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SPECIAL REPORT: State & Local Innovations | Delaware uses VoiceXML to expand online

Delaware may be a small wonder, but it has taken a herculean effort to cross the state’s digital divide.

Michele Ackles, deputy principal assistant at the state’s Department of Technology
and Information, helped bridge that gap.

Delaware has its high-density areas and high-traffic beaches, but much of the state folds out across flat, two-lane country roads, with chicken farming a major industry.

Ackles and other DTI officials found that getting technology and Internet access to Delaware’s scattered, mostly rural population was no easy task. “We’re tiny, and our population is under 800,000,” Ackles said. “We have a very vibrant metropolitan area in Wilmington with major corporate players like DuPont. But the majority of Sussex County [which takes up the southern third of the state] is still primarily agricultural.”

Because of its dispersed population and a growing number of citizens more than 70 years old, Ackles said, Delaware officials realized that while parts of the state have crossed the digital divide, a significant portion, for various reasons, have not.

Net divide

Although many people in the state take for granted that they can hop online anytime, there are numerous homes that do not have computers and are not aware of where they can access the Internet.

This meant that the state’s online services were unavailable to a sizeable chunk of the population, and that essential information such as where citizens should go to vote could not get across the digital divide.

“We all make the assumption that everyone knows where there’s free Internet access,” Ackles said. “We also tend to lose sight of the fact that most kids are great with computers, but our parents are not.”

While not everyone has, or knows how to use, a computer, most everyone has a telephone.

So Delaware officials in 2002 launched the initial phases of Access Delaware, a project aimed at letting citizens access the Internet via an 800 number.

Through a contract with Diamond Technologies of New Castle, Del., Ackles’ department created a telephone network using VoiceXML that lets citizens access state Web sites and receive basic information over the phone that was otherwise unavailable.

“It’s the simplicity of being able to just dial a number,” Ackles said. “Most of us have more phones in the house than computers.”

VoiceXML is an Extensible Markup Language that communicates through a telephone or voice browser rather than a graphical one.

The language accepts spoken input so it is accessible for those with visual challenges, although users can punch responses into the phone keypad as well.

VoiceXML is open standard, making it easy for IT staff with some Web experience to update the system. Delaware runs VoiceXML on a Microsoft Windows platform, but officials said it can run on any operating system.

DTI collaborated with other state agencies to determine what information to make available over the phone.

For instance, Access Delaware first contained information about where citizens without a computer could get online for free.

Later in 2002 and in 2004, to coincide with the elections, officials updated Access Delaware to let users find out where they are supposed to vote. DTI officials said Access Delaware logs the highest number of users during elections.

More recently, the state added a feature that lets citizens track their tax returns and a connection to the Delaware Helpline, which provides live assistance.

As a result, all Delaware citizens, no matter where they live, have a connection to the Internet, Ackles said. This has helped the government make more services available and let some citizens find out more about the Web.

“We’re a small state, so our numbers never look that great,” Ackles said. But “we do engage more people now and make them aware of what services are available.”

Coming soon

In the future, Ackles said, the phone line will be updated with information from the state’s Agriculture Department about the avian flu, as any outbreaks could be damaging to the state’s poultry industry.

“There are still a few family farms” in Delaware “and they need a method to get the most up-to-date information,” she said.

But Access Delaware is not just restricted to the phone lines—DTI recently launched a new Web site that encourages citizens to register to vote.

Unveiled in April, the state’s Online Voter Registration project lets residents sign up to vote or change their party affiliation online.

New voters still are required to mail in copies of their completed applications but, for the first time, all the information is captured electronically and stored in a database.

For computer users, too ...

Ackles also hopes the program can evolve to the point that school closings and other daily information can be accessed, from the database, over the phone. This could bring in more users besides those who do not have access to a computer, she said.
“If you wake up at 5 a.m. and its snowing, I’d rather just call a number” to find out if the schools are closed “rather than find this information online,” she said.
Still, she admitted that surfing the Web over the phone is undoubtedly limited, and users cannot do many things that they could otherwise do while on a computer.
But that is not the point.

“Access Delaware is all about letting people access the Internet over the phone,” she said. “It is less sophisticated than what you can do on the Web, but the idea is, as time goes by, you can provide more and more services.”

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