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Innovative applications make government more responsive

This article appears in the issue June 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 6]

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By Judith Lamont

Government agencies are meeting the needs of their customers, both within and outside of the organization, with expert systems and user-friendly electronic forms, innovative CRM applications and a host of other applications. The technologies improve efficiency for government organizations, as well as for citizens, whether they are federal users such as those described in this article, or state agencies like the Salt River Project.

One federal agency, for instance, is using expert systems to demystify forms. Ever since 9/11, employer compliance with regulations regarding foreign nationals in the United States has received closer scrutiny. To help small businesses comply with regulations from the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Services BCIS( formerly INS), the Small Business Administration SBA is providing online expert systems that assist in filling out application forms.

The I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification form, for example, is completed and kept on file by employers to show that workers have the proper documentation. The expert systems provided by SBA explain detailed instructions, validate data and make determinations of status in complex cases. BCIS provided the domain expertise that is embedded in the system. The SBA selected Exsys to supply the tools (Exsys Corvid) and knowledge engineering to build the system and several others for the BCIS on the SBA’s Business Law site.

“The underlying logic of the form is relatively straightforward,” says Dustin Huntingon, Exsys president, “but there are many details that need to be addressed.” For example, the employer must indicate whether the worker is an employee or a contractor. The BCIS definition of an employee differs from that used by the Internal Revenue Service IRS, and also from that used by OSHA (Occupation Safety & Health Administration).

“These determinations are probabilistic and cannot easily be presented in HTML. The complexity of the rules makes an expert system a better solution,” adds Huntington. In addition, if some of the parameters of the rules change, they can easily be changed in the expert system, whereas if HTML were used, many pages would have to be recoded.

Another Exsys application for SBA helps determine which visa category is appropriate for foreign workers. Correct classification is important for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the category cannot be changed once the prospective worker arrives in the United States. If the classification is incorrect, the individual would have to return to his or her native land in order to make a change. After all the questions in the system are answered, the user is presented with a matrix on a dynamically generated HTML page that shows all the appropriate visa category options for that individual. Sometimes more than one category could apply; if the quota for one is filled, the applicant can proceed under another.

The complexity of government regulations provides fertile ground for realizing the benefits that expert systems can provide. Expert systems are proving to be a positive next step in increasing the government's ability to interact with citizens and deliver the knowledge that the public needs.

“Despite the availability of many online resources,” says Huntington, “there is just too much information, and the regulations are often written in a way that makes them difficult to understand." Online expert systems interact through the Web to help people interpret and comply with regulations based on their specific situations, without having to sift through or understand lengthy documents. Expert systems can also assist in navigating through complex government Web sites.

Census Bureau makes every form count

Although everyone is familiar with the U.S. Census of Population that is taken every 10 years, the other activities of the U.S. Census Bureau are not as well known. Every five years, for example, the Bureau conducts an economic census of millions of businesses. Many of the economic statistics released by the federal government are based on that census. The most recent one, conducted in 2002, involved more than 650 different types of forms (totaling over 9,000 pages) that were customized for different industries.

In order to streamline data collection and analysis in the survey, as well as to comply with government mandates on process improvement and paperwork reduction, the Census Bureau added the option of electronic questionnaires. In support of the initiative, Fenestra Technologies developed a data capture and exchange system called the General Instrument Design System (GIDS). Based on XML, GIDS facilitates sharing and reuse of data and metadata. As a result, about 80% of the 650 forms for the survey were generated automatically. In addition, GIDS allows non-programmers to construct complex survey forms.

The changes in the Census Bureau’s procedures for the economic census required significant modifications in both technology and culture. “In conducting a large-scale process change, success rates can be greatly enhanced by taking several key steps,” says Jane O. Smith, VP of Fenestra. “One is to look for commonalities that can unify programs and processes.”

In this case, use of XML allowed a common basis for data exchange in collection, storage and publishing. Smith also advises reviewers close to the project to watch out for systemic errors. Although automation reduces inefficiencies, a single error can ripple through the system (fortunately, corrections can propagate just as quickly). Finally, building an understanding among stakeholders about the importance of the upcoming business process change is critical to success. Ongoing communication and involvement are essential to fostering organizationwide buy-in.

Versatile tracker

The Salt River Project (SRP) provides electricity and water to customers in Central Arizona, and its IT department serves more than 3,000 employees who use a variety of software products in support of their mission. The organization is two companies in one: The agricultural and power district is a subdivision of the state of Arizona, while the water users' association is a private corporation.

SRP wanted one software solution to handle two tracking functions--one to ensure that its computer maintenance activities were handled in a timely way, and another to document steps in developing software applications used by SRP. Because the tracking requirements for maintenance differ from those for application development, the chosen solution needed to be easy to customize. After considerable research and testing, SRP selected Soffront’s Track solution, and uses both the client-server and Web-based versions.

“For our maintenance and support activities, we wanted to know when a request was placed, when it was acknowledged and when it was resolved,” says Tim Zales, application support analyst at SRP. Typical issues might be a user’s inability to log in, or the arrival of a new computer that needs software installed. SRP also wanted to be able to run metrics that monitor the IT department’s performance in supporting its customers.

“Information is organized by department,” says Zales, “so we can quickly analyze and understand the status of support and maintenance in that group.”

Zales continues, “With the application developers, we have a different set of issues. We are interested in tracking the programming tasks and documenting any problems that come up relative to how the application is working.” Although meeting deadlines is important, the central concern is to keep a record of programming issues and how they were resolved. Soffront’s Track provides SRP with a complete work history for each software development project. At the discretion of the project manager, some entries can be saved into a knowledgebase for reuse.

The customization capability, essential to SRP for setting up the two different tracking systems, is easy to use. The Soffront Track interface can be changed by simply dragging and dropping fields onto a form.

“We can do modifications in a few hours that would take days if we had to manually create a database,” Zales says. Reports are also easy to set up and run. For computer support, the reports are presented by department, while in the application development system they are organized by project.

Soffront’s products are geared primarily toward midsize organizations, and the company competes primarily on flexibility, cost and ease of use. Its product line originated a decade ago with a defect tracking and call management system that later evolved into modules oriented toward CRM, help desk, sales and other customer-related applications.

“The underlying technology is the same,” says Manu Das, founder and president of Soffront, “but the workflow is different.” Data can be brought in from back-end systems such as accounting to provide what is needed for each workflow.

Link in a wink

Expert systems can help people sort through Web sites in order to access relevant pages. Exsys has developed a technique, called WINK (What I Need to Know), of using the technology to produce customized Web pages for individual visitors.

Site visitors click on an icon on the home page and an expert system smart questionnaire takes them through what is equivalent to a “consultation” with a content expert. They are then presented with a dynamically built Web page of applicable content or links based on that visitor’s interests.

The advantage of an expert system approach over other personalization techniques is the ability to handle far more complex logic in a practical and maintainable way. Expert systems also handle probabilistic situations, and adapt quickly and easily as content changes.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail

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