Month: February 2010

Revolutionary automated outbound call system using Skype

Sometimes I love my job as a Software Architect because I get to invent new toys to play with that make life easier, less tedious and, on occasion, provide real value.  Well, I just finished designing one of those toys.  It is a very different kind of automated calling system that uses Skype voice over IP, the latest text to speech technology and seamless web services to do something very cool.

Over the past 10 years research has shown that if schools hold students accountable for their behavior they typically reduce problems like being late to class, using cell phones, etc. by up to 80%.   They also know that the minute they stop holding the students accountable they slip back into the bad behavior almost immediately.  In the late 1990’s our company pioneered parental involvement by being the first to instantly send an email to the parent when a tardy slip or disciplinary action was assigned to a student.  Since then, eCampusUSA.net (one of FTI’s companies) has issued over 3,000,000 tardy slips and almost 2,000,000 disciplinary actions – but there has always been a problem.  What if the parent doesn’t have email or it isn’t in the student record?

The old solution to the problem was either to print a letter and mail it to the parent or make a phone call.  The problem with the letter is that mailing costs continue to rise.  And while we have automated the process of printing so that the school doesn’t have to print labels or address envelopes, it is still labor intensive.  Some schools would have to mail 200 letters a day and at a buck a letter it could cost 180 x $200 = $36,000 per year.   Not exactly the best solution – even if you cut the cost in half.

If a school wants to automate phone calls to parents, installing their own dialer can be very expensive.  Installing an automated dialer to call parents requires a separate computer, installation of a very expensive digital phone card that costs at least $2500 and is difficult to install and configure – to say the least – if you ever tried to configure one you’d know what I mean.  The school also must pay for a monthly charge for all of the dedicated phone lines.   The cost of a dialer for a school can cost $5,000-10,000 a year when you consider phone lines, support and installation.  Then you have the problem of setting up the data so that it can begin making the calls which can be a lot of work – and the reality is that most systems cannot provide the data that can be fed into an automated calling program. For schools on tight budgets, that cost is out of the question.

The new system is amazing.  When a school issues disciplinary action of any kind to a student and the parent email is missing, a customized phone call to the parent is made within minutes.  The greeting and message tells the parent about the offense and when detention or other corrective action will be held.  Every message is unique and in a human voice.  The result of the call is then stored in the student record so that a school administrator can see the result of every phone call. 

The school doesn’t need to install any hardware or software to make this happen.  All they need is a browser and Internet connection.  The rest is done automatically.  Instead of spending thousands of dollars and having to put up with the support headaches it only costs them $39 a month regardless of the number of phone calls.  You might say – really?  But don’t services of this type always charge per call?  You would be right.  Most services charge 4-10 cents per call.  If a school made 200 calls per day it would cost  $160-400 per month.  How can we offer this service for only $39 per month?  You see – I told you that sometimes inventing new toys is fun!

The reason we can do it for that amount is because we use Skype as our phone service.  We have a server that talks directly to the eCampus server in real time to see if any calls have to be made.  If there are calls, then it gets the message that is unique for every call and converts it from digital text to speech using the latest in speech technology.  It sounds more like a human than a robot and I’ve even had people talking to the system thinking a person was on the other end of the line.  Pretty cool stuff!  Then, it dials the parent’s phone number using a special interface we built into Skype.  If the parent picks up the phone it plays the message, if not it leaves a voice mail.  If there is no answer, it tracks that as well.  When the call is finished, it updates the student record with the result.  This takes interaction to a whole new level – and it is incredibly cost effective!

I’ve been thinking about how this technology can be used by doctors and dentists for reminding patients.  Organizations for announcing meetings or reminders.  It is pretty powerful and opens up a whole new means of communication that was previously cost prohibitive.

So I’ve been watching my new toy quietly going about it’s business every day improving the communication between teacher and parent.  Something that would not have been possible 5 years ago.