i-Ride wins national honor, prompts ideas for the future


Capital Metro’s i-Ride campaign won a national AdWheel Award from the American Public Transportation Association. The association announced the winners at their annual membership meeting and banquet in San Diego on October 6. Capital Metro was competing against 750 entries in the contest.

The goal of the i-Ride campaign was to increase ridership, particularly among young adults. The campaign launched this spring with a “Tell us Your Story” contest. Riders were encouraged to send in their creative testimonials about why they ride. Working in collaboration with Capital Metro’s advertising agency, Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing, we created an i-Ride presence on YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, in addition to creating an i-Ride Web site.

The i-Ride contest ended, but the good ideas didn’t. Capital Metro staff have been discussing whether and how i-Ride might evolve into a more permanent component of Capital Metro’s marketing strategy. One of the video winners from the contest is now working for Capital Metro as an intern. UT film student Alex Diamond is creating some video clips for our upcoming newly-designed Web site–fun videos to help orient riders to our system: how to ride, how to load up your bike, where/how to insert your fare, etc. Check out his winning i-Ride video here.

Alphabet Soup

I have long been meaning to post on our new Automatic Vehicle Location project but given the size and complexity of it, I have been struggling to figure out where to begin. Of course what you don’t start you can’t finish, so here goes….
What is It?
Most commonly called the Capital Metro ITS project, the AVL project has been somewhat misnamed (more about that in a minute). The Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) project is designed to put GPS (Global Positioning System) devices on all of our fleet so that operations and the public will better know where our vehicles are at any given moment. While a simple concept, the effort required to achieve this is very large and the impact is potentially huge. Over the next few posts I want to explore what the new system will do for everyone and why it is worth the effort.
Why The Funny Name?
When the Automatic Vehicle Location project was first planned and conceived, it was one of the first major introductions of “high-tech” stuff to be rolled out to the public for Capital Metro (not counting Automatic Passenger Counters, and Electronic Fare Boxes). Therefore the term Intelligent Transit Systems was used to describe the project. In general Intelligent Transit Systems are any use of technology that face the public in the area of transportation. So things like smart message signs on the freeway, traffic light pre-emption technology for rapid bus, electronic ticket vending machines at train platforms, video cameras at traffic lights, etc. are all examples of Intelligent Transit Systems. Now that Capital Metro is exploring usage of many new technologies to better the public transit system, it no longer makes sense to call this project the ITS (or Intelligent Transit System) project. So I will attempt to always refer to it as the Automatic Vehicle Location project (AVL for short) to avoid confusion.
What’s in It For Me?
That’s really the question most people want to know the answer to. I hope to go into detail on this over the next 2 -3 posts broken down by the Mode in which we are rolling it out. The project starts with the technology being placed in the MetroAccess (Paratransit) vehicles first where the greatest cost savings and value to the customer can be realized. Once that fleet is done we plan on rolling it out to the rail vehicles, then the Fixed Route system, and finally the rapid bus system when it comes on line.
Next post will be the details in each of these modes.

Changes to Our Website

As promised, not every one of my posts will be about the IVR. It wouldn’t make for very interesting reading no matter how much you love that technology. But while I am on the topic of apologies, there is one more area that I would like to discuss in terms of where we are and where we would like to be: the Capital Metro Web site. As I write, our Web site is being prepared for a number of changes and enhancements that should make it simpler and more useful for the community (and a lot easier for us to update and keep fresh, too).

The first thing our team did was look at other transit agencies to see what they had done that made sense and what mistakes they had made. This, along with many of the things we have wanted to do for a while but did not have the time or skills to implement, led to a list of things we wanted to build into our next generation Web site. While the brainstorming was easy, the prioritization has not been. We want to vet the list of ideas through the public to see which ones ring true and which ones are not worth pursuing (see below).

We are hoping to get a new look and feel to the page (to freshen it up) and to incorporate features that will take advantage of our new bus tracking system that we are rolling out this fall.

