Speech-activated databases facilitate access to information
Navigating around an unknown city or plotting a piece of land could soon be a lot easier thanks to the EU-funded SAFIR project: A voice-activated database system developed by researchers on the project makes it possible to access and update information via mobile devices. The main advantage, however, is that the system recognises natural language patterns. A simple, everyday question will suffice and the system, drawing on geographical information systems (GIS), for instance, will provide a map to direct the person to the place he or she is looking for. In addition to asking for directions or information, the databases can also be updated using everyday speech, a feature that could be helpful to field agents for public services. 'People do not have the resources to keep sending employees into the field to verify data,' says project coordinator Charles Kemper of Belgian SME Voice Insight. 'We realised that we should let the agent in the field see and/or update the information on the spot over a mobile devices. And by letting them speak naturally they don't have to learn the delicacies of database querying and inputting.' However, citizens, too, could benefit from the easy use of the system, Mr Kemper thinks: 'They wouldn't need to be PC-literate or even have a computer at all. Natural speech access helps to break down the digital divide. People without PCs can access information via TV set-top boxes and see the information displayed on their TV screens.' The SAFIR project partners are planning a pilot study in Beijing in cooperation with Capinfo, the agency responsible for developing urban information services for the Chinese capital. Linking the SAFIR module into the official GIS resources, the system could then help visitors find their way around the city and even facilitate communication with taxi drivers and hotel staff as early as 2008 with a view to the Olympics that will take place in Beijing. Another area of application has been tried and tested by the Bulgarian Agricultural Ministry and Bulgarian local authorities: Field agents would walk around the edge of a piece of land holding a GPS antenna and a PDA or small tablet PC, on which the SAFIR module was installed, thus plotting the field and entering data simply by speaking into their mobile device. 'Hands-free control is really important as they walk through the fields,' Mr Kemper explains. 'The Agricultural Ministry and the administrative body responsible for allocating European grants use the system to make spot checks on farmers' applications for subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy. It is much quicker, cheaper and more accurate than using aerial photographs alone.' The SAFIR module has also been used by French fire fighters to tackle forest fires: As time is of the essence in fire-fighting, GIS technology has not been very useful in this area so far, because accessing and updating the databases used to be too time consuming. The new system, however, can now be updated quickly and help to see and predict the path the fire will take. The project, involving 18 companies and institutions from seven Member States, received more than €6.5 million in funding under the Information Society Technologies theme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).