Making Imaging Look Easy

By building a strong network infrastructure and sticking to open standards, Oklahoma City has created an environment that allows imaging to grow.

by / September 30, 1998
For the past 10 years, local governments have faced a conundrum: Too much information in too many departments exists on paper, a situation expected to continue for some time. Document imaging allows departments to put paper into an electronic environment, but the technology is complex and costly. City and county departments still haven't figured out how to bring the overwhelming benefits of imaging to a majority of government workers.

Oklahoma City appears to have solved the imaging puzzle and may have devised a model for other local governments. The breakthrough allowing imaging to flourish in Oklahoma City is incremental deployment. "It's very simple for us to take our desktop environment and incrementally implement imaging," explained Kerry Wagnon, the city's MIS director. "That's a big change from the old approach of building a multimillion-dollar system on top of what we have."

Two factors paved the way for imaging to blossom in Oklahoma City. First, the city laid down a robust networking and communications infrastructure. Traditionally, imaging would start in a department where computing didn't exist. In Oklahoma City, though, networking has penetrated every department, making it that much easier to start a network-intensive system such as imaging.

Second, the city's MIS Department issued strict standards for any city imaging application: It must run on Windows NT and use Excalibur Technologies' EFS software for back-end imaging operations. Excalibur produces document-management software that handles storage and retrieval functions. For front-end image capturing, city departments can choose from a variety of software packages recommended by MIS. Currently, most departments use Ascent Capture from Kofax.

By limiting a department's software choices, the city helps, rather than stifles, new solutions, reported Stan Reichert, one of the city's two full-time imaging application experts. "Our goal is to have one imaging software for the city's departments, so that we can be fully trained on it and can serve customer needs better, especially when it comes to solving bugs," explained Reichert. "By specializing in one software program, it's real easy for us to carry our knowledge over from one application to the next."

So far, seven departments have imaging: the City Clerk's Office, the police department, the courts, the Department of Airports, the customer service division for utilities and two smaller city departments. Another five departments will have imaging soon. Most departments have their own NT server and, for long-term storage, a 120GB or 330GB optical jukebox from Hewlett-Packard. Smaller departments share a server and a jukebox.

While costs vary according to the size of the application, MIS director Wagnon said a typical scanning station -- the most important component of an imaging system -- runs less than $10,000, breaking what many believe is a psychological barrier to affordable imaging. That price includes workstation, scanner and software.

Imaging began in Oklahoma City in 1995, when the City Clerk's Office began using Excalibur on a Digital VAX to capture, store and retrieve images of weekly council meeting agendas, meeting summaries and other council-related documents. Frustrated by his MIS staff's experience with a proprietary environment, Wagnon decided to shift all aspects of imaging over to Windows NT, the de facto operating system standard in the document-management industry.

Wagnon then assigned Reichert and Alan Kelley, the city's other imaging expert, to look after the city's growing demand for imaging applications. The two analysts quickly developed into application experts. According to Reichert, when a department decides it needs imaging, work starts with lots of research. "We find out how many documents the department has and then we look at what sort of front-end software can handle its needs. Then we can provide numbers on how much [the application] will cost."

With a variety of applications in use, Reichert says he and Kelley have an easy time demonstrating to interested departments the feasibility of imaging. "When someone comes to us and says they want to do document imaging, we have a lot of different systems out there that are live and can show them how it works."

Oklahoma City's imaging juggernaut has also benefited from two recent trends. One is, of course, the Internet. Using WebFile, another Excalibur software product, the city has been able to add remote users to departmental imaging applications at relatively little cost and with virtually no training. Once they are given clearance to use a particular imaging application, workers can log on to the database of their choice with their Web browser and start searching for documents.

According to Reichert, potential imaging users can also use their browser to take a peek at what an imaging application looks like and view demos online. The workers no longer need special software on their PCs, nor do they require costly memory upgrades and other changes to become image-enabled.

The second trend, advancements in the imaging field, is letting Oklahoma City move toward an environment that's more knowledge-based rather than information-based. The city has begun using Excalibur's RetrievalWare, which allows access to a variety of databases and documents stored in different formats.

Wagnon called RetrievalWare a product with strategic value. "It expands our capacity and allows workers to search multiple types of storage mechanisms, such as SQL databases, the Internet and document repositories," he said "I can do a search on a single subject across a collection of storage mediums."

For example, when a worker searches for information on business permits, he will retrieve a graphic view of information from a wide range of sources. These may include in-house relational databases or document images of applications, intranets, LAN-based information repositories, digital libraries and articles on the Internet. In addition to accessing disparate data repositories, the worker can retrieve information in a variety of forms, such as structured and unstructured text, static text (such as HTML), realtime data feeds, images, and video.

By using fuzzy logic, pattern matching and other advanced features, leading-edge software retrieval tools such as RetrievalWare reduce the haphazard approach to keyword searches of simpler retrieval programs. Thus, the worker gets more of the needed information and spends less time looking for it.

This, of course, goes beyond basic image or data retrieval and represents the beginning of what the document-management industry calls knowledge management. How applicable this is to the typical city worker remains to be seen. But it's a glimpse of a future in which information becomes increasingly accessible regardless of source or format.

That's not the only reason imaging and document management have become so common in the past year or so, Wagnon said.

"It's the storage component," he poin-ted out. "With the universality of NT, plenty of hard drives and optical jukebo- xes, you can now store lots of data very inexpensively."

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