do have features to simplify and speed up this verification and editing process. In some instances, a system can use a lookup table for employee names (in the case of processing time sheets) or Social Security numbers and addresses (in the case of processing licenses) to verify data it has recognized.

Another speedy feature is a technique called ribbon editing, where hard-to-recognize characters are strung along in a linear fashion, allowing an operator to read and edit the data in a more fluid manner. A more widely practiced form of verification is to have the system display the image of the original form on one side of the computer screen while the system's best guess at a questionable character is displayed on the other side. The operator can accept or override the character choice.

ACCURATE BENEFITS

Accuracy is, of course, the bottom line requirement if a forms processing system is going to succeed. Reh said that he's seen acceptance rates -- characters that are recognized correctly -- as high as 96 percent for handprinted characters and 99 percent for machine-printed characters.

However, recognition rates can fall once substitutions factor in -- those characters the system thinks it's got right but are actually wrong. Yet even with substitution problems, forms processing systems can still deliver. If a system actually recognizes just 50 percent of the characters, that still means you've halved the number of keystrokes needed to enter data, according to Spencer.

As recognition improves, labor costs decline. In medium- to high-volume forms processing applications, where the system's overall accuracy is 95 percent or more, productivity gains of 50 percent to 70 percent are not uncommon. At this level, labor savings can lead to system paybacks within 12 to 18 months.

GOVERNMENT APPLICATIONS

In government, forms processing is expected to have a big impact in the area of licensing and tax processing. Already, Wheb has a tax processing system installed in New Mexico that is expected to cut labor costs in half. In Maine, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recently installed a $230,000 forms processing system from Wheb that's expected to significantly improve data gathering and generate some revenue as well.

The department has begun to overhaul and simplify the way it handles the 40 different types of hunting and fishing licenses it sells each year. Agents have always submitted either typed or handprinted license applications to the department. While sales information was entered into an accounting system, information about who bought the license remained on the form, which was filed away.

One major change will be the use of electronic point-of-sale technology to capture fees and data for licenses. Danny Morris, information services manager for the department, figured that the state's biggest licensing agents -- L.L. Bean and others -- will handle roughly 80 percent of the 500,000 licenses issued annually with this new format. The remaining 20 percent will still be issued on paper by hundreds of mom and pop stores located in small towns and villages. It's these licenses that will be processed with technology.

In June of this year, the department installed Wheb's Intelligent Forms Processing System, which includes the processing software, a Ricoh scanner, a Pentium file server and three editing stations. For the next five months, the department tested the system, with changes made primarily to the form to improve recognition rates.

According to Morris, the department expects to see several benefits once the system goes into full production with the 1996 licenses. First, labor costs for existing data entry -- mainly from the monthly reports submitted by agents -- will be significantly reduced. Second, more information on the license holders will be gathered, including some federally mandated demographic information on hunters of migratory birds.

Third, the department expects to generate revenue from the information. "We'll be able to remarket the data and sell mailing lists, which we're allowed to do by the state Legislature," said Morris. "It's all part of the push for more revenue enhancement."

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