Dishing the dirt is a fine art, no better refined than in the run-up to a General Election in which all sides of the political divide frantically root for yet more scurrilous matter to hurl at their opponents.
But in this year?s May election, dishing the dirt became an art with a sword-like edge as a sophisticated knowledge retrieval system from Excalibur Technologies was deployed as a business tool: Excalibur?s EFS search engine.
Away from the world of political in-fighting, Excalibur, and tools like it, are finding a more neutral use in the commercial sphere. Rigie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), which manages Paris?s underground, bus network, and train services, has also adopted Excalibur?s EFS search engine.
In early 1996, state-run RATP was facing difficulties with the large quantities of mail relating to maintenance of its future Mitior line ? a fully automated Metro developed to cross Paris from east to west.
An electronic document processing system using WorkFlow from the Telis Group was already in place for the division?s contractual documents, but it couldn?t cope with handling mail. Correspondence was complex and diverse, making it impossible to index under the existing search criteria.
In the end, the Parisian transport division?s team opted for Excalibur EFS after testing other search tools.
?EFS quickly proved to be the answer to our problems because of its automatic indexing and full text search capabilities, negating the need to index or keyword the documents being scanned into the system,? says network administration specialist Arnaud Sarrazin.
EFS has been installed on a core Sun server hooked up to some 150 workstations. Due to the confidentiality surrounding the Mitior project, the system is isolated from the RATP?s other computer system.
Installation and training proved simple; with staff able to use 80% of the system?s functions after just 30 minutes of training.
An 18-month project followed, during which more than 16,000 letters containing over 90,000 pages relating to the Mitior were entered into the Excalibur system.
Over 50 people, mainly engineers, have direct access to EFS from their Sun workstations.
According to Jean-Pierre Filippi, IT specialist for RATP, the system is in use on a daily basis to quickly solve problems. ?For example, a document or letter can be called up in seconds, enabling an engineer to respond to a telephone query effectively.?
In addition, engineers can request a review on specific issues prior to meetings. Under the old system, finding all correspondence dealing with a subject would be an ad hoc task, taking days to complete manually.
EFS can print out all scanned information within minutes. ?The EFS is used daily to provide background on a particular activity or to locate technical details for a specific system,? says Filippi.
Filippi says it is difficult to quantify the return on investment for the project. ?Certainly we know that we no longer suffer the significant loss of time ? and tempers ? we used to by going through our previous filing systems. We are now confident of our ability to always provide a tailored and accurate response to questions from colleagues, partners and suppliers.?
?Overall, we are now monitoring the project more efficiently. And that counts for a good deal,? he says.
The system has been designed for ease of use. Information is accessed via a user-friendly GUI and Excalibur correspondence has been organised into two ?filing cabinets? ? one for data access by all, the other for more confidential information.
Correspondence is then scanned in using optical character recognition, with the documents then indexed automatically by EFS. The system also overcomes many of the inaccuracies inherent in optical character recognition by using its Adaptive Recognition Processing technology. This is based on binary patterns which make up words, and is the technology which underpins the system?s fuzzy searching feature.
The recognition technology enables fault-tolerant, full-text searching and provides users with accurate retrieval of information, regardless of mistakes in spelling, characters incorrectly converted by OCR, or from poorly formulated search requests.
The Excalibur system is being extended to two other databases. The first involves documents and archives relating to the safety aspects of public transport systems, and includes internal memos, details of security standards, rail network accident reports and press articles, totalling more than 30,000 pages of information.
The second comprises the archives of the Mitior project. Beginning with 5,000 pages, the database will enable RATP to manage approximately 20,000 additional pages of information each year.
The system is now likely to be rolled out to other departments. A formal review of the project has not been carried out, but the RATP says the benefits in terms of time management and accuracy of searches are already evident.
Excalibur?s scope Joining the search party
For Excalibur Technologies, one of the major marketing hurdles is the presence of search engines on the Internet which are capable of throwing up realms of information to the user. According to Excalibur?s marketing director Sara McKinnon: ?If people assume that all search technology is equal then we have a problem.? But apart from rival political parties in the last election, Excalibur has also attracted clients such as the Cleveland Police Force, British Nuclear Fuels, Scottish Hydro and major law firm Theodore Goddard & Co. ?Each of these clients holds such an enormous amount of information. They need to be confident about finding the right information at the right moment, to help them make the right decisions,? says McKinnon. ?If you are unable to find certain information which is held within the company then you may as well have thrown it away.?