Labor will expand use of online expert advisers

Labor will expand use of online expert advisers

The 24 elaws in use now handle 1.8 million queries a month about laws and regulations

The Labor Department plans to expand to about 100 the array of systems that offer expert advice to the public via the Web.
The department now has 24 Employment Laws Assistance for Workers and Small Businesses, or elaws, systems, available at www.dol.gov/elaws. They represent the most extensive Web deployment of expert systems for customer service in the government.

The systems help workers and employers interpret the laws and regulations that Labor administers.

A year in the making

Each month, the elaws Web site receives more than 1.8 million so-called runs'system uses that generate an answer to a specific question.

The Family and Medical Leave Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act are the most popular elaws advisers. Each receives about 20,000 runs each month, according to the department.

Each elaws adviser takes about one year and $100,000 to create, according to Roland Droitsch, deputy assistant secretary for policy.

Creating each of the expert systems requires a team of about five professionals, including a specialist in the topic, a knowledge engineer, an attorney, a computer programmer and a senior official to rule on policy.

Labor uses Microsoft Active Server Pages to build the expert systems. The department has found expert systems can be particularly useful as guides to regulations because laws and rules are closed systems that easily lend themselves to decision trees, if-then rules, and literal, precise inputs that lead to logical, accurate outputs.

During a typical session with an elaws adviser, a set of menus guides a user through the regulations to answer specific questions such as: 'Is a 15-year-old child legally allowed to work in a nuclear power plant?' and 'What type of fire suppression requirements apply to battery chargers in an underground coal mine?'

The department oversees implementation of 180 laws, Droitsch said, so there is plenty of scope for expanding the elaws adviser service. Droitsch's office introduced the first elaws adviser in 1997.

Legacy links

'The difficulty of [building an adviser] depends on the complexity of the regulation,' Droitsch said. For example, if the adviser involves helping a member of the public fill out a Labor Department form, the system must link to a legacy database'a complex feat, he said.

'One of the things I like about having these things online is that there is no problem of version control,' Droitsch said.
Rather than recalling disks or paper regulation manuals as in the past, the department now can update the advisers continually as regulation changes occur.

The advisers have never been challenged in court, and no user has ever complained about an error in the systems, Droitsch said. About 2,000 companies link to the elaws site to speed their employees' use of the advisers.

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