So, tell us. What features would be most valuable to you?

Ideas for new web features:
_____ Much improved Customer Comment Request system (inquiry, trouble ticket, etc.) entry, FAQ, and routing to/from the person that needs to respond.

_____ Ability to put performance metrics on the website.

_____ Ability to have the web visitor rate usefulness of content.

_____ A MyCapMetro page whereby personalized information is accessible based on what I’m interested in, such as: common trips (departure and arrival for common routes – such as to work or work to home), next bus for a few highly used (personally selected) routes – perhaps simply scrolling up to three ‘next departure’ times for certain routes at certain locations based off of GPS data, complaints entered and responses to them, and automatic feeds on topics of personal interest from the Web site, such as STS or Rail, or Board Meetings, etc.

_____ Mobile device button/section on first page, like BART’s, that allows phones and PDAs to download schedules.

_____ Aesthetically pleasing tourist section, like NJ Transit.

_____ Service Alert section at top of home page. Service alerts also listed on schedule pages.

_____ Easy online store.

_____ Language conversion like WMATA.

_____ Community Calendar with trip planner pre-encoded to destination.

_____ Trip Planner: enhanced graphic user interface, drop-down menus, links to interactive maps and service interruptions.

_____ Icons on the front page to distinguish modes (rail, express, local, STS, etc.) clicks through to page with pull down menus of routes and include fare information, etc.

_____ Less “What’s Happening” on the front page and more service information.

_____ Front page feature to click through to detours.

_____ Larger font size (currently 8.5 and gray).

_____ Ability to magnify web pages for those that are visually impaired (see http://www.tafn.org.uk/ for example).

_____ More white space on the pages – simpler, less cluttered design.

_____ Easier, more direct link to interactive maps.

_____ Overall ease in finding what you are seeking – no more than three clicks to any page.

_____ Clarity of pages – easier navigation.

_____ ADA: Bobby approved, 508 and W3C certified.

_____ Live chat with customer service.

_____ Front page link for meetings and events.

_____ Front page feature for project Updates (i.e. All Systems Go).

_____ Improved design on schedules page to reduce the long, undefined columns. Redesigned for easier reading and downloading to mobile devices.

_____ Text messages when my bus is late.

_____ How to ride videos.

_____ “Testing area” for new technologies (like Google Labs).

_____ Forum for dialogue with public.

_____ Orbital ITS (next bus and live tracking of vehicles) online.

_____ Web component for paratransit.

_____ Touchless transit pass or smart card that could be recharged online.

APD Officers learn to drive a bus

A group of seven Austin police officers have spent this week training with Capital Metro instructors, learning how to drive a bus. Part of the training was spent behind the wheel of Capital Metro’s high-tech bus simulator, as shown in this video by KTBC last night.

Once the officers receive their commercial drivers licenses (they’re taking the driving exam this morning), they’ll be tasked with operating the City’s new Breath Alcohol Testing bus, or B.A.T bus, which was donated to APD by Capital Metro.

Capital Metro has an ongoing partnership with APD to prepare officers to operate buses in the event of an emergency. We’ve helped a total of 21 officers obtain a commercial drivers license since 2000.

All new Capital Metro bus operators who were hired since 2006 (when we purchased the bus simulator), have had an opportunity to train with the high-tech equipment.

P.S. IVR, I Love You

I thought I was done with IVR posts. I was wrong. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the way information gets shared behind the scenes. Since I started writing about our IVR problems I have now been contacted/referenced by two different IVR specialists that say there may be hope for what ails us.

Now I am more optimistic than most but I want to be realistic about what we can and cannot accomplish with our IVR and then I want to set the public’s expectations realistically (don’t worry, what the public has asked for is realistic, the gap right now is on Capital Metro’s side). In order to do that we have to look at all possible options. Including the largest of all which is scrap the system all together and go in a different direction. Some have said this is the way to go. At this point I don’t know if that is the right answer or not. But we won’t know if we don’t look at it. And we will.

