Past Issues of Government Technology

The Letter and the Spirit

The Atlanta Police Department meets "public access to documents" requirement.

by / July 31, 1998 0
ATLANTA -- In Atlanta, every police call results in an incident report, and every car crash ends with an accident report. City law requires that these documents be made available quickly to residents and insurance companies. City law is blind to paper glut.

Prior to the 1996 Olympics, the Atlanta Police Department (APD) found itself in a paper morass that met neither the letter nor the spirit of the law. Faced with the need to hire 70 additional people to process the paper, police administrators turned to the city's Bureau of Management Information Systems and its director, John A. Cuffie. Cuffie initiated a wide search that ended in his own backyard at Atlanta-based Com Squared Systems, a national developer of document-management systems since 1980.

The Way It Was

APD deals with a plethora of paper. About a thousand incident and accident reports arrive at the downtown Police Annex every day. Reports average a dozen pages each, so APD clerks deal with over 4 million sheets of paper annually. Most of the files have been accumulating only since the 1970s, but some are much older; records on murders, for example, are kept for 100 years.

Before Com Squared's solution arrived, records since 1990 were kept on paper; earlier documents were microfilmed. The issue was not simply a matter of storage; the documents also had to be accessible. Soon after an incident or accident, insurance companies and residents can request access to these documents. Individuals usually want photocopies, while insurance company and attorney requests create about 200 faxes of documents per day.

Reports were indexed by three fields: the person involved, birthdate and the location of the incident/accident. All too often, erroneous or missing information foiled the retrieval clerks.

Getting paper re-filed correctly after the first use was another serious problem. "After finally finding a document," Cuffie explained, "it was difficult to insure that papers were properly re-filed." Thus, documents that were appropriately delivered a first time might become unavailable if requested again.

Technology to Serve the People

Com Squared's UNISearch is a customized solution for data-intensive problems. The solution had to work hand-in-glove with the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), the city's ongoing data warehousing project comprised of VT-Prism and Inslaw software on an IBM mainframe.

While many UNISearch applications include large numbers of computer reports stored on optical disks (COLD technology), APD's solution is pure document imaging. As paper reports arrive at the Police Annex, they are scanned and stored twice -- on an 80GB redundant array of independent disks (magnetic) for quick access, and, later, on an optical disk for archive and security. The lag time between incidents/accidents and document availability, which used to exceed a week, is now 48 hours or less.

This storage management insures that the information will be in magnetic form and immediately deliverable to the operator in 90 percent of the retrieval requests. Even dated information from an optical disk will appear on an operator's screen within 15 seconds of the query. This compares to a paper-based, best-case scenario where retrieval took up to 10 minutes -- when the documents had been accurately filed.

Improvements in indexing took a similar quantum leap. Under the old, paper-based system, a simple human error could make a file untraceable. UNISearch provides APD with 12 field indexes to make sure that queries are successfully satisfied. This "Quick Search" capability is in stark contrast to the previous system, where records were only available by case number.

Data accuracy has also improved. Previously, data entry was a back-end process with duplicate entry for mainframe updates. Now, using bar-coded forms, UNISearch image-enables the data entry. The images are indexed and the mainframe is simultaneously updated. There is no more back-end entry at all, and forms mapping and zooming minimize errors.

Lt. Deborah Cox, who transferred from the mounted police to be unit commander in Central Records, said an integrated fax also saves time. Previously, "when an insurance company or attorney wanted a copy of an accident or incident report, we had to find the paper, take it to the fax machine, hope the fax went through, and get the documents back to the right place. Now, a few keystrokes takes care of the whole job," Cox said.

A side benefit to the automation is that now Cox can easily measure the productivity of each data-entry worker.

Improvements currently being worked on or under consideration include providing attorneys and insurance companies with direct access to the UNISearch system over the Internet; resolving security issues; and allowing remote access to the reports, which is now available to the Fulton County District Attorney's Office.

