Ask George answers local queries

Washington state portal

Washington state, which earlier this year launched a plain-English search

engine for its state portal, has expanded the service to scan information

related to 200 cities and 39 counties.

After reviewing usage data of the "Ask George" search engine for several

months following its mid-February launch, state officials realized there

was a gap in providing information about local governments, said Laura Parma

of the state's Information Services Department.

According to state officials, of the roughly 130,000 queries per month

the search engine handles, nearly 14 percent are related to city and county

information. Most citizens inquire about information related to Seattle

and King and Pierce counties.

So, in collaboration with the Association of County/City Information

Services and a state group of chief information officers from local governments,

the Information Services Department identified 23 topical areas related

to municipal services, she said. These include information pertaining to

permits and licenses, businesses, taxes, zoning, elections, public safety,

parks and recreation, utilities, laws and regulations, social and human

services, and arts and tourism.

With assistance from California-based Ask Jeeves Inc., which helped

develop the state search engine, information from the topical areas was

incorporated into the state database.

"Our hope was that what would come back through search results is what

[people] were asking," Parma said.

She said that when a user makes a query, Ask George delivers information

in two ways: through set questions and answers built into the state's knowledge

base and also through "spidered" results. To produce the spidered results,

the technology continually reads and indexes the 300,000 state sites and

provides responses not included in the knowledge base. City and county information

is incorporated only into the knowledge base.

Parma said she is unaware of other state governments using search engine

technology that incorporates information from other jurisdictions. From

a citizen's perspective, she said, it's a benefit because users are not

always sure what level of government provides which services.

The state is also investigating ways to link to some federal organizations

and FirstGov, the federal government's search engine, as well as enable

municipalities to use the search technology.

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