The New Importance of Speech Technology in Uncertain Times

The current threat on security in the United States has given us all reason to reflect upon how we would react in an emergency, and what national safety and security measures exist to enable us to function under duress. One of the most crucial elements of any kind of disaster and or emergency recovery plan is a reliable communications strategy. The ability to disseminate information far more quickly, assertively and through more pervasive means than currently utilized is an overriding national need, especially in light of the current threats of biological warfare and recent anthrax scares. We now have reason to put new emphasis on thinking about what kinds of emergency communications systems we have in place. What if government agencies need to quickly disseminate information that is of a critical nature? How do they accomplish this? This is an issue that several institutions struggle with today. Voice technology offers solutions because it is ideal for communications of an immediate, urgent and pervasive nature. Voice technology succeeds where other technologies fail. The state of Maryland, for example, has recently implemented an email alert system to keep doctors informed of changing medical data. In the wake of recent events, even doctors were confused by the flurry of sometimes-conflicting information they were receiving about anthrax. However, administrators are realizing that even email, while inexpensive and generally efficient, has several limitations, especially in the case of the medical community. One concern is that doctors are not regular email users. They do not sit in front of a computer all day and constantly check email. In fact, it is most likely that doctors will go several days without having time to sit down and read emails. Also, while some doctors have adapted email and incorporated it into their practice of medicine, many others have not. Some do not even have access to email or a computer because they do not need it in order to do their jobs. Email can also be a highly unreliable tool under these circumstances depending on transmission conditions that day (i.e. bandwidth demands, network integrity). Also, doctors change email addresses frequently, making it difficult to maintain an accurate database. Far more doctors are equipped with fax capabilities, but fax transmissions, while potentially wide-reaching and user-friendly, are often mishandled and lost. Web sites, while helpful and often thorough sources of information, are passive. The user must access the information proactively, whereas an outbound call from a voice platform can “push” the information to the affected community. Also, some Web sites are easier to navigate than others, and complicated layouts can make it difficult to find the required information. In the case of emergency medical information, doctors must be updated constantly and immediately, not simply whenever they have a chance to get online. Virtually constant contact must be maintained. Simply put, doctors and other medical professionals are not always sitting in front of a computer, and even if they do, they may not necessarily have time to search through Web sites and databases. Clearly, what is needed is a centralized source of information so that doctors nationwide can have the same access to consistent medical data. Voice solutions work here. One way to create these solutions is with VoiceXML. VoiceXML, a standard method for developing voice applications using XML, is ideal for filling this need because it is an open standard, it is dynamic, flexible, fast and easy so that applications can be rapidly developed and deployed, enabling people to start benefiting from them sooner rather than later. Also, VoiceXML allows modification on an ad hoc basis, so that if requirements or usage needs change, the application can be modified accordingly. VoiceXML easily provides access to any institutional data that needs to be leveraged. Through VoiceXML and outbound calling notifications, information can be “pushed” to individuals via the telephone. The phone works because we are trained to pick it up. When the phone rings, we answer it. We are a telephone-centric culture. The applications for VoiceXML, in the context of bio-terrorism, are not limited to the healthcare industry. National and regional government officials, in the case of a nationwide security crisis, need to be able to direct the public as to what to do and where to stay in order to keep themselves safe, and also in order to expedite any processes which may require evacuation or other proactive measures. Government officials also may need direction as to which public locations should be shut down, which can be kept open, and what decisions need to be made in terms of maintaining public transportation systems. In an emergency, people do not always have access to a computer, but they almost always have access to at least a mobile phone. Mobility is crucial when preparing for emergency communications. Integrating voice browser and telephone, VoiceXML offers a means of organizing disparate content into a user-friendly and easily accessible mobile medium. The technology allows a voice command given over any telephone, landline or wireless, to be analyzed by a voice browser that listens, interprets and then speaks through a TTS engine or prerecorded audio files. When needed, individuals then have the ability to access disparate data from any phone, anytime, anywhere, and perform various types of transactions remotely. There is also an important security element to VoiceXML. VoiceXML is capable of delivering sensitive and critical information to individuals, while at the same time respecting patient confidentiality. The anthrax scares at postal facilities across the country provide an example of how this security element can come into play. Postal employees, unsure of whether or not their job sites were safe environments, and unsure of whether or not they should be tested for anthrax, could have been updated, notified and informed of their individual status and treatment needs in a confidential manner by a VoiceXML application. Some of the confusion caused by scattered and unreliable information channels may have been avoided. A scenario might go something like this: A postal facility needs to contact an individual who is at risk for contracting anthrax so that this individual will report to a medical center for testing immediately. An outbound calling notification would dial the individual’s number (stored in the human resources database of the postal facility, or any workplace for that matter). The system must verify the identity of the individual who picks up the phone before relaying sensitive information. This is accomplished through a series of questions. For example, “Are you John Smith?”, “What is your social security number?”, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” and so forth. The intelligent system is able to interact with the individual on the phone by processing the individual’s spoken responses and providing information accordingly. This kind of interaction will take some getting used to, but the ubiquity and ease of use of the telephone can no doubt hasten that process and help to eliminate any potential barriers to VoiceXML adoption. The technology can also be used to “push” patient reminders such as when to take medications, or when to schedule an appointment, through outbound calling notifications. There is great opportunity for application of this service among the 16.7 million visually impaired people in the United States for whom things like reading prescription instructions can be complicated. VoiceXML allows the benefits of content aggregation and service provider collaboration, without imposing new bandwidth requirements and network provider limitations or complications. Additionally, the computing resides on a separate platform that is connected to various phone lines. In this manner, the phone, a tool most individuals use on a daily basis, becomes the main and central player. Therefore, even individuals who do not have access to a computer or who are uncomfortable using the Web, have access to information available on the Web simply by using voice, a friendly and easily accessible medium. The applications do not stop at the healthcare industry; there is also room for voice technology in the retail, manufacturing, financial and energy industries. There are 1.5 billion in-service telephones in the United States, and only 250 million Internet-enabled PCs. Voice technology opens new doors for more effective crisis management by enabling more pervasive and targeted educational campaigns, quicker individual attention and more streamlined processes. With VoiceXML, individuals can receive personalized and up-to-date information instantly, and all that is needed is a phone. There is a growing need in this country for effective and reliable emergency communications mechanisms. The development community needs to respond with applications to meet these needs, and VoiceXML offers the opportunity to do this. Salil Donde is president of Ascent Computing Group Inc. He can be reached at salil@ascent-inc.com.
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