Excalibur digitizes GSA pay info

The General Services Administration has purchased a search-and-retrieval engine from Excalibur Technologies Corp. that will make it possible to automate the distribution of payroll information and, eventually, customer billing on the World Wide Web.

Excalibur's RetrievalWare, like other Internet search tools, allows users to access a database from any Web browser without needing any special software of their own. The software also allows for retrieval of several different types of data, including text from scanned images and images themselves.

GSA's Kansas City, Mo., Heartland Finance Center plans to use the technology to create electronic versions of its payroll records. GSA customers who tapped a Web-enabled database for their bills or payroll information would not have to buy any application-specific tools.

Ray Stolhand, director of the information systems management division at the Heartland Finance Center, said the purchase came about because the current system used to store payroll records, backed by an earlier generation of Excalibur software, is not Year 2000-compliant and is being replaced. Furthermore, he said, the Public Buildings Service, which prints payroll reports for GSA regional offices, will not provide that service anymore.

Payroll analysts will now be able to download data and manipulate it, rather than make do with a "static" paper report, Stolhand said. Meanwhile, the finance center also handles billing for the Federal Supply Service and the government's vehicle fleet. Stolhand plans to create an online database of invoices that agency customers can look up and even pay using government credit cards.

The application is an unusual use of the product, said Carter Cromley, a spokesman for the company. "I don't know that anyone is using it to do anything close to this," he said. Excalibur's products, which offer full text indexing and search capabilities, are most often used for online library and knowledge management applications.

Although much of the billing is done using the Financial Management Service's Online Payment and Collection System, Stolhand said he cannot use the system to provide customers with any details about their purchases. That information is delivered by paper, as are 3,000 to 4,000 monthly invoices to customers that do not use the system.

"We have a lot of people who are not Web-enabled, but we would like to think we could make the product so user-friendly that we can migrate to it," Stolhand said. "We can e-mail them and tell them the bill is out there."

Cromley said the software would help agencies that have not been able to invest in electronic data interchange systems.

EDI is a set of communications protocols designed for business transactions, such as sending invoices or making payments. Agencies that want to use EDI must buy software that supports these protocols, and some have been willing to make the expenditure. In addition, EDI transaction sets do not give users the flexibility to include supplementary information, such as an explanation of the services or products they are being billed for, along with their messages.

Stolhand said the software and hardware together cost the agency about $200,000, and RetrievalWare amounted to about a fourth of the total.

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