In search of a search tool

Portal managers eye FirstGov technology

The managers of five federal Internet portals want to use "an intelligent search tool" to comb an index of 37 million federal Web pages to find government information relevant to their special interest sites.

The indexing, which is done manually, is slow, labor-intensive and, therefore, limited, say the managers of government portals devoted to senior citizens, students, workers, small businesses and people with disabilities. The managers want to use a search engine developed for the government last year by Autonomy Inc. that employs artificial intelligence to quickly scan the index of government Web pages compiled for the main federal Internet portal, FirstGov.

The Autonomy engine, the managers said, would make it much easier to develop "cross-agency" portals, a key objective in e-government.

But a senior government official familiar with FirstGov said the government does not own the Autonomy search engine, even though it was included in development plans for the FirstGov portal and Autonomy was part of a team of contractors hired to build the portal. "Autonomy was a subcontractor and the contract got modified. We ended up with a different approach," the official said.

The prime contractor for FirstGov was GRC International Inc., a division of AT&T. FirstGov was built under a performance-based contract that ultimately did not require the Autonomy engine, he said.

An official at Autonomy called that explanation "weird." The company was paid about $700,000 for a suite of software designed to search for, categorize, link and automatically deliver information, the Autonomy official said.

Portals are Internet sites organized around the categories of information and services rather than around agencies.

They are intended to present information and services in a logical manner so they are easy to find, thus overcoming the difficulty of locating data scattered among agencies and departments. But assembling portals often isn't easy.

"Currently, our portal managers locate useful and relevant links manually," the portal managers wrote last month in a memo to the Office of Management and Budget. Each portal has a team of subject experts who scan the Internet for useful government information and services to add to their portals.

"This is very effective but limited in reach and very time-intensive," wrote Larry Barrett, chief information officer for the Small Business Administration. Five other portal managers also signed the memo.

They propose creating a partnership, "whereby FirstGov would make its Autonomy intelligent search tools available at no charge" to the smaller topic- oriented portals.

Autonomy has developed a search engine that uses advanced pattern recognition to "learn" the content of documents based on patterns of words that appear in them. It produces more refined search results than the keyword searches executed by most search engines, including the Inktomi Corp. search engine used by FirstGov.

"An intelligent search tool like Autonomy could scan the FirstGov database and other resources for useful information quickly and efficiently. As it "learned,' and the relevance of its search results improved, it would provide the portal manager with an initial screening that would bring only the best link candidates to [the manager's] attention," the portal managers wrote.

Making such a search tool available to all cross-agency portals would greatly simplify the process in creating and maintaining up-to-date portals, they wrote.

Taken another step, a smart search engine could make it possible to produce much more "personalized" portals, said Jim Van Wert of the SBA's Business.Gov portal. Portals could achieve a degree of interactivity with users and deliver "individualized" and "personalized" responses to requests for information and services, he said.


Searching for intelligence

Managers of these government portals say they could improve their Internet offerings if given access to an "intelligent" search engine:

    * — A "gateway" that offers to help students find the right college, apply for financial aid and more.

    * — Now called "FirstGov for Seniors," this portal promises to "empower citizens to obtain valuable health and security information and services at one location via the Internet."

    * — Features more than 1,200 links to government information and services on subjects ranging from jobs to money management to citizenship.

    * — A one-stop link to business advice from 60 federal agencies.

    * — Created by the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities to provide access to services and information available throughout the federal government.


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