Centrelink readies speech recognition reporting system

A team of six IT professionals is working on the implementation of Centrelink's first speech-enabled application due to go live in April next year.

The project includes two self-service channels and according to the Federal Government agency's national manager, Hank Jongen access will be via the Internet (www.centrelink.gov.au) and automated telephony using National Language Speech Recognition (NLSR).

"The project will allow customers to report earnings income via the NLSR service, automating the complex task of collecting data, which is currently done manually either by customers filling in forms or through the contact centre," he said.

The initiative is part of the Working Credit policy, which supplements existing income test rules allowing customers to earn some income per fortnight before payments are reduced.

"A component of the Working Credit project is the fortnightly assessment of employment income for all eligible payment types. This will affect how income is to be reported, how often income should be reported, and whether income must be reported in order for a payment to be made," he said.

"The fundamental purpose of the fortnightly assessment cycle is to minimise the incidence of incorrect payments with consequent demands for adjustment and or recovery action."

Jongen said major speech engine providers were asked to provide a list of their preferred integration partners, who were then all invited to respond to a formal request for tender.

Speech recognition and text-to-speech (TTS) technologies and services company, SpeechWorks International, in partnership with Information Technologies Australia (iTa), were chosen to supply NLSR solutions for Centrelink.

The solution forms part of the multimillion dollar project that includes hardware, software and professional services provided by SpeechWorks, iTa and Telstra. The solution will run on an interactive voice response (IVR) platform from InterVoice-Brite, a global provider of voice-enabled information solutions.

The speech platform is supplied and supported by iTa and managed by Telstra under its managed services contract with Centrelink.

"We chose speech recognition as a way to improve service for our customers. This is the result of three years of careful analysis and research into the speech recognition market," Jongen, said.

The speech system will give people an easy way to report earnings and the agency expects it will assist people with their regular and on-time reporting of earnings.

He said the initiative presents a challenge for Centrelink because the collection of income information from customers will expand in both scope and frequency.

The project was officially planned for September this year but Jongen said the implementation was deferred till 2003 for further testing with customers.

"Work includes the backend integration through the middleware layer and up to the NLSR presentation layer," he said.

The project will ensure about 10,000 customers who report less frequently under current arrangements can report to Centrelink on a fortnightly basis.

"The percentage of this customer group who then choose to use the NLSR application will depend on customer acceptance, as the customer will have a choice of whether they wish to use the NLSR or speak to a customer service officer," he said.

The implementation of speech recognition technology will not replace call centre staff, he said, adding that the amount of work undertaken by the Centrelink call centre network will continue to grow with staff numbers either staying the same, or increasing.

He said Centrelink does not anticiape any IT integration barriers as it already has a well established middleware platform which give both IVR and Web access to legacy database systems.

"Centrelink will also already be using a full Genesys CTI platform (including ScreenPop and SoftPhone) and while this project will involve several more business transactions being built through this three-tiered architecture it is not seen as a major barrier," Jongen said.

While there have been more aggressive return on investment (ROI) projections for some NLSR projects, Centrelink anticipates this ROI to take several years due to the soft, non-compulsory, deployment of the application.

Jongen recommends other organisations -- particularly government organisations -- considering implementing speech recognition technology handle the policy issues early.

"Sort out backend integration issues early. Have a stable, reliable and scalable telephony (with CTI) infrastructure in place. Be aware that a NLSR project can have an element of 'art' about it, in particular the presentation persona and so on," he said.

To access either automated service -- Web or NLSR -- a customer will be required to authenticate themselves by supplying their unique Customer Reference Number and an additional matching credential.

Jongen said at present the additional credential for the Web is an alpha numeric password, and through the IVR channel it is a six-digit Pin number.

"Centrelink is investigating the use of an alpha numeric password through the IVRs using natural language technology, but the overall reliability and accuracy of this is yet to be determined. Obviously it is not easy to have a Dual Tone Multi Frequency backup if the system fails to recognise a letter," Jongen said.

When a customer rings the NLSR system they will be asked to enter both their reference number and their PIN which will be checked against Centrelink's Access Control Facility database.

For the IVR channel a customer is issued a credential by phoning a Centrelink customer service officer in a call centre where they go through an evidence of identity process which the officer administers.

Once the customer's identity has been established they will be transferred (using CTI technology) to an IVR where they will select their credential (currently a six-digit Pin).

According to Jongen, through the Web, customers may be able to self-register online by answering questions which are validated against their existing Centrelink record. If they answer the questions correctly they can choose their password. Both the customer reference number and PIN or password are entered into the access control database in real time.

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