a national system in 2005.

For state and local governments, the challenge has been to develop a system that is consistent in terms of type, quality and cost no matter where a traveler calls from. Currently, more than 300 telephone numbers exist for travel information in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. In addition, federal, state and local governments have spent millions of dollars on intelligent transportation systems that gather valuable data about road conditions and congestion through electronic sensors and other means.

At the same time, demand for accurate and timely travel information is rising. A national survey conducted by the Gallup Organization in December 2001 found that 45 percent of respondents would use a 511 system and nearly 30 percent would use the services several times a month. Twenty-five percent said they would use 511 daily or weekly.

Hoping to seize the moment, a number of associations, state governments and private-sector firms have banded together and formed the 511 Deployment Coalition to help firmly establish 511 as a national traveler information service.

"Our work is primarily on the education front," said Rick Schuman, a member of the coalition's working group and manager of traveler information systems at PBS&J, an Orlando-based engineering and consulting firm. "Our first goal has been to establish some implementation guidelines."

These guidelines spell out what level and quality of content should be available when a caller dials 511, whether they are in Augusta, Maine, or Omaha, Neb. The same caller should also expect to find a consistent amount of information when they drive from city to city or state to state. Finally, the guidelines look at cost. At this early point, the coalition has simply recommended that the cost of basic service for 511 not exceed the cost of a local phone call, according to Schuman.

"But we recognize that we don't live in a world of infinite resources," he added. "We're going to be looking at cost recovery models, including premium services."

Voice Meets the Web

How much citizens will eventually have to pay for 511 remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The technology that makes 511 happen is cutting edge and, compared to proprietary interactive voice response systems, quite affordable for state and local governments.

The technology is a combination of voice recognition software and something quite new, called Voice XML, which allows transportation agencies to convert travel information on their Web sites into packets of speech digitally spliced together from recordings. The result is concatenated speech, a smooth presentation of real-time travel and transit information delivered in a human voice.

But state and local governments still need lots phone lines if they want people to use the service and not get turned off by a busy signal. Fortunately, several vendors have stepped into the picture with some interesting solutions. Tellme Networks, which built Utah's 511 system using Internet and voice technologies, has its own phone network to handle the calls.

Greg O'Connell, Tellme's director of government operations, explained that when a caller dials 511 in Utah, the call is answered by Tellme's voice network in California. Utah pays Tellme for the service based on call volume. Tellme guarantees its network will have enough ports available. That way, no caller hears a busy signal during peak call periods, such as a snow storm during the morning commute.

"This network-based model helps state transportation departments, because they don't have the trained Internet staff on hand to develop and run this kind of application," O'Connell said.

Dean Deeter, president of Castle Rock Consultants, an ITS consulting firm, says voice-hosting providers, such as Tellme, make it possible for states to offer 511 services at an attractive cost-benefit ratio.

"These vendors provide speech-recognition expertise and retain large numbers of phone lines to handle the spikes in calls. It's a load-sharing approach," he said.

Deeter's firm is working with another voice-provider, BeVocal, and BellSouth, to provide a similar service to a coalition of eight states including Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont. By pooling their needs together, the states have negotiated major cost savings to operate a multi-state travel information service, which will roll out this summer.

The savings will come by spreading the peak demand across the country. When roads are busy in Maine for the morning commute and travelers are dialing for information, 511 calls in New Mexico and Alaska will be negligible. By the time commuters hit the roads in the west, rush hour in the east would be slowing down. The consortium received $700,000 from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to help pay for design and software development. Each state is also chipping in a 20 percent matching fund, raising the total investment to nearly $1 million. Federal funds, in the form of $50,000 grants, are also available to states from a $5 million grant program that the U.S. DOT has established to help states launch 511 services.

States Begin 511 Rollout

Minnesota was the first state from the coalition to go live with 511 services. According to Ginny Crowson, travel information coordinator for Minnesota DOT, the service offers callers road and weather conditions, construction and critical incident information, as well as limited transit details. The service is statewide, but the information is limited to the major metro areas, the Interstate and primary state highways.

In Utah, the state's 511 service averaged more than 1,700 calls per day during the Winter Olympics. With picture-perfect weather during the games and no major incidents on the highways, 511 services never experienced any significant peaks, according to Bryan Chamberlain, 511 program manager at the Utah Department of Transportation. Now, with winter over and most visitors gone for the season, 511 calls have dropped off, with an average of 613 calls in March.

Efforts are under way to continue marketing and promoting the service, including plans to place signs along roads to alert drivers to 511. Utah has also applied for an FHWA grant to expand 511 services to provide more tourist information, airport and bus service and even details about ferry schedules on Lake Powell.

According to Schuman, one of the biggest challenges 511 faces today is service quality. "It used to be a problem of quantity. But I think we've got a critical mass now," he said.

Another challenge is convincing telecommunications carriers to modify their switches so that 511 calls can be seamlessly routed to the service. Chamberlain remembers his surprise when he discovered the state would have to negotiate with 46 different phone companies. Minnesota has more than 100 companies to deal with, according to Crowson, and not all, especially the wireless carriers, are particularly excited about modifying their switches. "That's the biggest barrier to our rollout," she explained.

As for the voice-activated technology, like anything new, there are bound to be some glitches. Utah discovered that it had to spend time training staff to type information about road conditions in the correct format, otherwise the programming software had problems splicing together the voice scripts. Still, state officials see themselves coming out ahead by using such a new technology. Voice-XML, which runs on Internet standards and uses existing data to operate, is less expensive overall than a proprietary voice response system, they say.

And, a system that lets a person talk their way through a service instead of pushing buttons on a keypad is a lot safer to use for a driver moving at 65 mph down a highway.

"When we first looked at 511, we conducted a focus group to find out what the public wanted," said Chamberlain. "Everybody said they found voice-mail systems annoying with too many menus. They all wanted live operators, but after telling them that was too expensive, they all agreed that the voice-activated service was the best and safest way to go."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor