New Jersey mashes up to keep traffic moving

511 system delivers real-time data via phone, the Web and road signs

In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission assigned the telephone number 511 for use nationwide by state and local governments to deliver traffic information. New Jersey’s Department of Transportation is making the most of it, collaborating with neighboring jurisdictions to collect near-real-time information from a variety of sources and delivering it via a number of channels, including an interactive phone service, a website and automated highway signs.

The New Jersey 511 program uses those technologies to help drivers navigate one of the country’s most heavily traveled corridors with up-to-date traffic information.

“We have an extensive network for data collection,” including law enforcement, maintenance and safety crews, embedded highway sensors and cameras, and third-party data from neighboring states and commercial providers, said James Hadden, New Jersey’s 511 project manager. “We have one of the most advanced systems in the country.”

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Data feeds are entered into a central database, which pushes data to various platforms. “Regardless of the application you use, the information being given is the same,” Hadden said.

The N11 series of numbers — excluding 011 and 111 — were set aside as speedy three-digit dialing codes with the adoption of the current national telephone numbering plant in 1947. The best known of these are the 911 emergency services phone number, which is used nearly nationwide, and the 411 telephone information service. Because they are a limited resource — there are only eight three-digit dialing codes available — these numbers are administered in the United States by FCC, which in July 2000 reserved 211 for community information and referral services and 511 for local traffic information.

Since then, several 511 services had been established in New Jersey for traffic information for specific areas or roadways, such as the New Jersey Turnpike. About two years ago, the state began consolidating these into a single system that uses interactive voice response technology to provide up-to-date information about any route selected by a caller. In addition, the system can apply the information for other channels.

Back-end consolidation

On the back end, the state's DOT consolidates information from a variety of sources in two operations centers, one in northern New Jersey and the other in the southern part of the state.

“We have an extensive network of data collectors,” which includes state Safety Service Patrols, DOT crews, law enforcement agencies and dispatchers, Hadden said. Collections also include toll booths, automated sensors and cameras monitoring traffic, in addition to data from the Transportation Operations Coordinating Committee (Transcom), a coalition of 16 transportation and public safety agencies in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region.

Data also is gathered from Inrix, a commercial fleet management and traffic services company that collects data from more than 2 million Global Positioning System-enabled vehicles to provide real-time traffic information on more than 260,000 miles of highway in North America to organizations such as the I-95 Coalition, which includes New Jersey. Identifying information is stripped from the data, which is massaged with historical and predictive information, and the results are fed to customer agencies.

Inrix updates its data about traffic conditions with Extensible Markup Language feeds every few minutes and rates it according to confidence. A confidence score of 30 means it is based on sufficient real-time data to give a real-time picture. A score of 20 means data comes from a combination of real-time and historical reference data, and a score of 10 means it is based primarily on historical information.

“We have done data analysis on it, and the data that comes through now is very accurate,” Hadden said. The Inrix data does not have any capital investment or maintenance from the New Jersey DOT beyond the $500,000 contract payment. “For us, it’s an excellent investment.”

A data fusion engine provided by ICx Technologies, the prime contractor for the 511 program, integrates data from various sources into a uniform data stream that can be used by any of the downstream applications.

Inbound call management

On the front end, the New Jersey DOT works with about 30 local cellular and wired telephone carriers in New Jersey to switch 511 calls to the appropriate 800 service number for state information. The interactive voice response system is provided by ICx, using the Nuance Recognizer 9.0 speech recognition engine from Nuance Communications. Call center services are provided by VoltDelta.

VoltDelta provides hardware, software and services for contact centers, including the North American Directory Assistance database, which provides 411 service for much of the country.

“We are the infrastructure; we are not the butts in the seats,” said Terry Saeger, VoltDelta senior vice president and general manager.

Data in two Transcom data centers — a primary center in Rochester, N.Y, and a backup in Irvine, Calif. — is formatted for the VoltDelta systems, which answers 511 calls, provides a voice menu and responds with current traffic information. Callers can state their starting point and destination for a trip to get trip-specific information, which requires complex speech recognition because the system must recognize place names.

“Speech recognition as a technology is actually very good,” Saeger said. “The grammars are quite large and complex. We’ve seen a lot of improvement in the last few years.”

The voice recognition works well out of the box, but typically it goes through a learning period after being installed during which data is gathered and problems are identified and corrected. Problems can arise not only from the inability of the software to recognize words but also from the way the voice menu is presented.

“If we word the questions poorly, you are not going to be able to match the response against the database” vocabulary, Saeger said.

Voice recognition is enhanced by a propriety VoltDelta technology called CrystalWAVE, which uses data from past calls to improve accuracy by 10 percent above the core voice recognition engine.“The system we have today is far better than we had prior to this,” Hadden said. “We don’t have a problem with the system.”

Cellular ban impact

One fly in the ointment is the ban on drivers using cell phones while driving, which cuts down on the amount of cell phone data that can be used to monitor traffic on highways and limits the ability of drivers to use the 511 service while on the road. Cellular calls can also present problems to the voice recognition engine because they produce ambient noise that can throw the system off. “Much of the improvement in the last few years has been in dealing with background noise,” Saeger said.

Those improvements have allowed VoltDelta to minimize negative responses on the New Jersey 511 system, Hadden said. The New Jersey DOT not only gathers data about traffic on neighboring roadways from Transcom but also makes its data available through the organization to sister agencies, which can be pushed to electronic hazard signs.

ICx also developed the New Jersey 511 website, a widgets-based site that provides real-time traffic information, and is developing My NJ511, a personalized transportation service to push data to subscribers via e-mail and telephone.

The New Jersey DOT realizes that the state is a corridor for many travelers rather than a destination, and a successful traffic information system depends on the ability to collaborate and integrate with neighboring jurisdictions to deliver real- or near-real-time traffic information to travelers.


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