Imaging First: Maricopa County Puts Deeds on the Web

Signaling a big change in how customers access land records, Maricopa County has opened up its imaging database to the World Wide Web.

by / October 31, 1997
Since the World Wide Web first wove its way into the public sector as a tool for publishing and disseminating information, county recorders have dreamed of the day when they could merge the Web with their imaging systems and allow customers to search for and retrieve images of deeds and other property documents. That day arrived this past July, when Arizona's Maricopa County started what is billed as the nation's first Web site for viewing deeds and other land-record documents.

The county has linked its existing imaging system with the Internet, giving any customer with a PC access to approximately 12 million scanned documents. Despite some initial software constraints that limit who can use the service, approximately 300 people are viewing documents on a daily basis.

For Barbara Frerichs, project leader for the Web site service, that's 300 fewer people per day making their way into the cramped recorder's office in downtown Phoenix. "It's standing room only down here," said Frerichs. "A lot of times customers have to wait to use one of the 10 PCs we have available for the public to view documents."

With little office space available for expansion and demand growing for land records in booming Phoenix, the county recorder's office had the choice of trying to squeeze more PCs into what space was left or using the untried Internet. They chose the latter.

$30,000 Service Enhancement

The County Records of Deeds has been using a FileNet IMS (Image Management Services) system since 1989. Every month, as many as 90,000 new documents are scanned, indexed on a database running on an IBM AS/400 and then stored on optical discs. To create a Web service, the county installed FileNet's new Connector software, which enables Microsoft Windows NT-based Web servers to execute queries and retrieve documents from the IMS system.

Software from Wall Data Inc., allows users to query the AS/400 database on the Web. To view the images, customers must use FileNet's WebSeries Viewer, a plug-in viewer that displays TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) images and annotations that may have been added to the documents. In all, programmers spent about six weeks writing the application. "This isn't like using HTML," said Frerichs, referring to the authoring program for publishing documents on the Web. "It took a lot of effort to accomplish this."

"The county has merged its existing imaging system with the Internet, giving any customer with a PC access to approximately 12 million scanned documents."

The $30,000 service enhancement began operating on July 1 and became an immediate hit. In barely one month, more than 7,000 customers used the site to view land documents. Using a Web browser, customers can search for documents by name or by recording number. When a "hit" is displayed, the user sees a document that has had its recording information stripped out and a watermark that says "Unofficial Document." The watermark is used to stop customers from printing and using the Web images as legal documents. County law requires the recorder's office to produce all copies of official land records and to charge $1 for each copy.

But the watermark hasn't slowed down use of the Web site. According to Frerich, Internet customers are retrieving the documents for informational purposes. "A lot of people do business with the information we file here," she explained. "Some of our customers are businesses that want to sell a service or product, such as water heaters, to new homeowners. They can use the Web site to identify all the new home buyers, get their names and addresses, and then contact them." She added that should someone need an official copy of a document they see on the Web site, they can call or fax a request to the recorder's office.

Teething Problems

As popular as the new site has become, it does have some teething problems. Currently, a user needs a PC running Windows 95 or NT to access the service, not to mention an adequate amount of RAM (Random Access Memory). Also needed is Microsoft's browser -- Internet Explorer -- and FileNet's viewer, both of which are available free for downloading at the site. That leaves Macintosh owners and users of Netscape's Navigator out in the cold. According to Frerich, software constraints at the time forced them to build the application with these limitations. However, she hopes to change the situation in the near future.

Frerich also said she's not happy with the system's speed. "The downloading of the image [to the browser] takes longer than we would like to see," she commented. "We think we can improve on that."

According to Tod DeBie, FileNet's WebSeries product manager, images have to be converted into TIFF files by the FileNet software before they can appear on a browser. The step adds time to the process. Also, large documents can degrade the system's performance. He said that it's important to consider the total application -- from document size to number of users -- when building an Internet application.

But as Frerich pointed out, they had no idea how many people would use the Web site. "No one had ever done this before. We just picked a number off the top of our heads. It wasn't enough because this is a very busy site."