Utah adds voice to 511

The Utah Department of Transportation today will debut what is apparently the country's first fully voice-enabled 511 phone service, an advancement that could drive other states to adopt similar technologies as they develop their traveler information lines.

The new statewide service enables callers who dial 511 to speak their choices -- asking for information about public transportation, traffic, or road and weather conditions -- rather than having to press a corresponding numeric button.

A special directory also will be available for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City Feb. 8-24, enabling callers to use voice commands to get driving directions, transit information and schedules for events at the various venues.

"We believe that many [states] have commented that we're closest to the vision of the 511 with the voice-activated and menu structures," said Martin Knopp, director of the state DOT's intelligent transportation systems.

The new service is based on Tellme Networks Inc.'s voice application platform. Company president Mike McCue said VoiceXML was used to integrate the technology into the state's Web infrastructure and its CommuterLink system. CommuterLink (www.utahcommuterlink.com) provides traffic, weather and accident information to travelers via radio, television, the news media and the Internet. The integration took three months.

When a call is made using 511, it's transferred to the Internet system, which collects the information and then relays it to the caller in audio form.

Utah is one of a few states to test 511, designated as the national traveler information number by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2000. It is seen as a way to make travel information consistent throughout the country, where about 300 agency-operated traveler information phone systems exist.

The FCC left it up to states, local agencies and telecommunications carriers to implement the system, although the FCC plans to review 511's national progress in three years.

Since the designation, a national coalition -- composed of public and private transportation, transit and telecom officials -- has been developing open standards and guidelines so travelers can eventually use the same menu options coast to coast. The coalition also recommended using voice-recognition technology.

When the Utah department started looking into offering 511 service, Knopp said officials didn't realize how difficult it was for constituents to get traffic information. For example, among just four state, municipal and transit agencies, 12 telephone numbers offered information. "It opened up our eyes to how difficult it is for our customers," he said.

The transportation department formed an advisory group of public transportation agencies and associations and conducted focus groups to learn what citizens wanted. Knopp said the focus groups initially called for a live operator. But after they were shown a demonstration of the voice-recognition technology and its effectiveness, they were impressed, he said.

"You didn't have to wait through long lines of messages or star codes or Web site messages," said Knopp, adding that the state normally gets about 350,000 such calls per month, but expects that number will increase fourfold during the Olympics.

He said the dozen other telephone systems dispensing traveler information would not be eliminated immediately until the 511 service is deemed successful. The state, he added, also doesn't advocate drivers using the service via cell phone. "In Utah, our CommuterLink slogan is: 'Know before you go,'" Knopp said.


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