Getting an instant response

Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration have incorporated new levels of automation in the agency's Web site that minimize the need for employees to individually address users' inquiries.

The FAA deployed software earlier this year, developed by RightNow Technologies Inc., that searches a knowledge database for similar questions that have been answered in the past, either via e-mail or over the phone.

If it finds a match, the system sends the response via a pop-up screen in their Web browser. If not, the software sifts through a list of human experts, who in turn answer the users through e-mail. Typically, about 10 percent of inquiries cannot be satisfied by the database and must be forwarded to an expert. Once answered, those questions then go into the database for future reference.

The knowledge database further enhances the FAA's Web redesign launched last fall. At that time, agency officials created more room for hot topics and current information by cutting the number of links on the home page in half. Now, with the automated response system, officials can instantly address a user's query and tailor the site to reflect trends and news events, such as policy changes and weather events.

The automated system will ease the demands on agency employees to respond to a flood of inquiries from site visitors, according to Phyllis Preston, FAA Web manager. Pilots are the largest group of site users, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the traffic, she said. Visitors submit a wide range of inquiries — some of the more frequently asked questions focus on licensing issues such as how to replace lost or destroyed licenses or what the testing requirements are for a private license.

RightNow Technologies' knowledge database is able to provide responses to FAA Web site users because it constantly updates itself, said Greg Gianforte, chief executive officer of RightNow Technologies.

"We use a series of both implicit and explicit learning capabilities, which include artificial intelligence and machine learning, to observe the historical usefulness of each knowledge item and provide greater visibility to knowledge," Gianforte said.

Officials from RightNow Technologies have built similar knowledge databases for numerous government agencies, including the Air Force, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration, he said.

But Jonathan Eunice, the principal analyst and information technology adviser for Illuminata Inc., is skeptical about dubbing such technology artificial intelligence. "While it can work well — and in the case of Google, which has a very large database with a lot of context-setting information, extremely well — calling it artificial intelligence would be an optimistic label," he said. "Even the most sophisticated of these auto-answer systems do, at most, some adaptive pattern recognition."

Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, a company that develops Web site satisfaction surveys, cautioned that knowledge databases are only as good as the information they house. Users of this type of technology should be careful not to aim to get a narrow aspect of customer interest simply because it triggers frequent responses.

According to Gianforte, rather than tracking the popularity of content matter, the knowledge database assesses the functional value of the information and positions it accordingly on the site.

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