Montreal rolls out speech recognition city services

The City of Montreal rolled out a service in spring that allows residents to use voice-recognition technologies to gain access to municipal programs over the phone, and has already begun to reap the benefits.


the program, bilingual voice applications have enabled citizens to call an 87-ACCES automated telephone service number at any time to find information previously available only on the city’s Web site.

Created by BCE Elix, Montreal’s voice-recognition system uses the Web, speech recognition, text-to-speech, and VoiceXML and CCXML standards.

“”The interest of having VoiceXML and CCXML and using that is to be able to use what you already have on the Web without necessarily having to re-organize your Web site. Using the information that is already there, but allowing this information to be accessible by phone,”” explained Rita Azrak, director of marketing and communications for Montreal-based BCE Elix.

Three interactive voice applications are available:

  • Info-Collectes, a service providing schedules for collection of garbage and bulky objects that citizens can now use merely by saying their postal code;
  • Info-Remorquage, a service that allows callers to locate their towed cars during snow-removal operations by saying their licence plate number; and
  • Points of service, a program permitting Montrealers to find their borough’s points of service address, phone number and opening hours by saying the borough’s name.

Azrak said Info-Remorquage uses the full benefits of VoiceXML because “”most of the time when your car gets towed and it’s during a snow storm, you don’t necessarily have access to the Web. But it’s easier to have access to the phone…””

The city could not use a phone service before because the system would be unable to differentiate between letters and numbers when users punched in their licence plate numbers, she said.

According to Statistics Canada, added Azrak, not everyone in North America has a computer but they tend to have a phone. “”Also, if you want to give good service to people, you have to offer different channels of getting the information.””

Montreal offered an interactive voice response system for municipal services in 1994, at which time it was in the process of developing a Web portion for snow removal and garbage collection, according to Martin Lefebvre, head of the city’s citizen relations management division.

Back then, Lefebvre said, about 100,000 people per year used the city’s voice applications to learn about garbage collection, and 500,000 called with questions pertaining to snow removal each year. But even after developing the Web applications, the city still received calls because only 30 per cent of residents had Internet access, he said.

After a few months of the new service’s debut, 1,000 Montrealers per month, or 12,000 per year, are using interactive voice recognition to learn more about the city’s garbage collection, Lefebvre said. (Similar statistics on calls for snow removal services are non-existent because the city re-launched the voice applications with the onset of warm weather.)

The service has not been advertised, however, which he said will increase the calls the city receives each month.

Lefebvre explained that bringing back interactive voice applications has also resulted in fewer so-called reject calls, the number of times someone unable to reach the city of Montreal repeatedly calls back. He said the average was 24 calls per person. The city therefore reduced annual reject calls from 1.5 million to 300,000, and hopes to cut the number to zero.

Although the city’s main objective was to increase customer service, it will later explore potential cost savings derived from imposing the new technologies.

Implementing telephone applications to the city has not been without its hurdles, according to Lefebvre. He said the toughest part was finding a strong technology that can deal with the challenges of a bilingual city and can recognize the average 48 varying accents of people from around the world.

Although Azrak is unaware of discussions between BCE Elix and other municipalities to introduce voice applications over the phone, she said this approach to government services will become more common.

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