Government Technology

Traveler's Helper

July 3, 2002 By

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

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