Introducing GovFresh Voice

One of the more striking ironies of the Gov 2.0 movement is that despite the development of scores of new technologies, protocols, platforms and networks for enabling sophisticated interactions between citizens and their governments, a large number of people prefer to interact with their government the way they have for a long time – using the telephone.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that many citizens are looking to new channels when communicating with government:

“Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.”

But the same study also found that the granddaddy of communication technologies (the plain old telephone) still reigns supreme as the method for citizens to contact government:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.”

Even those that are rich in broadband Internet access seem to prefer to use the phone to contact government:

“…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.”

This is not a new finding, and I have written about it many times before.

What is new are the opportunities that governments now have to leverage the ordinary telephone (and the sophisticated new ones as well) to provide improved customer service, and to enable citizens to proactively report issues in their community. A host of platforms and tools now exists that have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for smaller governments to build sophisticated communication applications.

These platforms are enormously more powerful than they were just a few years ago. With the tools that are now available to governments, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels (phone, instant messaging, text messaging, and even social networks like Twitter) from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone and communication applications. Ever!

As part of the Manor.GovFresh event that will be taking place in Manor, Texas next week participants will be giving a “Gov 2.0 Makeover” to a small Texas municipality. As part of this makeover, I’m working with a company called Tropo to build a sophisticated cloud-based telephony system for De Leon Texas.

The GovFresh Voice project (which will run on the Tropo platform) will enable De Leon – as well as other towns and cities – to leverage the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), speech recognition and cloud-based telephony. It leverages all of the functionality of the most sophisticated and powerful cloud telephony platform to empower a small municipal government to fully exploit a preferred communication channel to interact with its citizens.

The GovFresh Voice project is open source – the code is available on GitHub – can run on a commodity web server, is easily configurable and customizable, and requires no up front investment in expensive or sophisticated hardware. It’s cloud-based telephony at its simplest and most powerful.

The hope is to enable De Leon to use this new application and to show other towns what can be done with it. Ultimately, the plan is to donate the code for GovFresh Voice to the new Civic Commons project so that other municipalities can make use of it.

If this project sounds like something your town might like to use, or if you’d like to learn more about how telephones and other communication devices can be used to improve government service delivery, you should consider joining us for the Manor.GovFresh event.

Applying new technologies to old problems is part of what Gov 2.0 is about. Telephony might seem old school, but there has never been more opportunity than right now to exploit it cheaply and efficiently to improve communications between governments and their citizens.

About Mark Headd

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal Chief Data Officers in the United States, and was also Director of Government Relations at Code for America. He currently works with civic technologists and open data advocates as a Developer Evangelist for Accela, Inc. A coder and civic hacking veteran, he has worked as both a hands-on technologist and as a high-level policy advisor. Self taught in programming, he holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration teaching a course in electronic government.

4 Responses

  1. Since the city of De Leon currently has a very rudimentary phone system, this will provide lots of functionality that they do not currently have.

    The additional benefit is that any municipality that wants to use this system (or help develop it!) can do so. It’s 100% open source.

  2. What a great project. I can’t wait to hear about the results. Do you have plans for follow-up research that will prove the effectiveness and functional increases that the system will bring to De Leon?

  3. Definately.

    In fact, at one of the break out sessions yesterday at the Manor.GovFresh event, there were lots of ideas submitted for improvements / enhancements to the software.

    We had a great discussion with local government officials about how they use telephones to interact with citizens and what they wish their phone systems did. De Leon will be a great beta implementation that we can learn much from.

    I hope to use the knowledge gained in this implementation to make the software better and more valuable for other local governments.

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