GAO analysts ditch those sticky notes

GAO's Kevin Dooley says feds who take part in his agency's computer-aided telephone interviews 'generally spill their guts, and we get more than we need in terms of comments.'

'You could run queries that search for documents, sort the documents according to your criteria, and output all or just pieces of the documents.'

'GAO's Kevin Dooley

Information management app puts data at hand

Ever wonder how the General Accounting Office compiles a report full of seemingly endless details about projects at multiple agencies in quick fashion?

For years, GAO analysts mostly did this work by hand, shuffling and reshuffling paper and electronic files gathered by auditors. One senior analyst, Kevin Dooley, figured there had to be a better way than paging through documents replete with hundreds of sticky notes.

In his search for applications to automate the process, Dooley discovered a few years back that the GAO library used an information management app that could import free-floating and database files, then organize them.

He decided to try the tool, askSam from askSam Systems Inc. of Perry, Fla. Dooley started out 16 years ago using the MS-DOS version and now uses Version 5, which runs under all versions of Microsoft Windows on a PC with at least 30M of storage. The original version let him chain queries, searching for something in one database and using that to search another database.

'You could run queries that search for documents, sort the documents according to your criteria, and output all or just pieces of the documents,' he said.

The askSam report window now does that automatically via dialog boxes.

Dooley said populating the search boxes with key words was much easier than remembering arcane syntax. But, he said, 'You set one query, one sort and get one report. You can't run a bunch of reports at the same time.'

Survey tools'bang

Dooley discovered he could query the number of times a certain phrase appeared in any text file. For example, he uses askSam to generate GAO reports from Web surveys that pose, say, a dozen questions to virtual panels of 30 or 40 subject-matter experts at various agencies. He processes their essays into reports.

'If you have survey tools like this, the statistics are a lot more convincing than doing a couple of case studies,' Dooley said. 'That's where the big bang is.'

AskSam can organize the replies in Microsoft Outlook or Eudora e-mail and can import Rich Text Format, HTML, Microsoft Word and Excel, and Corel WordPerfect files.

Compatible databases are Microsoft Access, dBase, Paradox and other Open Database Connectivity-compliant applications, as well as comma-delimited, tab-delimited and fixed-position data.

Dooley has used askSam for GAO's Computer Aided Telephone Interview (CATI) program, which compiles information from phone interviews into one file.

People interviewed by CATI 'generally spill their guts to GAO, and we get more than we need in terms of comments,' he said.

When Congress asked GAO to put the Federal Register into an easily searchable electronic form, askSam made it less daunting than it could have been, Dooley said. The software helped him extract regulations in various stages over several time periods.

Dooley also used askSam to automate the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, a compendium of aid programs the size of a metropolitan phone book.

'If we hadn't had a tool to deal with the gobs of text, we wouldn't have been able to meet the time frame,' he said.

About 50 GAO analysts now have askSam licenses, and the agency's auditors eventually will, too, he said.

Drug Enforcement Administration investigators use askSam at call centers to organize transcripts from tapped lines. They can search through hundreds of conversations to monitor how many times a particular number was called, said Jim Hartman, director of sales and business development for askSam.

Drug dealers don't come right out and say a shipment of cocaine is arriving. Instead, they use code phrases such as, 'The banana boat will be in at 12:30 at Dock 2,' Hartman said. The software can scan how many times the word banana appears in tapped conversations, extrapolate from other information and string together the elements for an overall view, he said.

In 1996, the Santa Ana Police Department in Orange County, Calif., used DNA evidence sorted by askSam to identify serial killer Gerald Parker, dubbed the Bedroom Basher.

Righting wrongs

'That was what got us our jump-start,' said Ron Shave, a retired homicide investigator in the county's district attorney's office who first implemented askSam. 'We've solved several old murders' with the tool, he said, the oldest being a 1975 case that required a fingerprint match.

In 1997, the county set up a program to track killers, rapists and sex offenders. Called TracKRS, it uses askSam to draw information from three databases to 'link cases and evidence more efficiently,' especially those involving DNA, Shave said.

One database has crime site information such as locations and weapons used. Another database tracks suspected criminals' blood samples.

'We want to make sure that those who are required to give blood samples are giving their own samples,' Shave said.

The third database tracks DNA evidence. 'We're the only county doing anything like this,' Shave said.

In Orange County, 23 police department, probation and parole offices use TracKRS. The California Investigation Bureau and the county Sheriff's Office also use the system when they work together on cases.

The Santa Ana police maintain the Microsoft Internet Information Server platform under Windows NT for the Orange County investigators. All the jurisdictions have equal access to TracKRS by browser.

A life restored

A state laboratory in Berkeley that sorted DNA evidence from thousands of criminals, including Parker, eventually confirmed the Bedroom Basher's identity. The evidence ultimately led to the release of Kevin Green, who had been wrongfully jailed for Parker's crimes.

Shave said he bought askSam in 1986, when he was a homicide investigator. Back then there were only 30 users with dial-up connections to the database he built; today 350 authorized users have browser access.

Recently TracKRS gained access to another database, one containing old warrants. 'We've got warrants going back 30 years that have never been served,' Shave said. Investigators can search for warrants that might have some relation to their cases.

'It's set up and running, all the mechanisms are in place,' Shave said.

Hartman said the state has also asked the company about using askSam to comply with Megan's Law, which requires public disclosure of sex offenders' addresses.

He said the FBI and CIA use askSam's SurfSaver 2.2 to track Internet use by suspected criminals such as pedophiles.

'They monitor the traffic so they can prove an individual had a site up at a certain time,' Hartman said.

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