In Washington, George knows best

Washington's Ask George search page

Want to know how to renew your driver's license in Washington state? Ask George. Need to reserve a camping area, but don't know how? Ask George. Want to know who your state legislator is? Well, George knows that too.

From the architects of Ask Jeeves — the search engine that allows full-sentence questions in simple, plain English — comes its Washington state government cousin, Ask George, named after the first president. The search engine went live Feb. 15 on the state's portal (access.wa.gov).

Laura Parma of the state Department of Information Services said a technology government steering committee last year decided that it made sense to offer an easy-to-use search engine for citizens. After a competitive bidding process, the state chose Ask Jeeves Inc.'s Business Solutions last November.

Parma said development cost $73,000 and it pays the company an $18,000 monthly subscription fee, which includes licensing and hosting, technical support, editorial enhancements and reports on usage.

It is the first public-sector venture for Ask Jeeves, whose core markets are technology, financial services, retail and telecommunications. Sean Murphy, the company's vice president of marketing and product, said Washington's decision shows a customer-centric and business-oriented approach.

"If you don't do a good job providing easy, fast, relevant access for questions on your site, you're basically driving those customers to other mediums of action, or abandonment," he said. The challenge here was to learn the government's own "linguistic DNA" — terms that are unique or common to government, but not elsewhere, he added.

Parma said state agency experts assisted the company in developing answers to persistently asked questions culled from telephone queries, e-mail messages and other sources.

Murphy said the company built a knowledge base of the top questions and answers. Additionally, the popularity-based search technology continually reads and indexes the 300,000 state sites, and provides responses not included in the knowledge base. So when a user enters a question, it's interpreted for word meaning, context and grammar, and matched against the databases for relevant responses.

Ask George also monitors sites that are more popular than others and provides reports on "which content works, which content doesn't work, and which content it doesn't have," said Murphy.

Washington's state portal receives about a million hits a month and provides access to more than 240 online services from more than 150 governmental organizations.

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