Washington asks George for state information

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/ search).

Laura Parma of the state Department of Information Services said a technology

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 the state paid $73,000 in development costs and pays 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 frequently 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," Murphy said.

Washington's state portal receives about a million hits a month and

provides access to more than 240 online services from more than 150 government

organizations.

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