November 16, 2008 By Adam Stone
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
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