October 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT4

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Information Delivery Using an Automated Computer/Telephone System (Or 10,000 Contacts in 10 Years)

A computer/telephone delivery system has delivered timely information for 10 years. Information, updated by university personnel, is timely, research based, and accessible on a 24-hour basis. During the 10-year period, clients have called the system over 10,000 times. Surveys conducted confirm the usefulness of the approach for clients. The flexible nature of the system lends itself to wide applications satisfying a wide variety of needs.

Steven B. Johnson
Crops Specialist and Extension Professor

James D. Dwyer
Crops Specialist and Extension Professor

Presque Isle, Maine
University of Maine Cooperative Extension


For the past 10 years, a computer/telephone delivery system has delivered timely and current information from our office. This system has revolutionized our delivery methods. Current pesticide recommendations are now accessible on a 24-hour basis, and eliminated is misinterpretation and misdelivery of this information. Most important, all clients have convenient access to the same timely and research-based information.

Initially, the system was set up for timely delivery of information on potato disease prediction systems. Over the years, with the addition of insect pest information, pesticide and other license recertification details, as well as general information, the computer/telephone system has developed into a Pest Management Hotline covering many aspects of potato production and potato pest control.

The computer/telephone system itself has evolved to where it now consists of a dedicated computer with voice mail software (available at: http://www.nch.com.au/ivm/) and a TAPI-compliant voice modem connected to a dedicated telephone line. Connection has also evolved to where now both local and toll-free phone numbers are available. As the computer/telephone system developed into the Pest Management Hotline, the system now operates on a year-round basis.


During the growing season, information on the Pest Management Hotline is updated twice weekly, more frequently if conditions warrant, or about 25 to 30 times. Listed on the Hotline are upcoming programs of interest and recertification credits for pesticide and Certified Crop Advisor licenses. This has noticeably reduced the number of telephone calls into the office for this highly specific information. Outside of the growing season, university personnel update the information as needed with upcoming programs and similar events of interest. More subjects appealing to a wider audience may be included in the future.

Clients have access to the information on a local number (207-760-9IPM) or a toll-free number (1-888-USE-UMCE, inside Maine) 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The number of calls during the growing season tends to fluctuate with the number and severity of issues the users face. Calls coming in from the remainder of the year tend to be much fewer than during the season and, again, fluctuate with the number of outreach programs. Table l lists the calls received during the major use period.

Table 1.
Calls to the Pest Management Hotline Between June 15 and September 15

YearNumber of Calls

Making It Work

Multiple funding sources support the system. The inclusion of industry and local resources has been instrumental in assuring wide acceptance and ownership of the project. Local Maine distributors of pest control materials financially contribute to fund the toll charges for calls to the Pest Management Hotline; therefore, the toll number is in-state access only. The opening greeting acknowledges these supporters as sponsors. Additional funding sources support the monthly line charge and a one-time grant supported the computer system hardware and software.

The phone numbers was chosen to be easily remembered and to promote Integrated Pest Management (760-9IPM) and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension (1-888-USE-UMCE). University of Maine Cooperative Extension Crops Specialists update the Pest Management Hotline on the same days of the week during the heavy use season, and users have come to expect that consistency.


Over the past 10 years, the computer/telephone system has logged in excess of 10,000 calls. The system has also proven effective for client evaluation as it was used to electronically poll callers. The dollar value of the computer/telephone system to the clients was polled (Table 2).

Table 2.
Money Saved by Callers to the Pest Management Hotline Between June 15 and September 15

Savings per Year1999200020012005
% of callers% of callers% of callers% of callers
more than $200048202244
*Not applicable, e.g., pest control advisors

The polls were taken sporadically through the growing season (set up and collected with the voice mail software) until about 10% of the callers have been surveyed. Over 90% of respondents reported that the system saved money in their farming operation. Results from mailed surveys support this and support the high popularity of the system. The fact that clients continue to support the system by calling is also positive feedback.


The computer/telephone delivery system is flexible, menus are simple to develop, updating information requires only speaking into a microphone, and maintenance is nonexistent. We tailored the system to the specific needs of our clients. Our clients have accepted and like the computer/telephone delivery system. The system has the flexibility to address needs in other situations.