To that end, I want to thank all those that have given and are giving us feedback. While no one likes to be told something they have responsibility for stinks, it is unfortunately the best way to get better. And that is what we are going to do. So please keep sending the ideas, and YES, vendors please keep contacting us so that we can eventually get to the best darned Public Transit IVR in the U.S. of A.
Okay, now for something completely different…

IVR Solutions

So how do we fix the problems with the IVR? In a word, persistence. In a little less brevity we have a few layers to tackle and the plan is to tackle each layer in order. Naturally we want to hit the problems with the biggest impact, but some of the issue will take rebuilding the system from the ground up and some will take new software from the various vendors. Therefore, like other big Goliaths, we tackle the items that will be the quickest to resolve with the biggest payback for the effort.

– Fix the script errors as quickly as we find them. As mentioned before, the number of places that something can go wrong in a system this size is staggering. So while we are looking at the system regularly to find the errors we can, the fastest way to find the issues is to foster feedback from the community that uses the system. When we hear that there is an error in the IVR we have our team take a look and attempt to fix the problem. If it is a simple “misalignment” of the script we try to correct it immediately. If it is a more complex problem, then we often have to refer back to the vendor and are therefore more constrained by their schedules.

– Work on the source of internal data issues. Unfortunately some of the errors in the IVR system are squarely our fault. Bad data in = bad data out. When we forget to include a bus stop, or we misspell one of Austin’s more creative street names, our customers feel the pain at the IVR. Along with the script errors above we will correct these as we become aware of them. But more importantly, our strategy is to work with each of the groups within Capital Metro to make sure everyone puts good data in.

– Add touch tone to every part of the script that we can. This I think is one of the biggest issues with the IVR today. When I first heard about the issues with the speech recognition, my initial reaction was to pull it. But then when I started floating the idea of dumping that feature, I had numerous reactions from people that liked that piece and that had positive interactions with the voice recognition component. In the end, the best solution seems to be ensuring that we put touch tone everywhere we can in the system along side the voice recognition, and give the callers a choice. (Shocking conclusion I know. Choices are good.)

– Rearrange the script to be simpler and easier to use. Include better structure for the voice recognition. By changing the way we approach the voice recognition prompts, by making it easier to “get out of” the IVR cycle, and by better communicating the options that a caller has at any point in the script, we believe that we will have a better product. This change will be tied in with the previous change so that what you get is a more effective tool and will allow us to better pair touch-tone and voice recognition throughout the system.

– Add additional, obvious, and beneficial functionality. This actually will be the hardest change, which is why I saved it for last. The reason new functionality is tricky is because it depends on pulling information out of other systems (sometimes 2 or 3 simultaneously) which requires coordination and boundary discussions. Of course, the easiest changes are the ones where the underlying database or application has the information you want. But it seldom seems to be that easy.

In a nutshell this is going to be a long process to fix the system. I am hoping that as we progress we can stabilize quickly, make some obvious improvements early on, and then continue to deliver a better IVR month after month into the foreseeable future. If you have ideas or suggestions, please let me know.

IVR Challenges

From my first week at Capital Metro, I heard about the issues facing our IVR system. While there was no shortage of anecdotes, the bigger challenge was figuring out the root cause of the problems. There was no point in putting a band-aid on the IVR when there were structural problems with the system. However the way issues were reported did not immediately reveal the source of the problems. And to further complicate things the IVR is not a single computer running in a closet somewhere. The system is actually made up of multiple phone related servers, the phone system (both on your end and ours), scheduling data stored in one database, and multiple route and reservations data stored in other databases. All told, the IVR system is made up of about a dozen vendors’ products that all have to work together to present the data that Capital Metro puts into it. So when a problem occurs we have to go through the following steps before we can figure out what is causing the problem.

