For years, investigators within the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) worked with one hand tied behind their backs. As productive as they were in the field, they were forced to squander untold time and energy after returning to the office.
The problem was reporting each day's work. After each client meeting, handwritten notes were typed into final form and filed for future reference. Typing took time, and the two-part process -- from handwritten transcripts to typed documents -- imperiled accuracy.
A solution is emerging to enable reporting efficiency. Since July 2008 the department has been deploying voice recognition technology, designed to let fieldworkers dictate their notes while in the field. Software converts the dictation into typed copy, letting investigators spend more time on the road. Once back in the office, the fieldworker plugs the dictation device into a PC and gets a printed report.
The system has transformed Lisa Brooks' job. A child protective investigator with three and a half years of experience in the department, she said the voice recognition technology has made her more efficient.
"It's freed up my time considerably," she said. "I am able to get more work done because I do not always have to worry about getting my notes typed in." The new tools have made her reports more accurate too. "You always speak more than you would type, so reports are more complete," she said. "And since I am able to do it right after the interview, I am able to recall more information as well."
The DCF, Florida's largest social service agency, selected Nuance Communications' Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional Edition for its voice recognition suite. The software also includes a license and voice recorder device, according to Chris Pantaleon, acting CIO of the department.
The DCF purchased 1,600 units, enough to equip 75 percent of its investigators. The money came from a nonrecurring budget surplus in fiscal 2007, Pantaleon said. The remaining 25 percent of investigators may be equipped over time at the expense of their individual regions.
Deployment began in July with the devices' and licenses' arrival at headquarters. The IT staff established distribution points statewide, giving access to local IT managers, who in turn put the tools into the hands of fieldworkers.
The DCF settled on Dragon technology after a protracted round of IT explorations, in which 1,000 employees were asked to talk about their most pressing needs and possible technology solutions. IT chiefs listened especially for stories of locally grown solutions that already were proving their worth. When they heard about small-scale efforts to aid investigators using voice recognition, they decided to explore the endeavor further.
After testing several voice recognition programs, the team settled on Dragon in part because of its breadth of features. For example, Pantaleon points to the software's ability to distinguish and interpret operational commands.
"These chronological notes need to be inserted into our core software, our central repository. They aren't just Word documents," he explained. "With this, you can speak in a command to save it to a certain area or file."
According to the manufacturer, the software allows a user to dictate and edit interview notes, reports, e-mails and other documents at up to 160 words per minute, with up to 99 percent accuracy. Users also can create voice shortcuts to insert blocks of text with a single command. Because of these features, the product won a CNET Editors' Choice Award and a spot on PC World's 100 Best Products of 2006, among other honors.
Lisa Upham is more impressed by voice recognition's impact on her working life than by its list of industry accolades. An adult protective investigator, Upham said she has at times been crushed under paperwork, shouldering a heavy caseload while hauling around an
unwieldy mass of pending documentation.
"There have been times when I have had seven investigations in one day, running across two counties, and I have had no computer out there," she said. All those encounters therefore had to be typed up at the office.
After two months of using voice recognition, Upham said she saw a marked improvement. "It's great when you are out there, and if you have a few minutes to pull over by the side of the road you can dictate right there," she said. With ease of access comes richer content. "My notes have increased from about a page and a half for an interview with a victim to almost two to two and a half pages."
This in turn helps ensure appropriate measures are taken to address a situation. "The more information the supervisors have, the more accurately they can determine what kind of follow-through we need to do to get that victim the support they really need," Upham said.
She points to a recent case in which an emergency alert button factored into an overall follow-up plan. Without the ability to dictate her report, Upham said the need for such a tool might have been glossed over. "Small things can be overlooked in the midst of concerns about bigger issues," she said.
Most speech recognition technology cannot hit the ground running. The software first must be trained to recognize the idiosyncrasies of the user's voice.
In practice, this is not difficult. The user reads from a script that the software recognizes. The software matches the familiar patterns with the user's speech and creates a guide for future dictation. The user may need to make tweaks and manual corrections later on when the software fails to recognize an unfamiliar word or an unknown pronunciation.
"The very first time I used it, I had not trained it to my voice and it came out very badly," Brooks said. Half an hour of training got her up and running, and she's been making ongoing edits with each subsequent use, fine-tuning the output.
The get-acquainted period has been well worth the effort, Brooks said. It's not just that she saves time and cuts down on paperwork. By making it easier to generate reports, she said the software actually makes the entire protective system run more smoothly.
"We are always juggling several things, and we as investigators will not always put the notes in the system, just because other things take priority. Yet superiors are not happy that the notes are not in the system," Brooks said.
It's easy to understand how investigators get behind on their paperwork. Here's a typical day for Brooks: "You go to a home and there are Mom and Dad and two kids, so that's four different people. Then we get more than one case a day, so now that is six to eight people you have to interview, and then you have to type in all those notes. It was taking a long time to type my notes or I would put off typing my notes altogether, and then not be able to remember everything that had been said."
This way, people get faster help and cases are closed more quickly. Brooks can move on to the next troubled home and the state can make its family services budget go a little further.
"With the reports that don't require any action, we can get them out of the way and move on to other things," Brooks said. "That means that the people who do need help are going to get that help that much quicker."
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.