Document Imaging Technology Tames the Paper Tiger

Document Imaging Technology Tames the Paper Tiger

By Heather B. Hayes

Responding to Freedom of Information Act requests has historically been one of the most tedious and time-consuming manual tasks in government. Officials must comb through thousands of paper documents, pore over each word for sensitive or private information, and then resort to skills they learned in kindergarten like cutting, pasting and marking to cover up or redact any unreleasable information.

Such a task wouldn't be so unbearable if it was rare, but FOIA requests in recent years have swelled to unmanageable numbers, due in part to an increase in lawsuits, the proliferation of conspiracy-minded activist groups, and the zealousness of post-Watergate reporters.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, responds to 115,000 requests annually. The FBI, which boasts more than 500 FOIA officers plus staff, gets so many requests that it is currently backlogged for two years. At the Department of Interior, responses often take so much time that requesters no longer want or need the information once it is prepared.

Now, however, information technology providers are hoping to replace this mind-numbing process with a range of sophisticated solutions, thanks to a legal mandate that took effect in early November.

The Electronic Freedom of Information Act, passed last fall, requires government agencies to begin making their best effort to respond electronically to FOIA requests, a demand that threatens to either push overburdened and underfunded agencies over the edge or finally force them to turn to more comprehensive technology solutions.

Industry has its bets on the latter. Already, a slew of software developers, imaging companies and systems integrators have been out on the front line, developing tools and solutions that will allow better ways for FOIA offices to conduct business.

"It's a natural fit for technology in general, and imaging and document management solutions specifically," says Frank Colletta, director of federal sales and marketing for Imagination Software, a Silver Spring, Md., firm that has developed Imagine FOIA, an application that imitates the FOIA work process electronically. "These offices need to catch up with the rest of society, and this law is sort of drop-kicking folks into the 21st century."

Unfortunately, the law, known as the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, or E-FOIA, does not appropriate any additional funding to agencies. But that's nothing new. "FOIA has never been funded, which makes it very difficult to comply effectively," explains Sue Ellen Sloka, FOIA officer for the Office of the Secretary of the Interior. "But you find what you can find. And to get the technology in place, program offices will have to foot the bill. It's their data and it's their responsibility to provide accessibility."

The good news, though, is that solutions run the gamut from the simple to complex and can be implemented on a piecemeal basis. Agencies currently are putting together plans that will feature everything from a simple desktop scanner and copier to a fully integrated, end-to-end document management solution that includes high-speed scanners, redaction tools, storage and retrieval systems, workflow, a database and even Web publishing capability.

"What we're finding is that IT companies are actually stepping in and pushing agencies to look at this long-term," says Colletta. "They recognize that FOIA is really just document management, so they're saying, 'While you're solving your FOIA requirements, why don't you solve your document management requirements in general?' The whole point of FOIA is, it's not just their offices that they're raiding for documents, it's agencywide. So corporations are responding to the government's needs at a macrolevel. And rightfully so."

Vredenburg photo

Larry Den,
vice president,

Larry Den agrees. He is vice president of business development for Vredenburg, a systems integrator in Reston, Va., that is developing long-range FOIA solutions for the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. "The market is just starting to heat up and it promises to be very competitive," he says. "But there will be plenty of opportunity to go around, because there are FOIA offices in every agency, every bureau and every field office. It's hard to tell how big it will be."

Although e-mail, word processing and other electronic documents that originated during the computer age are subject to FOIA requests, more than 90 percent of government information remains in paper form, according to David Lipstein, director of marketing and development at Eastman Software, McLean, Va.

To deal with this fact, many agencies have for some time relied on a simple scanner and a copier in their efforts to respond to requests electronically. The problem, though, is that this method doesn't begin to solve the most time-consuming and labor-intensive burden: redaction.

With each document, officers not only must scan for sensitive information and mark it up or tape it over, they also must note the reason for the redaction (there are nine exemptions under FOIA, including national security, and several others under the Privacy Act, such as address and Social Security number). The document must then be routed to subject experts, supervisors and legal counsel and can be sent back and forth several times as the agency attempts to make the document appeal- and suitproof. "It's not a one-shot deal," says Sloka. "We're constantly making copies of copies of copies. There is paper floating around everywhere."

In recent years, a number of software developers have come up with sophisticated electronic redaction tools that manage to take much of the labor out of this tedious task. These include the aforementioned Imagine FOIA; Imaging for Windows, Professional version, from Eastman Software; and HighView, a FOIA-enabled imaging and document management system from Highland Technologies Inc., Lanham, Md. Others are Pagis Pro, from the Xerox Desktop Document System Division, Peabody, Mass., and Redax, from Digital Applications Inc., Aldan, Pa.

Although not all of the programs work the same, or as effectively, they generally attack the process like this: The user scans in the document, cleans it up and even adds optical character recognition capability for later retrieval. The user then begins looking for information that is sensitive to national interests, proprietary business data or personal information. When a sentence or whole paragraph is found to be unreleasable, a highlight is placed over the words and the officer can choose from a list of FOIA and Privacy Act exemptions to place over the highlight.

If routing capability is inherent in the system, the image is sent via e-mail or across the local area network to a supervisor or subject matter expert for approval. That person also can highlight text or images before routing the document back to the FOIA officer. The officer then burns in the redaction and saves it as an entirely separate file, which is sent to the requester. The original image and the redacted version are saved for posterity and for legal reasons. All versions are then stored in separate repositories.

"Now the hard work is done. You have a legacy of documents that you don't have to travel upstairs or downstairs or go rifling through boxes to find, which saves a tremendous effort because many of these documents are asked for time and again," explains Colletta. "And recognizing this, many agencies are now starting to scan the documents in proactively. Then all the FOIA officer has to do is search the database for the documents that pertain to the specific subject matter, do the redaction electronically and send them out."

Many government offices, including MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, the Office of the Secretary of the Interior and the Defense Intelligence Agency, have started out with just a redaction tool. Others like the INS, the Department of Justice and some members of the intelligence community have opted for full-scale, FOIA-fronted document management programs.

"Everybody has a slightly different approach and it really depends on what the agency wants to achieve and how much money they have to spend," says Lipstein. "There's not an off-the-shelf application that does everything that everybody wants. What we have are good, solid pieces of technology that can handle different parts of the process depending on how you want to implement it."

There are three elements necessary for an effective total solution, Den notes. The first is a software infrastructure that accommodates the ability to capture the data, redact it, store it in a repository and route it to the appropriate personnel. "It's not just having an image viewer put on top of Windows 95 and being able to look at a few TIF [tagged image file format] files that have been scanned in," he says. "It's a much more complicated infrastructure than that, because you've got to be able to determine what the request is, if you've done the request before, and where that information is located."

The second aspect is the ability to publish in a number of different forms, including paper, disk, CD-ROM and over the Web. The third element is the provision of a database robust enough to decipher requests to see whether they have been done before and are stored in the repository.

In their fervor to get their FOIA problem under control, most agencies are opting for commercial off-the-shelf applications that can be integrated into their existing information infrastructures. And most are looking to purchase both products and services off the General Services Administration schedule. Only a few requests for proposal have been let, and most of those are for complementary case tracking systems that are useful in reporting FOIA data to Congress.

In the end, the burden will be on industry to lead the way.

"Although everyone is grumbling about the E-FOIA legislation not being funded, I think the one thing it has accomplished is that it has called attention to how this has all been tackled previously and shown that you really can apply technology to the problem," Lipstein concludes. "There [is] a tremendous amount of long-term savings in dollar and people costs that will come once the initial investment is made."

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