511 service off to slow start in Canada

Back in 2006, government announcements were made about the introduction of a new 511 telephone information service by the end of 2007. But progress on this initiative has been slow.

Canada’s 511 service is meant to provide up-to-date information about weather and travel conditions to Canadians so that they can make informed choices for their travel plans. A similar service already exists in several states in the U.S.

The 511 number was reserved almost two years ago by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to pave the way for a cross-Canada, 24-hour telephone service that provides vital weather and traveller information through one easy, three-digit telephone number.

As originally envisioned, Environment Canada, one of the partners in the Canada 511 Consortium set up to introduce the service, would provide current weather information, including warnings about major weather events.

Each province would contribute travel information providing information such as advisories about congestion, road and lane closures due to construction, and other road conditions. Various public and private transportation systems could also contribute information about scheduling and delays for public transit, ferries and so on.

But the initiative appears to have lost momentum. In January 2008, Nova Scotia became the first province in Canada to introduce a 511 service for road conditions only.

Only the Yukon has definite plans to introduce a similar service – largely because neighbouring Alaska already has it, says Paul Richard, manager of maintenance and operations at Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation.

People who call 511 on any phone in Nova Scotia will be connected to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal’s bilingual road information line. By entering any highway number along their route, people can access up-to-the-minute road condition information.

Introducing the 511 service in Nova Scotia was a relatively painless process, he says. The province already had a computerized road reporting system in place with a 1-800 phone number to access information, he explains.

“Our old 1-800 number worked exactly same way, but it’s easier for the public to remember a 511 number,” says Richard. “The hard part is implementing a road reporting system, but we did that two years ago.”

Telephone service providers were cooperative in meeting the deadline to provide the 511 number free of charge to the public. “We asked Bell Aliant, cell phone companies and other carriers operating in the province last year to direct calls to 511 to our information line. We gave them six months to get it done, and we weren’t charged to make the switch as this is a CRTC public service program.”

But he points out larger provinces such as Ontario and Quebec with a larger number of telecom providers would likely have more headaches coordinating the introduction of the service. “We got citizen complaints from some telephone exchanges, saying 511 didn’t work in their areas. Little bugs like that would be magnified in Ontario.”

Usage of the information service went up dramatically when the province switched from a 1-800 to 511 service, he says. “We went from about 230 calls in December to 1100 daily in January.”

Nova Scotia is now eyeing interactive voice response (IVR) technology for the service, he says. At present, travellers must input a road via cell phone keypads to get information. But the province introduced laws banning handheld cell phone use in vehicles in April.

“We want to see if we can get voice recognition going so people can access information by speaking into hands-free cell phones instead of typing.” However, Environment Canada and other provinces haven’t made much progress introducing the service, he says.

Attempts to find out the status of Environment Canada’s national weather information service were unsuccessful. Although the agency announced in a 2006 release that it would “move quickly towards implementing 511, with a roll-out in 2007”, spokesperson Julie Hahn sent an e-mail response saying Environment Canada is examining the introduction of the weather service.

In light of these delays, Nova Scotia decided to go ahead without the weather component. “Our provincial task force was waiting for Environment Canada, but then decided not to wait anymore and go ahead with the road conditions service,” says Richard.

The consolidation of travel-related information services in one 511 number will be a valuable public service once all the components are completed, he says. “We see 511 evolving so you can press 1 for road conditions, 2 for weather, 3 for tourist-related things like hotel reservations, so any kind of travel-related information could be accessed with one call. But right now we’re the only player.”

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