  1. Understand what problem is happening
  2. Reproduce the problem consistently
  3. Trace the problem back to the one or more systems causing the problem
  4. Get the vendor(s) responsible for that/those system(s) to take ownership of the problem and solve it

The easiest problems to solve are actually content problems (when we enter data wrong or incompletely). They aren’t any easier to find, but at least we are the only ones accountable for these fixes. The issue here again is the size of the system, with the tens of thousands of data elements that have to come together to make it work, we are constantly finding items that need to be fixed.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the complaints about the IVR were anecdotal (certainly valid, but not specific enough for us to reproduce and therefore be able to fix). However, in recent meetings with the riding community (both at ACCESS and Customer Service Advisory Committee group meetings) I’ve captured the specific issues I’ve heard and we’ve been prioritizing them to address the underlying issues. In my next blog I will lay out the priorities and the next steps that we will be undertaking to make sure the IVR gets better. However, in the remainder of this post I am going to list the issues that we have captured so far so that I can fufill the promise I made to the ACCESS and CSAC groups a few weeks ago (I haven’t forgotten):

http://www.capmetro.org/blog/IVR_Issue_Log.XLS

Given the length of the list and the limitations of this blog, I am going to try to link to the Excel Spreadsheet. If this process doesn’t work, we will regroup and try this a different way.

IVR Primer

I would like to begin my posts with a discussion of our IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system. For those not aware this is the “phone tree” or automated phone system that you have the choice to interact with whenever you call the Go Line (474-1200) or the STS information and reservation numbers. For the more astute readers out there the choice is not really a choice when calling after hours as the manned phone lines only offer automated options when no one is around.

To understand IVR’s one needs to understand the nature of call centers. IVR’s were invented to try to deal with the explosive growth of inbound calls that companies experience as their customer base grows without increasing call center staffing in a linear fashion. Many calls are common and request simple information that can be easily automated. The theory is that if you can answer these simple questions with an automated system, then you will need fewer people to respond to the types of questions that only a human can handle (and thereby lower the cost associated with customer or business growth). The problem comes when more complex questions are pushed to the IVR’s and/or the callers come to prefer the IVR and thus depend on it to answer more complex questions. The result in either case is a frustrated caller and a potentially lost rider. Like most things in life, the trick is in finding the balance between the purpose for which IVR’s were built, and the need to handle more calls on a daily basis.

For example, when a rider calls in to find out what hours the customer service line is automated, an IVR can and should handle this type of call. But when a rider calls in to find out how to get from Downtown to Highland mall in the shortest time possible, an IVR will not do a good job of handling this question (a lot of human judgment and discretion is required which an IVR just can’t muster). So why do I mention all of this? The simple answer is that the Capital Metro IVR is not currently meeting our rider’s expectations at the level we would like. What I hope to go into over the next few posts is why this is the case, and more importantly, what Capital Metro is doing about the situation.

Thanks,
Kirk Talbott
CIO – Capital Metro

Hello and Thank You

Let me begin by saying thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read one more article and for taking the time to care enough about Public Transit in Austin to be involved. Hopefully this blog will prove valuable to the local community and will increase the transparency of Capital Metro as a public agency. My goals for the technology section of the Blog are two-fold.

1. I hope to be able to communicate more information, in a more meaningful way, without the inherent delays when we go through more traditional channels. Board meetings and newsletters are fine, but the reality today is that there is far more information and far more changes happening in any given space of time than can be communicated through older forms of dialog. Hence my strong desire to use this blog to get a lot more across to everyone who cares.

2. I hope to have 2-way communication and dialog around the topics of interest to you. Of course I will be writing on the topics that I think are the most central to the region’s transit interests, but the beauty of this format is that if I miss the target, you can let me hear about it. Without the formality of other mediums, I hope that this website can produce some real conversations about the things that matter most.

I will keep this brief, but I do truly hope to publish a lot of critical topics to supplement the other channels of information Capital Metro is using to communicate. I look forward to your responses and feedback, but if there is something you would like to see here, please feel free to drop me a line so I can discuss it with you in future posts.

Thanks,
Kirk Talbott
CIO – Capital Metro