The 511 Revolution: All Travel Information, All the Time

Transportation managers in the U.S. are currently in the midst of a major transformation that will change the kinds of information available to travelers. At the leading edge of this transformation is on-demand travel information. In July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission established 511 as the nationally designated telephone number to call for real-time travel information.

Since then, 24 states have installed 511 systems and many more are planning to do so. In all, according to the 511 Deployment Coalition, access to a 511 travel-information  system will be available to 55 percent of the U.S. population by 2007 with the goal of 100 percent of the nation by 2010.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been at the forefront of this travel-information revolution since its inception by providing incident, construction and road condition information through telephone and Web-based services. Travel Shenandoah, first available in 2000, covered a 325-mile stretch of the I-81 corridor from West Virginia to Tennessee and provided the basis for subsequent expansions into the statewide system, 511 Virginia. Currently, 511 Virginia comprises 98 roadways, including more than 4,000 miles of interstate, U.S. and Virginia Routes.

In all, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) expects to invest more than $7 million in its statewide system during the initial three years, which also includes a Web site that provides users with detailed weather reports, on-site camera views, and an e-mail alert service. Another component is a travel-services function that lets tourism providers list their services for on-demand retrieval by the geographic request of the user (i.e. by interstate highway and exit).  

Enhanced Customer Satisfaction

Besides contributing to enhanced traveler options and increased traveling efficiency, the 511 Virginia travel information system has also provided significant benefits to VDOT, which sponsors and manages the project.

"From both a safety and incident-management perspective," says VDOT program manager Scott Cowherd, "511 Virginia has proved to be cutting edge in meeting our needs statewide."

Based on the amount of use, the system has also been extremely well-accepted by users. In December 2005, just 10 months after its statewide launch, the system logged its one millionth call, with growing usage currently averaging well over 100,000 calls per month. A survey conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found 90 percent of users saying they were satisfied with the system and 100 percent saying they would definitely use it again.

This success is due, in large part, to a significant customer satisfaction campaign, which provides a continuous and useful feedback mechanism resulting in system modifications. The customer satisfaction component consists of focus groups, frequent surveys, and monthly monitoring of caller comments. In response to an evaluation of information gathered by these means, for example, the project was expanded to include metro-area tunnels and bridges.

Equally responsible are two major components of the development process: the comprehensive coordination of all the region's incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) and wireless telephone carriers; and an integrated speech-recognition and voice-response interface capable of naturally and efficiently providing each user with relevant travel and tourism information, from a complex database.

The bottom line for VDOT, as well as for the millions of drivers who use the state's roadway system every day, is an enhanced view of the sponsoring agency's capabilities. Customer satisfaction surveys conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2005 found that nearly three-quarters of all 511 users report an improved perception of the VDOT's ability to respond to the needs of Virginia travelers.

Business Pyramid Model

As indicated in a recent study by the 511 Deployment Coalition comparing deployment costs in four states and three metropolitan areas, expenditures for development and operations can vary widely, depending on a system's size and complexity. In all cases, however, the system's business model and breakdown of essential cost components varies only slightly. System cost categories generally include: labor; equipment and content preparation; telecommunications engineering and carrier coordination; and marketing and evaluation.

The business environment supporting the deployment can have a effect on costs, too, depending on the availability of resources, the interaction of coordinating agencies, and the participation of public/private partners. Deployment is based on a traveler-information database warehouse that feeds information to the 511 system.

This same database can also be used for other traveler information applications, including Web sites, public transit information kiosks, and dynamic message sign systems. The telephony structure built on that database employs an interactive voice response system to determine what information is sought and the most effective way to provide that information.

The ease of use and customer responsiveness of this component provides a major element in achieving high levels of customer satisfaction.

Finally, the 511 system depends on a call routing translation component that transfers 511 calls to the telephony structure. The key here is coordinating agreements with all incumbent and competitive landline carriers, as well as wireless carriers, to translate 511 calls to the seven- or 10-digit terminating number that is the entry point to the traveler information system.

Making Sure It Works

The Virginia 511 system replaced an existing, and fairly simple, legacy system. The decision was made to call on PBS&J, a consulting firm with experience in engineering, program management, and information technologies, to manage the system's development and deployment. 

In this case, PBS&J brought together a project team to deploy, operate, and maintain the Virginia 511 system that included: SmartRoute Systems (data processing and formatting); Tele Atlas (geo-referencing and multi-source fusion); Meteorlogix (weather reporting and forecasting); and LogicTree (interactive voice-response telephone services).

