A call for help

511 Information

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.

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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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