Digital Again

Converting paper documents to digital is making a comeback.

by / August 31, 2005
Robert Beeks remembers the last time he participated in a document-imaging project a few years ago while working for a Southwestern state. The task was to scan approximately 20,000 documents per month for a district attorney's office, converting the paper documents to digital images.

They used a flat scanner, and like others who were converting paper files to digital images at that time, the state's scanning technology was less than stellar. Beeks and other staff members had to review the scans and correct problems caused by the scanners.

Not surprisingly, the push to convert paper documents to digital images died down because of that type of result.

"The inability of OCR [optical character recognition] readers to accurately digitize documents without large numbers of corrections stopped most of it," said Todd Shipley, director of Training Services for SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics.

On the Rebound
Scanning technology has improved since then, and there appears to be a second wave of government agencies converting records to digital images, finding it easier to turn stacks of paper documents into digital files. Although many agencies aren't ready to give up paper completely -- often still producing paper records, but fewer copies -- the newly digitized records improve data access, ease information sharing, maximize customer service and increase overall efficiency by saving time and labor.

The St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida is undergoing a transition to digital documents with ImageOne Corp., while in Washington County, Ore., the Sheriff's Department and district attorney are the latest local agencies to convert to digital imaging.

Other law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the San Bernardino, Calif., Sheriff's Department, are in the midst of similar projects. The County Clerk's Office in Suffolk County, N.Y., is converting its land records to digital and making money in the process.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department watched its neighbors in Marion and Lane counties convert paper to digital records. Marion County started small, with initial implementations in the Recordings Office and the Department of Health and Human Services. It worked out well and the county eventually expanded to the district attorney's office.

Lane County also had success, and shared it with Beeks, now the manager of Business Application Support for Washington County.

"I went down and saw a demonstration there," he recalled. "They were talking about how well they were able to implement the system, and what they were able to do with it. That was a clincher."

Beeks said he used those two examples to find out what the technology could do for Washington County, then put out an RFP to locate the vendor best suited for the job. It turned out to be VP Consulting based in Eugene, Ore. And the same vendor used by both Lane and Marion counties, and other jurisdictions throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Intelligent Scanners
There's more to scanning documents than placing them on the scanner. Today's scanners are more intelligent, Beeks explained, and can recognize a two-sided document and automatically scan both sides. Scanners can even make horizontal or vertical adjustments of a page that's not centered.

"There's a lot of automatic functionality that's supposed to assist us in being able to maintain good quality scanning," Beeks said.

Washington County purchased three large Fujitsu scanners -- about the size of a desktop PC --for around $2,500 each, and seven smaller Fujitsu scanners for $1,100 apiece, all from VP Consulting.

The larger scanners scan about 40 pages per minute, while the smaller ones scan about 25. The scanning will begin after all the workstations are loaded with Kofax image scanning software and after the workflow processes have been defined. Part of that process is gathering e-mail addresses of individuals who will be notified when documents have been scanned and made available to them.

Washington County will begin by scanning only current documents. The archives will still be kept as paper documents, but conversion or current "live" documents to digital images will reduce the proliferation of paper.

Beeks explained that prior to a police report, for instance, digital imaging was copied and distributed in paper form by the records department to four or five different agencies or departments. After a report is scanned, however, it is available online.

"Instead of copying [a document] and making duplicates, we're scanning it once and then placing it into a document retrieval system that allows us to go back and retrieve the image of that document," Beeks said.

Having experienced a similar implementation that didn't go well, Beeks wasn't ready to just hand a vendor some money and let the chips fall. He drew up a contract that says the vendor has to get it right.

"If we bring [the scanners] in, start scanning and find they really were not living up to the reputation that had been sold to us, I would hold the vendor accountable for those pieces of equipment," he said. "They would have to find the appropriate solution for us and purchase that or replace the ones that were bad."

Digital images will provide multiple benefits, said Arlene Lehman, manager of the Planning and Research Unit for the Washington County Sheriff's Department. She said there are many different forms that go into case files, and digitizing them makes them easier to find for the different agencies that might need them.

"For example, a case file or portions of it may be needed by the DA, our children's services or juvenile department, or our own detective internal division," Lehman said. "There are many pieces of paper being distributed in a variety of ways -- some by a person walking from here to there, some by interagency mail, some by courier. We're looking at not having to do that anymore."

A detective, for instance, can call up a case file in its entirety instead of needing a paper document delivered. "It improves the timeliness of the distribution of those reports," Lehman said. "It also minimizes the chance of misfiled or lost reports."

It will also help with storage procedures. Juvenile records, for example, must be expunged from time to time, and the digital system makes them easier to monitor and remove. No new security policies are in the offing, Beeks said, because the same state rules already in place for securing data will cover the digital documents.

Beeks said the acquisition of a Xiotech storage area network (SAN) made storage an easy task.

"We have been moving many of our servers to our SAN disk arrays over the last couple of years. We made a decision during the early stages of the document imaging and management project to use our SAN to take advantage of the flexibility for growth that it gives us. When we need to add storage space, we usually have the drives available and just need to license the new space on the SAN before we open it up for expansion space."

That doesn't mean the county is done with paper, nor will there be any policy changes in terms of storing the data, Lehman said.

