Phone system taps into fuel prices

Westchester County, New York

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"Listen up"

As automobile gasoline and home heating oil prices climb, finding cheap fuel may become a priority for motorists and homeowners. One New York county is helping its residents do just that.

Building on a 2-year-old Web-based service that helps residents hunt for home heating oil and gas stations with lower prices, Westchester County, a New York City suburb, is now providing that same service via an interactive voice response (IVR) system that uses speech recognition software.

The service has ranked consistently among the county's top five Web sites in terms of usage, said Norm Jacknis, the county's chief information officer, adding that expanding it into an IVR system "always had been in the back of our minds."

The county used software developed by SpeechWorks International Inc. and VoiceGenie Technologies Inc., he said.

To use the service, callers dial a phone number and then — through a voice prompt system — can request prices or gas or oil. Prices are updated every two months, but the greeting voice explains, "While they may not be up to the minute, gas stations that are listed as the lowest price tend to be consistent."

The caller is then asked to provide the name of a municipality or ZIP code where the search is to be conducted and whether the caller wants regular, plus, premium or diesel gas. An answer comes back in the form of a gas station name, address, grade and price, and the date it was last updated.

Inspectors from the county's Department of Consumer Protection update the prices, Jacknis said. And although some gas stations aren't pleased with the service, the county does announce promotional discount specials for gas stations, he added.

But the county has larger plans for using the voice recognition software.

Jacknis, who also heads the Department of Information Technology, said the county is developing an internal application that will enable its employees to call in to take a day off for illness or other reasons, instead of filling out a paper form.

"While we do have a fair amount of access to the intranet, reality is lots of times people can't get to it or are home sick," he said.

Eventually, employees could call into the system, provide a password and then say they're sick or requesting days off. The information would be automatically forwarded via e-mail to the employee's supervisor. The system also could give employees immediate feedback, such as the number of sick days they have left, Jacknis said.

A larger, more complicated application in the planning stages is marrying the voice technology to geographic information systems. The "leading-edge" application, he said, would enable a caller to, for example, find the address of the nearest library or hospital by providing his or her own address or location. It may evolve to the point where the system can even provide directions.

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