Turning Documents Itno Dollars

Imaging systems have opened up new opportunities

by / April 30, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Local governments are discovering that document imaging technology presents them with new ways to provide valuable services to private-sector firms.
SOLUTION: By evaluating their customers' needs and targeting their services carefully, cities and counties can generate some respectable revenue with document imaging.
JURISDICTION: Kenosha County, Wis.
VENDORS: TriMin Systems Inc., Pinnacle Micro, Wang.
CONTACT: Walter Przybylowski, Kenosha County Information and Communications Services, 414/653-2816.

The next time you look at your imaging system, you may discover some money in there. That's what a growing number of local governments are finding as they look beyond the storage and retrieval function of imaging to the revenue potentials of enhanced service delivery. By converting documents into a digital format, imaging systems put a new spin on information access, which can be of great value to certain businesses. Attorneys, real estate agents, insurance companies and title companies have always needed certain government documents to perform their job. Time is money to these folks and retrieving documents from government agencies has always been a time-consuming process for them.

When cities and counties invest in imaging technology to convert thousands, even millions, of documents into digital images, the old issues of time and access suddenly disappear. Smart governments are taking advantage of this change and are offering businesses a chance to share the benefits of the new imaging system -- for a price.

For example, a number of counties have converted their land-related documents into images and are offering businesses subscriptions to their online index of documents, which is easily accessible through modem hook-ups.

Since 1990, the Registry of Deeds in Middlesex County, Mass., has been earning between $80,000 and $100,000 annually through its online service. Some counties offer fax-back services. A title company worker can look up a record in the online index and see a notation that says the document is stored on an optical disc. When the worker hits a function key on the computer in his office, the imaging system back at the registry faxes the document image to the worker's office.

Other valuable services include actual remote viewing of documents via networks and distribution of document images via CD-ROM. Some local governments are exploring the possibility of using the Internet as an inexpensive way to provide businesses with remote access to document images.

In every case, the county finds that it can provide access to documents using much less labor than in the past. Fewer documents have to be manually retrieved, photocopied from paper or microfiche, and then mailed. Imaging systems also come with subsystems that can automatically calculate the cost of the document retrieval and generate an invoice for the business based on usage.

According to Dick Stehley, manager of sales operations at TriMin Systems Inc., the cost of imaging has dropped so dramatically in the last few years that mid-sized and even small counties can justify purchasing the technology. "Their initial thrust into imaging is to boost overall productivity," he said, "but once the application is up and running, they start thinking about ways to improve public access."

TriMin has installed numerous imaging systems in counties throughout the Midwest, some with populations as low as 20,000. Stehley said that none are making lots of money from image-based services, but he expects that the phenomenon will grow.

The Registry of Deeds in Kenosha County, Wis., probably exemplifies what mid-sized counties are able to do in terms of earning extra income from imaging systems. Serving a population of 130,000, the Registry handles approximately 30,000 land recordings annually. Two years ago, the Registry installed an imaging system that uses TriMin's Land Records Management software to manage the land records, including the index.

The software runs on an AS/400 which is linked to an RS/6000 server that runs the image processing software, Open/Image, from Wang.

Prior to imaging, the county stored its land records on microfiche. A handful of title companies paid the county a flat rate for paper copies of all land records filed each month. According to Walt Przybylowski, director of information and communication services for Kenosha County, the service was laborious to run and costly in terms of maintaining the microfiche lab.

Shortly after the imaging system was installed, the county purchased Pinnacle Micro's RCD1000 double-speed CD-ROM drive for $1,375 and began offering the title companies the digitized land records on magnetic tape or CD-ROM discs for $500 per month. The CD-ROM discs contain about 2,000 land documents or 8,000 pages. They also contain a small program that allows the user to search for documents by index, view the documents and print them. Przybylowski said the service is generating about $48,000 in revenue annually. Plans are under way to offer customers a fax-back service, as well as other digitized documents, such as plat maps, in a CD-ROM format.

"We're adding value here," said Przybylowski, commenting on the county's attitude toward its fee structure for the new services. "I'm sure we could get more customers if we could market better," he added.

Policy issues concerning the types of fees a county should charge for these new services, as well as management issues about how to market these services, are two of the key stumbling blocks many government agencies run into when they consider operating a revenue-based service for businesses. Should local governments charge more for electronic access to the information? The question seems to quickly become an issue over freedom of information, according to Michael Humphrey, business director for telecommunications and information at Public Technology Inc. "The way to make information as public as possible is through an electronic format," he said. "But you have to charge a fee to do that, otherwise there's no benefit."

Local governments argue that by charging higher fees for electronic access to certain types of information, they are forcing the relatively small group of customers who use the service to pay for it. But Humphrey said that all too often when counties ask state legislatures to change existing policies on fees for electronic access, the media and special interest groups turn it into an argument for freedom of information which only clouds the issue. "Whether or not to charge for electronic access should depend on the type of information," said Humphrey. "Public access is essential to government policy information, such as city council records, and should be available at no cost. However, some information, such as land records, which counties basically maintain for lawyers and title companies, is not essential for public access."

As for marketing an electronic service, local government experience is extremely limited. Successful marketing requires that government agencies conduct research to determine the customer base, its location, its size and the amount of money it is willing to spend for the services the agency plans to offer.

To overcome this lack of knowledge and marketing know-how, a few local governments have turned to private-sector partners to provide these services and, in return, have agreed to share some of the revenue. But Humphrey cautioned that this approach has its problems. "Private companies see a risk in whether or not a county can uphold such an agreement for the long term. They are afraid that at some point in the future, the public will demand free access to the documents, killing any profit."