Imaging Is Everything
Agencies Find More Uses For Maturing Technology<@VM>Breaking Down Barriers<@VM>Security Plan<@VM>The E-Gov Connection
In Washington, image means more than just looking good. It also means creating forms and documents that are easily accessible to government workers and the public. In fact, imaging is so much in demand these days, it's hard to find an agency that doesn't have some sort of imaging project going on.
Federal agencies, already driven by the need to comply with e-government and open government initiatives, are now facing the prospect of losing half their employees during the next decade. Working together, these forces are creating a booming federal imaging market.
"Imaging is seen as a way to increase productivity despite fewer resources due to early retirements and downsizing," said Marilyn Wright, director of product marketing for R.M. Vredenburg Co. in Reston, Va.
Vredenburg is involved in many large imaging projects, including electronic Freedom of Information Act applications for the National Archives and Records Administration, FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission; automated declassification systems at intelligence agencies; and criminal case file management systems, such as the FBI's Innocent Images program that targets child pornography.
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Association for Information and Image Management International in Silver Spring, Md., and GartnerGroup of Stamford, Conn., showed 23 percent of government respondents planned to purchase document management and imaging solutions in the near future, and 65 percent were already using such systems.
The burgeoning federal demand is evidenced in the rapid growth of companies serving this market. eiStream WMS Inc., for example, is experiencing a year-to-year growth of 300 percent in governmental sales.
Industry officials said imaging's growth is also fueled by its maturity.
"We've transitioned from a 'selling-new-systems mentality' to expanding the use of existing systems, and expanding the use of the tech throughout the agency," said David Lakness, president of eiStream WMS Inc. (formerly Eastman Software). His Billerica, Mass., firm has about 130,000 federal seat licenses through contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the departments of Housing and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs, and the Patent and Trademark Office.There is no precise figure of how many billions of dollars the federal government spends on imaging, partially because it is difficult to define the exact boundaries of the technology. Just as e-government is merging into normal governmental operations, imaging is being integrated into day-to-day operations.
At the most limited end of the spectrum, imaging simply refers to the process of scanning, storing and retrieving paper documents. At the other extreme, it encompasses the merger of every conceivable type of communications media ? print, photographs, audio and video files, computer-aided designs, e-mails, databases, graphics, Web pages and spreadsheets ? into a single database that can be accessed through any type of networked or wireless device.
Imaging also includes technologies such as optical character recognition for reading machine-printed letters; intelligent character recognition for reading hand-printed letters; and various storage, retrieval, annotation and output methodologies. Hyperlinking, too, allows instant connections between related documents, even if they are not of the same format or within the same database.
This graying of the boundaries of the imaging field represents an overall trend to eliminate the barriers between different types of communications media.
"Imaging is redefining itself as 'content management,' " Wright said. "This includes all information processed and managed during its life cycle, from front-office through back-office operations, including Web content management and traditional document management, as well as imaging and content ported to and from wireless devices."
A primary reason for this is efficiency. Imaging and content management technology provides users with a single source for all data, so they don't have to spend hours searching through warehouses, filing cabinets, e-mail programs, databases and spreadsheets.
Beyond making retrieval easier, however, imaging forces agencies to re-examine and redesign work flow, decision-making and document management processes. This necessitates bringing all the stakeholders into the picture.
"We're creating an infrastructure for ensuring all constituencies are incorporated into the decision process," says Lakness. "This results in a streamlined process and better auditability."
As a result, government clients are reporting increases in personal productivity in the 20 percent to 30 percent range.Agencies are looking to imaging as a tool for disaster recovery as well as for archival storage and retrieval.
"The threat from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, is reduced when data can be stored electronically," said Steve Walter, regional manager for LaserFiche Document Imaging, a division of Computlink Management Center Inc., Torrance, Calif. "The next phase we are seeing is remote data warehousing and making data available over the Internet."
The Air Force and Navy are using LaserFiche solutions, and the Marine Corps is procuring this technology to provide online records access to discharged personnel. Additionally, the Postal Rate Commission uses it to store 30 years worth of documentation.
While online storage and retrieval of government records has raised some security concerns, this approach provides much-needed redundancy and backup that can prove invaluable following a disaster. When documents are imaged and the content distributed, problems at one location won't bring governmental operations to a halt.
This was illustrated Sept. 11, when legal documents, insurance policies and financial papers came raining down on lower Manhattan in the midst of the terrorist attack in New York. A good imaging strategy would make it possible to recreate these databases.
Several pieces of legislation have contributed greatly to the growth of imaging, the best known being the Government Paperwork Reduction Act and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, for example, provides that, "For records created on or after Nov. 1, 1996 ... each agency shall make such records available, including by computer telecommunications or ... by other electronic means."
With the Justice Department personnel alone spending 1,069 work-years to process nearly 250,000 FOIA requests last year, it's easy to see the potential of efficient document management.
President Clinton's 1995 Executive Order 12,958, Classified National Security Information, also added to the need for imaging by establishing an automatic declassification mechanism for information more than 25 years old. It also created a nationwide declassification database and required agencies to make such information available to the public.Beyond specific laws, every type of e-government activity has some sort of imaging connected with it.
"The focus of e-government and constituent services is driving agencies to look at their paper processes and the way they do business," said Vredenburg's Wright. "Electronic imaging and document management is a key technology in enabling e-government."
A visit to NASA's Web site, www.nasa.gov, provides an example of the full range of digitization. The site contains hundreds of thousands of photos and data images, as well as film and video in four different formats, live broadcasts, artwork, animations and audio in five formats.
Most agencies, though, are more text- and form-oriented. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, used Cleveland-based TRW Inc.'s InFlowSuite to create the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system, known as EDGAR, a paperless method for submission and dissemination of corporate filings.
Most agencies face the prospect of converting thousands of paper forms into matching electronic formats. Some have taken the relatively easy route of converting forms into portable document format files, known as PDF files, which users print and fill in by hand. Others are going interactive, designing forms that match the paper versions but can be completed online.
However, designing such forms can be time consuming without the proper tools.
"The average form designer can spend six to 10 hours creating a form that is already in paper," said Wayne Crandall, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Scansoft Inc., Peabody, Mass. Using the company's OmniForm software, the job can be done in less than three minutes. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, is using this application to reduce time spent creating interactive tax forms
Imaging technology has evolved from a specialized activity to one that pervades every aspect of government. As digital copiers replace analog ones, for example, scanning is placed in the hands of every employee.
Xerox Corp., Stamford, Conn., provided Army hospitals with ScanSoft desktop imaging applications to complement the digital copiers it sold. This allows staff to scan and electronically store or e-mail files, instead of making and routing paper copies.
And Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., is incorporating ScanSoft imaging software into its Office XP package.
Still, there are a number of challenges to be addressed. Optical character recognition technology does a good job with clean, printed materials. But as the federal government comes to rely more on poorer quality documents coming from Third World countries, the accuracy of the software must be improved. Digitized documents can also consume massive amounts of storage and bandwidth.
There also is the matter of bringing images to mobile workers.
"Advances in hardware will change how document imaging is used," Walter said. "Look for imaging to be used in [personal digital assistant] environments and for wireless applications in the future. Voice recognition technology will make it more user friendly and available."
But in most projects, vendors are engaged in the relatively simple task of rolling out existing imaging systems to every desktop. This is what is driving revenue to new heights.
"We are getting into a real growth phase for the technology," Lakness said, "a phase of deployment rather than development."