The team's essential task -- performed within a six-month time-frame -- was to replace a touchtone, text-to-speech IVR system serving 35 counties with a system using speech recognition (input), concatenated speech (output) and serving all 95 counties in the commonwealth. Altogether, the project team numbered approximately 20, one-quarter of whom were dedicated to activities dealing with localization.

Employing a proprietary voice recognition service provider at its inception, the original system was replaced by VoiceXML technology using a TellMe Networks, Inc., platform. Hosting the database, source code, and audio files, system managers were able to modify this technology internally, providing an advantage in improving service and expanding system implementation.

The completed IVR system employs a hybrid of natural speech and directed dialog technology that provides for speech-directed shortcuts by recognizing any utterance at any time. Instead of waiting to ask what information the user would like and for what location, for example, the system will immediately respond to the utterance "traffic information for I-95 in Richmond."

In any 511 system deployment, one of the most challenging tasks is to coordinate the great number of telecommunications operators in the area. In Virginia, these included 15 ILECs, more than 200 CLECs and 15 wireless carriers. Each carrier must implement a call-routing scheme to provide fault-less translation of the 511 dialing code. The Virginia 511 project team assigned this task a high priority and commenced work as soon as project planning began. 

"If we don't provide reliable service," says Cowherd, "we instantly lose credibility. Drivers will give us one chance, maybe two. If we don't get it right, then we might as well hang it up."

Making It Local

Two major elements of the interactive voice response (IVR) interface have contributed to the high customer-satisfaction levels achieved by Virginia 511.

The first is a localization effort spearheaded by LogicTree that targets regional accents, pronunciation, and other speech recognition features through a feedback process that employed both focus groups and ongoing sampling of recognition rates.

Based on projects the firm had done previously in North Carolina and elsewhere, adaptation for the Virginia vernacular was made somewhat easier, but still required considerable effort in accounting for various localisms, nicknames, and multiple pronunciations.

"In Virginia, nearly everyone pronounces the name of the town of Staunton as 'Stanton,'" explains LogicTree project manager Brent Chism, "and what the maps recognize as I-495, everyone knows simply as 'The Beltway.' Those are the kinds of adjustments that help make interactive voice response technology genuinely intuitive for the widest range of users."

The biggest challenge, however, involved a modification of system architecture that vastly increased the opportunity for localized response. By establishing a level of segment-based highway information collection that previously existed at the interface level as a foundation for the new system's IVR interface, the possibilities for localization were increased exponentially.

For instance, embedding six segments of an interstate as the information-base behind hundreds of local town, exit-number, or mile-marker references a user may supply as reference expanded the system's ability to respond to a full range of user requests for any specific information category or any specific location, locating the appropriate segment and then searching for specific data.

Using a segmented roadway architecture as an embedded foundation for the new system's IVR interface also produced benefits for the system's managers. On one hand, it allowed for the basic structure of information collection tied to segmentation; on the other, the new system provided for a more elaborate "floodgate" system.

Floodgate message "slots" are available at multiple menu levels throughout the system, providing VDOT managers the ability to "narrowcast" weather advisories or even Amber alerts, for example, by county and metropolitan region.

Building for Tomorrow

Planned and designed correctly, states implementing 511 travel information systems can look forward to two great advantages from their projects.

The first advantage is flexibility in design - the ability to expand and modify the system once the basic components of communication relationships and system architecture have been put in place.

In the case of Virginia 511, for example, managers were able to increase the number of roads covered by the system and localize the reach of the project during a series of late-stage expansions. One such expansion incorporated bridge and tunnel selections that helped make the IVR navigation and response more customer centric and localized. As more and more states implement 511 systems, the benefits of overlapping and cooperative coverage will also become apparent. The second benefit is of the ability to drive other communication devices using one platform.

The database architecture and IVR platform implemented in Virginia is designed to enable personalized 511 reports using PINs and push outbound voice, SMS or text message alerts to multiple devices, including mobile devices like PDAs or a Blackberry.

As quickly as the 511 movement has swept the country, anticipating full implementation within a decade, so too, will larger, comprehensive, multi-modal travel information deployments become part of what drivers all across the country expect and demand.

Todd Kell, AICP, is a program manager for travel information in PBS&J's Richmond, Va., office. He can be reached at 804-560-7600 x23 or ToddKell@PBSJ.com.

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