"We don't plan at this point on getting rid of our paper copies," she said. "Sometime in the future, it would be nice to be paperless, but we're not ready for that."

Most law enforcement agencies are still buried in paper, even the ones now converting some documents to digital, said Steven Longmire, senior director of Research and Development at Asvaco, a security software supplier. "Without a doubt, entering the data into computers is being done," he said. "They still print out what they type in paper format and file it away as they've always done, [which is a] total duplication of effort."

Return on Investment
The St. Petersburg Police Department has had it with paper and microfilm archives, and is tired of leafing through mounds of records to find a specific document. The department consists of 540 sworn officers and more than 200 civilian employees, and generates more than 80,000 reports per year. It's a department that until recently had something in common with police departments everywhere -- it was drowning in paper and using an old microfilm system to archive its records.

For Bill Wilson, manager of the Records and Identification Division, the choice was clear -- modernize or go under.

He tapped law enforcement grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice to begin digitizing the department's records. He then hooked up with Tampa-based ImageOne and began converting the department's data in two phases.

The first step was called the COLD technique -- Computer Output to Laser Disc -- and consisted of taking data from the electronic records management system, an old DOS system, and converting the documents directly to digital images.

Wilson and the department provided ImageOne staff with examples of printed police reports. From there, ImageOne began creating digital documents identical to the print versions by creating a template of data fields in the archive system that gets filled in when the standardized reports are sent from the originator on the DOS system.

That commenced the second part of the conversion -- scanning non-standard documents and previously archived paper forms, dating back to 1994, into electronic form. For this, Wilson found he needed more bodies. "I discovered it was a lot easier getting equipment than getting people to do it," Wilson said.

He secured high-speed Canon scanners that put the old scanning machines to shame -- they scan 40 to 60 dual-sided pages per minute for the one full-time and three part-time workers Wilson was able to hire. It took Wilson's staff about two days to scan a month and a half's worth of records.

While there is some quality control involved, the scanners are high-quality, better than those being used just two and three years ago.

"Most of the quality control occurs at the beginning," Wilson said. "When you're scanning the document, it quickly flashes on the screen in front of you. It gives the operator a chance to see if it's sideways, too light, too dark or whatever. There's a small percentage that we have to go back and rescan, but that's infrequent."

Wilson has spent about $100,000 on the project to date, not including the yearly $12,000 to $15,000 maintenance cost as part of the contract with ImageOne.

He said it helps to be able to demonstrate some return on investment.

"We've maximized our sworn staff's ability to access reports when they need them for investigative purposes," Wilson said. "They don't have to come down to records, stand in line, have us go get a copy of a report and read it to them or have us make a copy for them."

It's also a boon to outside agencies that depend on the records, such as the Department of Children and Families, which sometimes needs 20 to 25 reports about one child.

"Florida has one of the most open records laws in the union," Wilson said. "Consequently we have lines of people and hundreds of letters a week coming in requesting copies of reports. Most of them might be current records on our records management system, but a significant number of them are in the archives system. It cuts down on my people's response [times] and has significantly improved our efficiencies."

Wilson said the process of converting and storing documents has been relatively painless.

"We have them stored on a 9.1 GB optical disk and an HP Storage Works jukebox that holds about 18 disks," he said. "So we keep everything we've got online since 1994."

Not Limited to Law Enforcement
In Suffolk County, N.Y., the Clerk's Office has found dual benefits for converting to digital.

Like many counties, Suffolk has only one County Clerk's Office. This was a problem for citizens who needed mortgage or deed information and had to drive up to 50 miles to the office. Not anymore, since a lot of that information is available online now, and more of it is made available every day.

This makes life easy on citizens and businesses such as title companies and banks that can access property information online instead of going to the physical location and sorting through paper and microfilm.

Such businesses make a lot of money from Suffolk County real estate, and the new record system allows for quicker transactions. Businesses use the data to assess property value and check for liens or judgments online.

What's in it for the county other than improved efficiency? Well, they thought a little ROI never hurt anybody, so they decided to charge a fee for access to the digital records.

"Essentially we're selling land records," said Pete Schlussler, IT director for the Clerk's Office. Schlussler said $40 billion to $50 billion worth of real-estate transactions, some involving large corporations, pass through the office every year. Now the county gets a piece of the pie.

Businesses use the data associated with land and package it with Multiple Listing Service information, Schlussler said. The package provides a comprehensive view or analysis of the property. "You know the commercial value of a property at any given moment," he said.

Real-estate appraisers value property by comparing it to other properties. But that's only half of the equation. The comparisons don't tell of problems with a property, such as a lien or judgment against it. That type of research could take up to two months. Much of it is now available virtually immediately in Suffolk County.

Companies can subscribe to access to the online records for as much as $6,000 a year or download images at 65 cents a page. So far, the county has racked up about $400,000 in fees each year and expects that figure to increase in the future.

"It allows people who speculate in real estate to make an honest assessment of the land prior to purchasing it," Schlussler said, noting that improvements to scanning technology made this a much easier and cheaper project than it would have been just a few years ago.

"I was getting quoted four or five years ago at 8 cents a page to image," he said. "I'm probably doing it for one-tenth of a cent today."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor