As homeowners chased low mortgage rates in 2003, county clerks were hit with a deluge of paper. Each time a property changed hands or someone refinanced a home, a county office recorded the transaction and indexed the relevant documents, so they could be easily retrieved if needed.
At the height of the summer 2003 rush, Alameda County, Calif., recorded 2,500 to 4,000 property documents per day. "We found ourselves having difficulty keeping up with the volume, with limited resources," said Malinda Jones-Williams, division chief in the County Clerk-Recorder's Office in Oakland.
Alameda County uses the Anthem document recording system from Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, to manage property documents. As part of the recording process, county employees scan documents into the system, where they are stored as electronic images. When someone needs a document, an employee retrieves it by searching a database for a key data element, such as the buyer's or seller's name, or a number identifying the property. Members of the public also can search for indexed public records on the county's Web site.
Although Anthem automated many aspects of property records management, getting those data elements into the index remained a time-consuming manual process. "Someone had to sit there, look at the document and extract certain required information," Jones-Williams said. That meant knowing where on the document to look for key data elements and accurately typing each element into the appropriate field.
Under the county's "key-verify" procedure, one clerk examined the scanned document and typed the index data; a second clerk then viewed the same image and repeated the indexing process. If the two entries matched, the system accepted the record. If they differed, the second clerk had to reconcile the problem and make sure the right data went into the system.
A Struggle to Keep Up
"We were getting close to eight weeks behind," Jones-Williams said. Even after adding three temporary workers, the office struggled to keep up with the load. Because the indexing wasn't up to date, the public didn't have access to the latest and most accurate information, she said.
In November 2003, Alameda County started using an Anthem function designed to expedite indexing. After several months of running Hart InterCivic's Automated Indexing module, the office was no longer behind, Jones-Williams said. "We are verifying documents that were recorded yesterday. We've gone from close to eight weeks to one day."
Automated Indexing uses expert systems technology to pluck the correct data from a scanned document and automatically enter it in the index database. The engine that drives this function is aiINDEX, developed by Mentis Technology Solutions of Centennial, Colo. Hart InterCivic started offering Automated Indexing as part of Anthem in 2002. The first customer to implement the module was Snohomish County, Wash., in early 2003.
The first step in the Automated Indexing process occurs when optical character recognition software translates the printed document's scanned image into machine-readable text. Many systems perform this kind of translation, said Matt Walker, vice president of eGovernment Solutions at Hart InterCivic. The trickier task is analyzing free-form documents like property deeds to find key text strings, and then determining which strings belong in which fields.
Automated Indexing uses metadata to imitate what clerks do when they find the information, Walker said. Gradually the system learns to think like a trained indexing clerk. "Through repetition and through a lot of historical information, feeding in documents and saying, 'Here are the fields I care about on this document,' the system learns and gets better with more statistical volume."
Clues that help the software spot relevant information vary from document to document and from county to county. On one type of deed, for example, the system might find the seller's name just after the word "Grantor" followed by a colon. On another, the tip-off might be a string of characters that always follow the seller's name. "That's why historical information and having enough volume to be able to pick up patterns becomes important," Walker said.
Learning the Formats
Before a customer starts using Automated Indexing, Hart InterCivic typically runs a collection of archived documents through the system to get the software familiar with the formats that particular county employs. "We try to process at least 50,000 documents, going back in time, before we ever go live with the system," Walker said.
Alameda County chose about 15 of its most common property documents, including the deed (title transfer), deed of trust (mortgage documents) and deed of conveyance (indicating that a mortgage has been satisfied), Jones-Williams said. Hart InterCivic ran about 30 days' worth through the software. "When it was installed, it was already familiar with many of our documents," she said. "It knew what to extract and where to go look for it."
Today, for each newly scanned property document, the software automatically populates the indexing fields with the required data. It then presents that document and the indexing screen to the operator for verification. The software highlights the indexed data on the document image, so he or she can find it quickly. The clerk then verifies that the entries are correct, in which case, the clerk moves on to the next document. If the software makes a mistake -- placing data in the wrong field, for instance -- the clerk corrects the entry by retyping or dragging data from the document image to the database screen.
Automated Indexing archives those corrections and uses them as learning opportunities. Every 90 days it updates its knowledge base, so its ability to extract the necessary information continues to improve. Because of this, performance has improved since Alameda County started using the new module in November 2003, Jones-Williams said.
A Clear Difference
Productivity has improved as well. Once the staff became comfortable with the new process, and Hart InterCivic helped the county make some system adjustments, the pace of work picked up. By February 2004, there was a clear difference, Jones-Williams said. Part of that difference occurred because the rush to refinance tapered off, but the Clerk-Recorder's Office still processes a healthy 2,000 to 2,500 documents per day, she said. Even so, it has reassigned its three temps to other activities.
Title insurance companies also use Automated Indexing, Walker said. The software helps them assemble 30-year histories of real estate parcels, using documents provided by counties to determine whether a parcel has a clear title. Automated Indexing helps speed up their data entry, he said.
Although Hart InterCivic markets Anthem and Automated Indexing primarily to counties, there's no reason the same technology couldn't be used to manage state-level documents, Walker said. "The amount of volume is not the issue. It's just finding the right application for it."
Implementing Automated Indexing "hasn't been just a cakewalk," Jones-Williams said. "There are a few glitches here and there, and we work with Hart to take care of those." But overall, she said the new module has been a godsend, adding the Clerk-Recorder's Office might eventually start using it for other kinds of documents, such as birth, death and marriage certificates.