TMC's Play With Natural Language Interfaces For Data Reporting
The Beat ~ a travel business newsletter
Corporate clients regularly turn to their travel management companies for data reporting to better understand travel spending, policy compliance, supplier performance and other facets of program management. A few TMCs, including Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Omega World Travel and Travel Inc., are exploring new ways for clients to interrogate travel program data through natural language, either typed in text or spoken by voice.
Last month, Carlson Wagonlit Travel launched, with a few clients, the first iteration of its Google-like search interface so users of its AnalytIQs reporting suite can pose questions in free text and get data visualizations in return. Omega and Travel Inc., meanwhile, are playing with voice commands for clients to get data-based insights. Both are tapping into the Amazon Alexa platform and exploring other voice channels.
"People were coming to us saying, 'Can we have a report that does this?' or, 'Your report doesn't quite do this,'" CWT chief technology officer Andrew Jordan said in a recent interview. CWT's solution: "Give them one box and use natural language," he said.
He used a very specific example to demonstrate capabilities: "You can effectively type a query in natural language and say: 'Show me all my travelers that are flying to Tokyo who didn't adhere to policy.' As you're typing those terms into the search bar, it builds these dynamic dashboards in real time beneath. It's a completely different way of thinking about accessing data."
Asked how he expects clients to interact with data through a natural language interface, Jordan said, "You can ask it anything you want. I think it's going to vary, and it's going to be a bit of a journey for people once they have access to it."
Travel Inc.'s proprietary data reporting system for clients is called Evolution, and the TMC has been developing its Evolution Voice Assistant, EVA for short. Now in alpha testing, the bot engine initially will be compatible with Amazon Alexa, though the company is exploring other voice interfaces, said Travel Inc. platform engineer Eric Almond.
"Our core focus was not really the Amazon technology as much as reshaping our information to be naturally available for AI and voice responses," he said.
EVA supports more than 60 voice commands. "Our focus is really to tackle every level of a travel organization, whether it's management, a travel arranger or the travelers themselves."
EVA can address queries related to traveler locations for risk management purposes. For travelers, it can deliver information on their individual trips, such as on-time status and itinerary details.
As for mining travel data, Almond said users could ask about year-to-date travel spend, hotel night volume and citypair information, among other data points. Based on responses to such questions, a user then can compare metrics to prior-year data. Travel Inc. also is working predictive capabilities. "What will that look like next quarter?" Almond suggested as one query.
While voice can be a handy way for clients to ask about data, it's not always ideal for answers: A bot rattling off 100 city pairs by voice doesn't create a great user experience.
Travel Inc.'s solution lets users configure the system to have reports or data visualizations sent via their preferred channels: "the ability to say: 'Who are my top 100 travelers?' Then, the next command is, 'Can you send that to me?' That gets routed based on whether you configured it for mobile or email," said Almond.
Travel Inc. also is working on voice commands to create real-time dashboards for users in an online desktop computer environment.
Almond said the collision of natural language with the travel industry's jargon poses challenges. "Amazon understands the names of corporations or vendors: Delta Air Lines, Marriott—those types of names. On theflip side, one of the things they don't deal with is airport codes," Almond said.
Further, each client has unique ways of talking about his or her company, including internal division names. "The challenge in this environment is working with the travel lingo and languages and dealing with customer and client codes and all of these things that Amazon doesn't understand or care to understand," said Almond. "We're working to make the user experience the best possible so that they can navigate using their voice and the terms they're used to working with: their divisions, their company names. The delivery of information is fairly seamless. It's getting them to ask the right question and have it feel natural. That's what we're currently working through."
Omega also is finalizing an Alexa skill to support its Omegalytics reporting system, said VP of IT and data analytics Nadim Hajje.
Already, the TMC has been a champion of using the Alexa interface to extend travel management services. It already has published its first Alexa skill to support risk management and traveler tracking: "Alexa, where are my travelers?"
The first iteration of commingling Alexa with Omegalytics will focus on airline-related data queries, such as top carriers and city pairs. Hotel-related queries are next, Hajje noted.
~ Jay Boehmer
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