he new millennium's first major census will take place in 2000, and for the first time in its history, the Census Bureau will rely on technology to read entire survey response forms. The bureau's ambitious goal is to process 1.4 billion forms in 100 days, with an accuracy rate of 98 percent.
High-speed scanners will convert the forms into electronic images. The images then will pass through a gantlet of software applications that will extract data by reading bar codes, check marks, handwriting and printed text. Finally the data will be automatically filed as database records.
Proponents of imaging technology,hardware and software that convert paper documents into computer-compatible digital versions,see a lot riding on the $49 million Data Capture System 2000 project, which will tackle one of the country's largest paper processing tasks. "We're all hoping that a success story like Census will help convince the nonbelievers" that software can effectively and accurately interpret handwriting and process forms, says Tom Polivka, director of government sales for Associated Solutions Inc. of Dallas, which will provide the forms processing software for the census project. The Census Bureau expects that automating the process will help reduce the time and cost of data capture and increase accuracy.
Regardless of that project's outcome, the paperless office that marketers describe is very likely a pipe dream. "We seem to be a society that likes paper," says William Bass, a project manager at SRA International Inc., an Arlington, Va., systems integrator. Paper remains popular thanks to its portability and ease of use. But imaging technology and the applications it enables,most notably electronic document management and workflow systems,are helping many government agencies handle so-called paperwork tasks more efficiently: some Veterans Affairs hospitals now rely on electronic medical charts; organizations such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service process Freedom of Information Act requests electronically; the Air Force, the Customs Service and others are publishing and distributing some documents on CD-ROM instead of paper; and the Defense Technical Information Center relies on an electronic filing system for its reports, just to name a few examples.
Such applications are becoming more common, and analysts expect growth in federal imaging use to continue. Input, a Vienna, Va., market research firm, projects that the federal imaging market, which it estimated to be worth $970 million in fiscal 1996, is growing by 15 percent a year. (By comparison, it says the total federal information technology budget is growing slightly more than 4 percent a year). At this rate, the federal imaging market will reach almost $2 billion in fiscal 2001.
Technology Is Improving
Imaging technology can be implemented on a variety of scales, from a scanner and software used with one personal computer to multimillion-dollar custom-designed systems for an entire agency. A growing acceptance of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions is bringing costs down. A prevailing trend is to bypass custom-built systems in favor of integrating best-of-breed components, which fall into four categories: document capture, storage management, document management and workflow.
The document capture component encompasses the conversion of printed materials into usable electronic data and the loading of the data into databases or other software applications. Image-enabled forms processing systems such as the one Census will deploy fall into this category.
A scanner often is used to digitize paper documents, although faxes and digital cameras also can capture some types of information electronically. Scanners often come bundled with image processing software that cleans up images (de-skewing them, for example) or that converts images of type or handwriting into editable text. Optical character recognition and intelligent character recognition software has become better at recognizing printed type and various handwriting styles, respectively.
Low-end scanners from companies such as Visioneer Inc. sell for less than $200, and price-to-performance ratios continue to improve. Hybrid machines called multifunction peripherals combine scanning, faxing, copying and printing and are expected to become even more capable, managing documents and incorporating features such as videoconferencing, for example.
To make employees working with electronic documents more comfortable and productive, many organizations supply them with large (17- to 21-inch) monitors that offer better resolution than standard monitors and that allow employees to view one or two entire documents without the need to scroll. Such displays, made by Cornerstone Imaging Inc. and other companies, have become less expensive and take up less desk space than in the past.
Electronic documents inevitably require less storage space than their paper counterparts, and electronic storage options are becoming cheaper and offering higher capacities. The most popular image storage choices are nonerasable WORM (write once, read many) optical disks and erasable magneto-optical disks, collected in jukeboxes. CD-ROM technology is gaining in popularity as an inexpensive way to store and distribute documents, thanks to inexpensive recording hardware. DVDs (digital versatile discs) are another optical storage medium that some analysts expect to gain acceptance and drive down storage costs. Magnetic hard disks offer the fastest possible access. Falling prices are making RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) storage popular.
Storage management software tracks files and moves them among storage media.
Most federal imaging users apply the technology to electronic filing and retrieval systems. Electronic filing can improve productivity and reduce costs. It takes less time to find, handle, re-file and route electronic documents, because the software does much of the work. Also, electronic document images can be sorted, cross-referenced and reconfigured into new documents.
The Transportation Department realized many of these benefits when it implemented an image-based docket management system. The agency had stored legal dockets in "huge, heavy binders" for about six decades, says Charlotte S. Boeck, administrative officer in Transportation's Office of General Counsel. The binders had to be stored on-site for five to 10 years. "We had ceiling to floor paper," she says.
Today, those same documents are scanned and stored on optical disks, and the paper is sent to a cheaper off-site storage facility. Boeck says the lawyers aren't yet willing to throw out the paper copies. "In five years, when we scan, we'll throw away [the paper]," Boeck says. "People just have to get comfortable" with the idea.
The new system has made the documents staff more productive, reducing the number of employees from 25 to 14. The agency also has improved its public service by posting documents on the World Wide Web. The Transportation Department allows other agencies to use its image-based system on a fee basis.
An Enabling Technology
More and more organizations are seeking larger productivity gains than electronic file-and-retrieve or forms processing systems can offer, coupling imaging with software that allows them to manage documents or to make entire business processes more efficient.
"We see a change in the model away from an imaging system to imaging as a capability," says Nathaniel Palmer, a consultant with Delphi Consulting Group Inc. in Boston. Agencies are increasingly using imaging technology as part of business process reengineering, rather than stand-alone functions, according to Input's 1996 study of the federal market.
Document management systems allow organizations to automate document storage, tracking, version control, indexing and searching. These systems offer better document protection and management, plus faster access to documents. They can also provide an audit trail of document use and alteration.
Workflow technology, on the other hand, helps automate the routing of documents. Some systems on the market combine imaging, document management and workflow. Document management or workflow software, or both, are available from such companies as FileNet Corp., PC Docs Inc. and Eastman Software Inc., among others.
Organizations may realize even more impressive productivity gains with software that successfully integrates all their computer-based document systems. "A lot of vendors are saying they have this, but no one has really done it yet," says Mason Grigsby, a partner at Imerge Consulting in San Francisco. Imaging companies also are rushing to exploit the Internet, which holds a lot of promise for distributing information. Companies such as Optika Imaging Systems Inc. have introduced software that allows users to view their office's imaged documents from any computer via the World Wide Web. But the technology to allow users to manipulate documents across the Internet is still evolving.
Although a lack of interoperability standards has hampered the growth of imaging, today a range of standards are in various stages of development and use, and analysts agree that the only direction for imaging and related technologies to go is up. "It's not to the point that imaging is on every desktop, despite the potential," Palmer says. "I see that happening down the road."
An up-front requirements study should show departments whether an imaging-based system will be cost-effective or not. "You should know what you want to accomplish when you finish. Otherwise it becomes an expensive toy," SRA's Bass cautions.
Luba Vangelova is a Washington-area freelance journalist.