Cuffie is eager to extend this type of imaging to other areas of Atlanta government. "We want to manage from an enterprise standpoint," he said, "and uptime is also critical to our departments of aviation, finance, purchasing and traffic court. We need technologies like workflow and client/server designs." The Top-Five Networking
Solutions Explained

Sifting Through Networking Acronyms

The number of people using the Internet and other networks has grown dramatically in recent years. Usage of online shopping, Internet telephones, desktop video conferencing and streaming audio have increased by similar rates.

However, networks are simply too slow in their present state to efficiently handle such content. Currently, many old networks are being upgraded and expanded into much faster and cleaner highways to satisfy users' needs for bandwidth and speed.

Five technologies have opened doors to expansion: Ethernet, Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), cable, Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM).

Local Area Network -- Ethernet

Today's most popular type of local area network (LAN) access is Ethernet. Almost 25 years since its conception, Ethernet has become a solid networking access method for LAN.

Currently, there are more than 100 million Ethernet users worldwide with an equipment market in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

Ethernet's main success comes from providing open standards and multiplatform operability. Users have responded to Ethernet technology with great enthusiasm because it is nonproprietary, inexpensive, flexible and easy to use.

Integrated Services Digital Network

Despite faster access to the Internet -- via cable, ADSL or ATM -- 1997 was a landmark year for ISDN in the United States, according to International Data Corp.

An ISDN pipeline consists of two phone lines that allow users to send and receive data up to 128 kilobits per second (Kbps). ISDN pricing from telephone companies ranges from $30 to $300 a month.

Companies are investigating the use of ISDN technology for portable computers.

Internet over TV Cables

Cable TV providers are beginning to offer telephone data services over the existing cable infrastructure, which is posing a significant threat to telecommunications companies.

In fact, cable networks are better suited to offer high-speed data connections than local telephone networks. For one thing, the cable infrastructure was originally developed as a high-speed broadband network and can send hundreds of channels of television into homes.

In response to the threat posed by cable providers, telephone companies are investigating ways to provide home users with high-speed Internet access and other interactive, entertainment-related services, such as video on demand (VOD).

ADSL the Solution

To counter the cable providers' services, Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) appears to be a logical solution for telephone companies. The technology makes use of the existing copper wires and provides from 256Kbps up to 7 megabits per second (equivalent to 96 ISDN channels) data throughput into a home, with a more modest 512Kbps (equal to 8 ISDN channels) throughput out of the home. This unevenly balanced bandwidth is ideal for both VOD and Internet access, because both services depend more on incoming data.

Currently, some telecommunication companies are offering Internet access packages using ADSL: Home packages with 256Kbps access cost about $40 per month and up. A package meant for intensive users needing speeds from 1 to 7 megabits per second (Mbps) begins at $120 per month. Some computer companies might soon provide personal computers with ADSL modems built in.

Asynchronous Transfer Mode

Currently, ATM appears to be the long-term goal for most telephone companies. ATM is the ideal solution for the multimedia traffic, because it is capable of switching voice, data and video traffic.

However, ATM is an end-to-end solution, which means that the technology is used within the entire network, from the consumer's home or office and throughout a WAN.

Implementing an ATM network involves upgrading all of the switches within the network, making it a very expensive technology to install. Although ATM can work on a copper-based infrastructure, most operators are anticipating its use within fiber-based networks.

Since setting up an ATM network involves essentially starting again with the telecommunications infrastructure, it is not expected to be widespread for another five to 10 years.

Currently, ATM is being used by businesses as a local-area-networking solution, although some telephone companies are now beginning to implement ATM for the part of the network that handles major traffic.

We are heading to where everyone accessing the Internet will have immediate access to full-motion video, Internet telephones and various forms of broadcasts, etc. Build faster networks, and they will come!



Gordon E.J. Hoke is a journalist and consultant based in Plainview, Minn. He can be reached at 507/534-2293.

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