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Language Analysis Systems

Playing the name game.

What’s in a name? For Language Analysis Systems, quite a bit. The Herndon-based company provides an automated, multicultural name recognition product for corporations and government agencies that have to control immigration records, customer data, and personnel files. CEO Jack Hermansen talks about linguistics, names, and learning to break the rules.

How did you become interested in this field?

I was working at Georgetown on my doctorate in computational linguistics, and someone said they wanted to have help with a contract with the state department concerning naming conventions and needed a computational linguist. It was supposed to be an eight-month project, but that was in 1984, and I’m still working on it.

What did you find when you began working on the project?

In doing research, I saw nothing had been done on how computers handle names. After working on it on my own, I found a partner and formed a company.

What we realized was that you could not analyze and compare names until you knew what kind of name you’re looking at. For example, what happens with a Chinese name is different than with a Thai or a Russian name. So the first thing we had to do was look at a name and say, I think this is Hispanic or Arabaic, and then develop a way to match it against a database based on culture.

What kinds of challenges have you found in doing this work?

Back in the late ’80s, our problem was that computers weren’t as fast, so we had to turn away customers. It was more important for us to do it right than to do it fast, and we figured the hardware would catch up with us. That happened about four years ago, technology finally caught up to us.

How did you transition from doing work for the government to providing services for the private sector?

In the first 16 years of the company, we did 100 percent of our work in government consulting, for the intelligence community. Then we commercialized some of our work into new products and have sold these to the government, but also to commercial ventures like the airline industry. People make multiple bookings and that hurts the airlines. We’ve also sold to large database companies, and of course, to banks.

Why do banks in particular require name recognition software?

Banks have a tremendous obligation under the Patriot Act. They now have to check with the Office of Foreign Asset Control lis, for any dealings with terrorists. The Patriot Act really ramped up the penalties, so it’s a big concern for anyone who handles financial transactions. Similarly, schools have a mandate to keep the INS alerted about changes in status of any foreign students, and that’s a big headache for universities.

Do you think that, in general, Americans have difficulty with foreign name conventions?

Americans are very naive about how people in other countries are named. The model is that we’ve forced people to use a first, middle, last name model, and that’s not a typical one. Yet it’s so ingrained in our society, it’s how our databases are set up and our forms are constructed. But I’ve seen many Hispanic people who have two surnames. Where do they put the second one on a form? And in some countries, they don’t even have something called a last name. In many Arabic cultures, it’s a person’s first name, his father’s first name, and grandfather’s, and so on. So we don’t have much experience with different naming patterns. Americans are so ethnocentric, we think people should follow our rules, but if we paid more attention to how other people do things, it would improve our relationships immensely.

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