County of Marin Gets Moving With Speech

County of Marin, Calif. is located across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge from the East Bay. It is one of nine Bay Area counties and has a population of 247,2891 and 332,6702 acres of land.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 126,000 workers commute to work with an average travel time of 32.3 minutes. For the County of Marin government, more than half of its 2,300 employees traverse a lengthy commute to get to work; and about 300 of those employees travel throughout the county on a daily basis attending meetings, inspecting buildings, repairing traffic lights, staffing the local health clinic, etc. Maintaining contact while traveling can be troublesome as you add in various portable devices.

The County of Marin already had Remote Access VPN clients, Outlook Web Access, wireless cellular cards for laptops and PDAs, etc. Many of the county's employees did not want to buy or use PDAs and/or laptops, plus some wanted a low-cost, easy-to-use remote access method for occasional mobility or for working from home. For these reasons, the County of Marin government was looking for a more efficient and effective means of streamlining their communications.

The County of Marin also had difficulties with 411 Directory Assistance, which was misdirecting calls to the separate county departments.  There was not a centralized switchboard and main line for all of the departments, so calls had to be directed to individual main line listings.  The confusion caused by this situation meant that some departments were bombarded with calls that should have never come to their department. These particular departments would have to assess the caller's request and then re-transfer them to the appropriate department. Since the County of Marin did not see the reinstitution of a main line nor adding the staff required for it as a considerable option, they selected speech recognition as an alternative. The voice recognition application's goal was to provide a main listing number for all of the departments that would then transfer calls to individual departments based on caller requests. The application was designed in such a way as to recognize phrases describing the tasks and services provided by each department. Having heard about "name dialers" from Gold Systems (who programmed the software on the Avaya IVR), the County of Marin also requested the addition of a speech-enabled directory which would recognize the names of individuals or departments and transfer those calls to their respective direct lines.

In May of 2000, the County of Marin installed the new "Automated Information Line" that routed calls from the public, not only to employees and departments by name, but also provided call routing for phrases, such as "marriage license," "food stamps," etc. They even put in phrases for non-county services like "dog license" for the Humane Society and "county hospital" for the local hospital, which is not even a county hospital.  The system answers and transfers the calls to the appropriate outside agency.  The public could call in and speak the name of the individual, the department or the search phrase, and be routed by the speech recognition application to the appropriate individual for assistance. Employees also started using the employee directory component of the system to call co-workers by name, which was when it became apparent to the County of Marin that its employees were ready to start using more voice recognition technology.

Speech was appealing to many County of Marin employees, who spend a lot of time in community meetings and are often in a leadership position building consensus, because these highly verbal individuals prefer to respond to email and other inquiries with a spoken message. County of Marin even has a name for these employees. They are called "Road Warriors" because they spend most of their time in community meetings and need to process their voicemail and email on the fly. Also, it met the demand of low-tech employees seeking a remote access solution that did not require a lot of extra gadgets.

In an effort to reduce equipment and IT support costs, County of Marin installed the Speech Access server in October of 2004. Prior to training, County of Marin tested the technology with some of their Road Warriors, who were willing to be test subjects in return for getting early access to the new technology. The testing resulted in minor adjustments to the server and software configuration, such as populating Microsoft Exchange Active Directory with the employee directory telephone numbers developed in 2000 so that employees could call co-workers by name without adding them to their Outlook Contacts folder.

Eventually, a one-hour training class based on the Avaya system user guide was developed for county-wide rollout of the application. County of Marin felt that they needed a face-to-face class to acclimate employees to such new technology.  They are currently developing a streaming video class that will be located on their county intranet.

With a limited budget for providing a mix of diverse clients with mobility options, County of Marin deployed speech in all of its departments with the County of Marin Sheriff, Child Support Services and the County of Marin Superior Court using the speech application on a limited basis for voicemail access only.  The reason for the limited access is attributable to the fact that these departments have separate exchange servers that are not connected to the Speech Access server. The Sheriff Patrol force and fire department personnel have virtual offices with telephone numbers connected to a voicemail box that is integrated with Microsoft Outlook email. A Sheriff's Deputy can hand out business cards during an investigation listing a direct dial personal number even though these deputies do not have a real office.  Fire personnel can make and receive calls even when engaged in mutual aid in other locations for weeks at a time. Public defenders and district attorneys can also use Speech Access during a trial to keep in touch with their offices and clients while working in a courtroom setting.

County of Marin is in the process of purchasing more cell phones and headsets for employees who are beginning to use Speech Access while working from their desk or while mobile. This has allowed them to reduce the number of PDAs and laptops that they were previously purchasing. Their mobile employees are able to maintain contact much easier with less stress. The speech recognition application's cost is bundled in the annual chargebacks to each department for the telephone service so there are no additional costs involved. County of Marin's employees are also enthusiastic about the new technology with training classes meeting maximum capacity within 30 minutes of being available.  An added bonus is that Speech Access is easier to train and requires less effort to maintain. The laptops and PDAs that were previously required for outside use needed attention each time County of Marin upgraded their VPN client software. Plus, the laptops continuously need virus and service pack updates. These maintenance issues are alleviated by the use of cell phones and speech recognition.

Since Speech Access is an extension of County of Marin's existing PBX infrastructure, they can track usage costs and extend existing call limitation just as if the employee were making the calls from their office.  This simplifies management, chargeback and reporting requirements as well as reducing the amount of reimbursements for employee-incurred expenses.  The goal is to identify and charge back expenses to the budget center for incurring usage and other costs.  By using the PBX infrastructure, this cost is allocated by the existing call accounting system.  When employees use the system to make long distance calls, they incur the expense of the call into the system from their cell phone or home phone, but actual outbound calling expense is made by PBX trunks.  Another bonus is that when calling co-workers with display phones, the call appears to be coming from their regular office phone regardless of the origin; for example, the coworker sees "Layton, Barbara extension 7060" on the display when she calls from either her work phone or her (work) cell phone.

County of Marin's next step with speech recognition will be to implement the technology into its smallest offices to extend the reach of the voice technology.  The first of the small offices to receive the technology is the county dental office which has five phones on which the speech recognition technology will run. Implementation of the application will continue to each office thereafter with training classes that are available for the employees.

1 U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000. Retrieved July 6, 2005 from the World Wide Web: http://demographics.marin.org/2000comdevcensus/ComDev_Docs/Marin%20County.pdf
2 California Department of Finance, Economic Research. (2002, February). Retrieved July 6, 2005 from the World Wide Web: www.dof.ca.gov

Stephanie Owens is the associate editor for Speech Technology Magazine. She can be reached at stephanie@amcommpublications.com .

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