Can You Read This? Forms Processing

More government agencies are using computers rather than humans to convert forms into valuable data.

by / March 31, 1997
Imaging technology is all about turning pieces of paper into digital images that can be indexed, stored and retrieved at the click of a mouse. The image can be passed along from worker to worker via a network or stored in an electronic filing cabinet consisting of optical or magnetic discs. Whatever the case, the principle of imaging is to retain the document image permanently.

Forms processing, on the other hand, cares little for the image. It uses technology to capture data from paper. Forms processing promises to reduce the need for human clerks to key data from forms into computer databases. According to one estimate, the industrialized world spends $20 billion every year to capture data from forms, mostly by manual means.
The key components of forms processing technology are the scanner, which converts the paper form into a digital image, and software that can recognize and read marks, typed or handwritten characters and convert them into data the computer can understand.

The imaging industry was quick to point out that if an organization replaced its human key operators, who require paychecks and rest breaks, with a forms processing system that can convert forms around the clock, it could achieve huge savings over time. Unfortunately, early generation forms processing systems were rather rigid in terms of what kind of forms they could actually read. These limitations reduced the number of applications that worked well and gave customers mediocre to poor results overall.

"One problem early on was that recognition software engines were made primarily to recognize scanned reports and letters to save rekeying," explained Harvey Spencer, an expert on forms processing and president of Harvey Spencer Associates. "When vendors started to bend them into a forms processing application, they didn't work terribly well." Scanners also could be finicky, sometimes scanning forms crooked or making the image appear too dark or too light. Both problems can adversely affect how well recognition software reads a form.

While these problems haven't gone away entirely, things have greatly improved in recent years, according to Spencer, and as a result the market is starting to grow. "People are recognizing that forms processing works and they are actually buying it," he said.

Look no further than state revenue agencies to see what Spencer means. In 1994, only two state agencies were using forms processing technology to process tax return forms. Today there are more than a dozen agencies that have installed or are in the process of installing imaging technology that will convert individual and business tax returns into data.

These agencies are benefiting from improved software that does a better job of recognizing handwritten numbers and letters as well as typed characters of varying quality. Scanners have improved substantially, with most models incorporating image enhancement boards that can sharpen an image for recognition purposes. New software tools can de-skew images that are scanned crooked and can align forms for easier recognition.

No forms processing system will ever claim 100 percent accuracy, which means users will continue to edit the data recognized by the system. This task used to eat up a lot of the benefits of a forms processing system, but again, new software tools have streamlined the process, making verification and validation much simpler. Features such as lookup tables, full-context editing, field editing and ribbon editing are just some of the tricks vendors have incorporated into their software to speed up this process.

Organizations are also improving the way they design forms. Open up your mailbox and you'll probably find a form of one type or another that uses boxes that constrain handwriting, strategically placed barcodes, and drop-out ink that eliminates those pesky lines that can play havoc with character recognition.

Today, government agencies have more choices in terms of forms processing products. Spencer said there are 16 main forms processing vendors specializing in products that can process either low, medium or high volumes of forms (Spencer considers 5,000 forms or more per day as high volume). Leading vendors include: MicroSystems Technology, Mitek, NCS, TextWare and Wheb Systems.

Some types of government forms that computers can process include tax returns, parking tickets, time cards, utility bills, vehicle registrations, water bills, purchase orders and job applications. In Los Angeles, for example, the city's Department of Transportation (DOT) has been using a forms processing system since 1995 to read hand-printed time cards.

The department has what many would consider a complex, high-volume application. Every week, DOT scans more than 5,000 time cards, each of which can contain as many as 250 handwritten characters. The system, purchased by DOT from Wheb Systems Inc. for $125,000, includes two scanning stations, a processing station and four editing stations. Reflecting the growing maturity of forms processing, DOT's system is integrated with both the city's massive payroll system and its cost accounting system, which tracks employee time and other expenses by project number.

So far, the benefits have been pretty impressive. DOT has eliminated four full-time data entry positions and has cut overtime costs by $45,000. The system's accuracy has eliminated 85 percent of data entry. The decrease in manual keying has reduced the risk of repetitive stress injuries for the remaining operators. Overall, the system paid for itself in one year and saves DOT nearly $200,000 annually.

According to Vivian Lee, a fiscal systems specialist with DOT, the department ran numerous tests using real time cards with various systems before they made the final choice. The test revealed startling results: accuracy rates ranged from 65 percent to 95 percent on some systems. While Wheb's technology proved to be the most accurate, Lee redesigned the time card form to ensure the best results possible.

What Lee likes most about the forms processing system is the easy way data can be edited and then accessed in realtime. "Editing is so easy, it's like a Pac-Man game," she said, referring to the once-popular video arcade game. "You just get rid of the questionable characters that are highlighted in red. It makes editing real fast." As for access, Lee said that prior to the system she had to wait at least 24 hours before getting any reports on missing time sheets, bonus pay and other payroll-related issues. Now, she and her staff have instant access. "We now have entire control of the data," she pointed out. "That's nice."

The only real problem Lee has had is the system's slow processing speed, but that will be fixed once the department installs some new hardware. Of greater importance is the amount of time and effort Lee has to put into rewriting and revising departmental procedures and then training staff to take advantage of the changes introduced by the new technology. "With the technology, we keep trying to look for better ways to handle our procedures," Lee said, "as a result, training has taken longer than we anticipated."

In spite of the issue, DOT must be doing something right. In 1996, the department received one of the city's coveted Productivity Recognition Awards, given by the Los Angeles City Quality and Productivity Commission. Meanwhile, numerous city departments have visited DOT to see its forms processing system in action. Lee estimated that as many as 10 departments are either investigating the use of forms processing or have plans to install the technology.

You can get detailed answers to all your forms processing questions by reading Harvey Spencer's new book: "Automated Forms Processing." For a copy, call 800/999-0345.

PROBLEM/SITUATION: Every year, state and local governments spend millions of dollars manually extracting data from paper forms and entering it into computers.

SOLUTION: Automated forms processing uses several key elements of imaging technology to capture data from paper forms without human intervention -- almost.


VENDORS: MicroSystems Technology, Mitek, NCS, TextWare, Wheb Systems, Harvey Spencer Associates.

CONTACTS: Vivian Lee, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, 213/580-5118; Harvey Spencer, 516/368-8393.

Whether it's to
process a tax
return, a hunting
license, a
parking ticket
or a time
sheet, more
agencies are
using computers
rather than
humans to
convert forms
into valuable

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