A call for help

At Olympics, Utah's new voice-activated 511 system will help drivers navigate busy roads

Salt Lake City, host of this month's Winter Olympics, is using an emerging

application from the intelligent transportation systems arena to help residents

and visitors manage the traffic crunch expected as an estimated 250,000

people converge on the region.

The statewide voice-enabled 511 system, launched Dec. 18, 2001, gives

callers access to information about traffic around Utah so they can plan

their routes or, if they find themselves in an unexpected snarl, find detours.

Such systems, used in only a few other regions, work like the automated

411 directory assistance systems used nationwide. The system translates

a caller's request into a data request and returns the data in speech.

For Utah residents and visitors, the 511 service is a matter of convenience,

state officials said. When they were researching Utah's traveler information

services, they found that among just four agencies — state and local governments

and transit properties — 12 hot lines were offered for various types of

travel information.

"It opened up our eyes to how difficult it is for our customers," said

Martin Knopp, head of intelligent transportation systems for the Utah Department

of Transportation.

Utah travelers can get information about traffic incidents and weather

conditions on highways and roads, public transit schedules and fares, and

even daily schedules for and directions to all Olympic events (from anywhere

in the state), from the biathlon to the super giant slalom. Calls to the

hot line are free.

Utah is one of six states and regions that are developing traveler

systems.

The Federal Communications Commission designated 511 as the national

traveler information number in July 2000, a move formally supported by the

U.S. Transportation Department, 17 state DOTs, 32 transit operators and

23 metropolitan planning organizations and local agencies.

Officials hope 511 eventually will be used nationwide — similar to 411

and 911 — replacing the 300 or so 10-digit phone numbers that now provide

traveler information in various regions. The FCC expects to review 511's

national progress in 2005.

However, the FCC imposed no federal requirements, leaving it up to state

and local agencies, telecommunications carriers and other interested companies

to decide how to proceed. Those groups subsequently formed a 511 coalition

to hammer out the guidelines.

Carol Zimmerman, a coalition member responsible for 511 marketing and

outreach, said that under the guidelines, voice-enabled technology is the

"preferred method" because it's more user-friendly.

"The voice-enabled technology has been in development for over the last

10 or more years," said Zimmerman, vice president of the transportation

systems group at Battelle, a nonprofit research and development organization.

"So some of the earlier implementations were primitive and not very reliable.

But the technology has been improving so you have broad-based consumer applications

like 511."

Representatives from Kentucky and Minnesota, two early 511 adopters,

said their states plan to voice-activate their touch-tone systems.

Gallup Organization "surveys and focus groups show us our customers

would like to have a voice system, and I am sure all states strive to exceed

their customers' expectations, but budgets always play a role in how much

technology we can utilize," said Damon Hildreth, a spokesman for the Kentucky

Transportation Cabinet.

Accessibility, especially for users with physical disabilities such

as blindness, is another major benefit of voice-enabled technology, said

Greg O'Connell, head of public-sector operations for Mountain View, Calif.-based

Tellme Networks Inc., which developed Utah's system.

***

Building on a foundation

Developing a voice-activated system for accessing traffic information

may not be as big a task as state officials might think.

Greg O'Connell, head of public-sector operations for Tellme Networks

Inc., said the voice application platform draws data from existing Web content,

converts it to Extensible Markup Language (XML), then to audio.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based Tellme Networks used VoiceXML to integrate

the state's existing Web infrastructure and its CommuterLink system (www.utah

commuterlink.com), which provides traffic, weather and accident information

via radio, television and the Internet.

Audio production involved linking pieces of sound to create speech that

has a natural inflection rather than a synthesized tone. The company also

performed usability tests. Tellme Networks took less than three months to

develop Utah's system.

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