Speech Technology Magazine

 

Planning a Trip in Austin Just Got Easier

City's transit authority rolls out IVR to handle basic bus information.
By Leonard Klie - Posted Apr 1, 2007
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The city of Austin, Texas, is sometimes called Silicon Hills, a take-off on Silicon Valley in California and Silicon Prairie, a name given to Dallas-Fort Worth in the late 1970s.

In addition to being the state capital, Austin is also home to a population of about 738,000 people, many of whom work for any of about 100 technology companies, including IBM, Tandem, Schlumberger, Motorola, AMD, Apple, Texas Instruments, Sematech, and MCC, that have plants there.

"It's a high-tech city, and our residents expect things to be high tech," says Denise Du Charme, chief information officer of the city's Capital Metro Transportation Authority.

So when Capital Metro had the opportunity last year to automate its customer call centers with an interactive voice response (IVR) system, it jumped at the opportunity. "Our goal was to enhance our service information delivery to our customers as well as to reduce the heavy load on our call center agents," Du Charme says.

Since the automated GO Line system went live, Capital Metro's primary call center, which is staffed by 24 live agents, has seen a 22 percent decrease in agent-assisted call volumes. For a call center that takes about 100,000 calls a month, the application has also allowed the transportation authority to increase capacity without having to hire additional agents.

Capital Metro's IVR system uses Genesys Telecommunications Labs' VoiceGenie speech recognition engine and other concatenated speech and textto- speech technologies to give the city's 140,000 mass transit riders voice-enabled access to the full spectrum of traveler information services, including bus routes, schedules, and stop times. Capital Metro runs 140 bus routes in a service area that covers nearly 500 square miles and a number of special shuttle bus routes that service, among other places, the Austin campus of the University of Texas. Buses make 3,300 scheduled stops along those routes. Capital Metro also operates about 15 park-and-ride facilities, a ride share program, a rail freight service, tour buses, and special events shuttles, and is working on plans for a commuter rail service to begin next year.

Also included on the IVR platform is a voice-enabled trip planner that allows riders to enter their desired travel dates, origins, and destinations—based on addresses, landmarks, or intersections, and then have a full travel itinerary automatically generated and played back to them.

Capital Metro also operates a second speech-enabled call center, with a separate dial-in number and a separate staff of 22 agents, to handle calls from disabled riders. In addition to the other services, these passengers can call to schedule, confirm, or cancel door-todoor pick-ups by one of about 20 paratransit buses specially equipped for disabled passengers.

By automating public access to basic transportation information, call center agents are able to spend more time on the more complex inquiries generated by disabled passengers. "The system has been really good for our disabled riders because these calls often take longer and involve more intensive information," Du Charme says. "They often have speech impediments that make communication difficult, and their questions are more detailed."

ALSO AVAILABLE IN SPANISH

All of these IVR services are available in both English and Spanish. Callers make their language choice up front, and while the individual menus and prompts change based on their selections, the database of street names and landmarks stays the same.

The Spanish language capability built into Capital Metro's system makes it the transit industry's first Spanish-enabled IVR speech recognition application for planning trips and accessing paratransit services by phone.

Capital Metro put the system out for beta testing last February and went live with the system on June 15 after getting together with its marketing team and public focus groups to develop the scripts and fine-tune the application.

But, along the way, implementing the system was not without its challenges. Du Charme estimates that it took about two-and-a-half years to get the system where officials wanted it before rolling it out to the public. "Once we got into it, we realized that the speech recognition portion of it is not as sophisticated as we originally thought," she says. "We had to spend a lot of time teaching it to speak the street names correctly."

That's a major problem with using IVRs in the travel and transportation industry in general, says Douglas Spaeth, director of technology at Ontira Communications, the Vancouver-based firm that developed and installed the IVR system in Austin. "The real challenge in the speech recognition world is that—particularly as it relates to location-based services— it must be able to deal with locally pronounced street and place names."

Ontira had a lot of practice in that regard, having installed a similar system in New Orleans a few years ago. The company is currently working on restoring that system for the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority after it, like so many other things in the city, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina two years ago this summer. Ontira is also rolling out another system for the Blue Bus system in Santa Monica, Calif. The company has already installed a number of other systems that allow transit users throughout North America and Australia to access traveler information through touchtone dialing, the Internet, kiosk, fax, wireless technology, and digital signage.

All of Ontira's systems have interfaces that are linked to the routing, scheduling, dispatching—and in some cases, GPS—systems that the transportation authorities use. "Our system sits on top of those other systems and lets the riding public get the information contained in them," Spaeth explains.

24-HOUR ACCESS

CAPITAL METRO TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, AUSTIN, TEXAS

At a Glance:

  • 140,000 RIDERS DAILY
  • A SERVICE AREA COVERING 13,000 STREETS AND 2,200 LANDMARKS IN A 500-SQUARE-MILE AREA
  • 500 VEHICLES, INCLUDING SPECIAL PARATRANSIT BUSES AND SHUTTLES FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
  • 140 ROUTES
  • 3,300 STOPS
  • TWO CUSTOMER CALL CENTERS, ONE WITH A STAFF OF 22 LIVE AGENTS TO HANDLE CALLS SPECIFICALLY RELATED TO DISABLED RIDERS, AND ANOTHER WITH 24 AGENTS TO HANDLE ALL OTHER INQUIRIES

In Austin's case, the riding public has 24-hour access to that information through the IVR. Live agents at the two call centers are only on duty from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. One of the goals of automating many call center functions is reducing the number of hours that agents must work. "There are still some things that we're looking at operationally, like reducing the number of hours that the call center operates, but we're less than a year into it and we haven't done a full assessment yet," Du Charme reports. "So far we're very pleased with the system, and it's been a real benefit to our customers."

Eventually, Spaeth expects that Capital Metro will be able to reduce its live agent call load by between 40 percent and 50 percent. "Our intent is not to have a system that will deal with all calls, but to take off the top as many of those calls that can be handled with automation. That makes the agents more productive because they're not dealing with boring, repetitive questions all day," he says. "It will also help smooth out peaks in the day. Most people call during rush hours, and the system will help to iron that out."

But already, "Capital Metro's case shows that Ontira's solutions can significantly enhance customer service and increase operational efficiencies, while simultaneously supporting multiple languages," boasts Gerald Bachmayer, director of Ontira.

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