When handwriting is your only option…. Peter Lang

When researching Enterprise Content Management capture projects, the question of handwriting recognition comes up again and again — and many people aren’t sure what to expect.  More commonly, their expectations are unrealistic. They think there is no hope at all, ever. On the other end of the spectrum, some think that tiny fevered cursive scribblings from a rushed meeting can be scanned (or even faxed) and read with accuracy. In helping people think about their forms and the viability of capturing handwriting, I have a few simple guidelines to consider which seem to apply in a majority of cases.

  • Are handwritten forms really the only option?  If the form is available online, can the data be made “fillable” and then submitted directly to your database tables?  Can you let the user fill the form online and print, thus producing machine print and eliminating handwriting?  How about taking the data that a user entered and bar coding it (if the form must be printed rather than be submitted)?  Also helpful and sometimes overlooked:  prefilling form  data from your database through a merge process with a bar code index for retrieval of that same data.
  • Does your Capture software support ICR?  Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR) is what you need to read handwriting.  Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is much more common and is designed to read machine print.  Please don’t try to make it read handwriting – you won’t like the results!
  • Make sure the handwriting is constrained. Annoying? Perhaps. But making the person filling the form write in boxes sets you up for the most successful ICR results.  The catch phrase here could be “Curse the cursive”.  When a character is joined to another character it is faster to write.  However,  the ICR software really struggles to figure out where one character starts and another stops.  And here’s where recognition tanks.   With the real world example below, we can generally expect 100% recognition.

  • Ask for all caps handwriting. You can often tell your ICR engine to look for upper case characters only. This really

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Vetting ABBYY ‘Keen Eye’ FlexiCapture at ImageSource

First off, ABBYY means “keen eye”, an apt name for a product that dynamically and automatically captures and processes widely disparate documents.  Powerful document recognition separates and classifies docs, and state-of-the art optical character recognition rips the data from the images.  I like the motto that pops up on screen – “take the data, leave the paper”.  I love doing just that, sending paper briskly off  to start its next recycled life.  It’s the greenest thing to do, especially when compared to  filling endless cabinets and long-term off-site storage facilities.

When you want to recommend, sell, support, and solve major customer problems with ECM software at ImageSource, due diligence mandates a thorough feature review and testing.  I’ll describe some of the steps I was involved with in this process for ABBYY FlexiCapture – but mine is but a single slice of the vet team pie.  Development teams and other engineering teams performed specific examinations to answer questions about integration, APIs, and more narrow capabilities to solve unique problems faced by eager customers.  Also, ImageSource staff with a variety of titles took a week-long training course with intensive labs.  Unfortunately I missed the class but was given the opportunity to spin up for a pre-sales demo last year, which was a lot of fun.

So here’s a peek at our process:

 Laptop Install

First things first!  I like to be able to run new software on my laptop whenever possible.  This frees me from all bandwidth and location constraints.  I can easily focus on the vet effort on a plane, down by the river, wherever and whenever.  ABBYY FlexiCapture has a convenient ‘Standalone Installation’ which gives you access to all the key components on one box.

 Obtain Sample Images from Client

In this case we gathered dozens of hardcopy invoices from a large international corporation.  The images were not pretty and included originals, copies, printed faxes, you name it.

 Ascertain Server Needs

After reviewing the ABBYY documentation we set the requirements for our labs – memory per server, disk space, software required, scan station requirements, scanner requirements, and required operating systems.

 Spin Up VMs

Thanks to Mike Peterson we had three servers up in no time.

Convening the Team , Locking Down the ‘War Room’

Gene Eckhart, Jeff Doyle and I  met in our Olympia office for a week.  Gene secured the war room where we periodically met with developers, project managers, engineers, and principals.  Most of the time it was the three of us banging away. Continue reading

eForms 101 part 2

A short while ago I wrote a blog entitled eForms 101…and I’d like to continue on the theme. I mentioned some of the main advantages of eForms – that they save money, are green, fast, accurate, malleable – and thus they improve customer service.

One of the real values of eForm use is that it can be coupled with a workflow. When a paper form arrives there is lots of processing time. Routing the form electronically takes a fraction of the time it takes to physically route paper. And tracking the progress of a routed paper form is slow and can be frustrating. Think of the last time you had to call a long chain of people looking for a piece of paper any of them may or may not have — woof. Again, an eForm that has been routed electronically using a workflow is easy to check up on. No calls. Just view the progress map and you can see who’s got the ball. And parallel workflow routing offers a way to speed up routing exponentially over physical counterpart processes. If an item is stuck in a queue or inbox too long, it can trigger alerts or can be automatically routed for processing. If I am the customer who submitted information to a company, that’s how I want my info taken care of!

In terms of return on investment (ROI), labor costs are obviously reduced because it is now quicker to locate a form, get it approved, share it widely or launch it through a specialized review path, etc. But beyond this is the less tangible benefit of making employees more productive overall. And the fact that ALL the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed with alacrity and quality control contributes greatly to improved decision making.

Now some thoughts on how to get going quickly. If this is an initial foray into eForms and workflows, I suggest the paper process to be replaced is simple and well understood. Paper forms can be reproduced electronically verbatim, so filling the form will be instantly intuitive to the user. Focus on high volume forms to cost justify the endeavor. If your goal is to take a process to the extreme in automation, be sure to take a phased approach. Basic form and workflow capabilities must come first, and must work perfectly. A tool always worth mentioning to get eForms up and running fast is Texcel FormBridge. Using a per page licensing fee, this tool allows you to convert paper or TIFs, or flat PDFs into eForms for a variety of products. What’s the big deal? Well, scan in a paper form filled with fields and watch FormBridge work. It identifies automagically where the fields go, and what their titles are. The eForm looks like the input form, nicely formatted. All the text in the form is editable – including field titles. And the same is true with all those scattered myriad rows of checkboxes. They are all converted to eForm checkboxes with proper labels. From paper to LiquidOffice eForm in the blink of an eye.

After you get a chance to review the business benefits of eForms in your organization, time to ask :

  • Where is your organization right now on the paperless scale?
  • Is paper use on the rise?
  • Are services that impact customer satisfaction stalled due to cumbersome paper processes?
  • Has your existing eForm initiative lost any momentum?

ImageSource is staffed to help you, with industry veterans including: Systems Engineers, Support Engineers, Developers, Project Managers, Sales Staff, and Senior Managers.

eForms 101

I recently gave a presentation at our Nexus convention about eForms — and how they can produce real business value. Although the presentation was meant for those who have not spent much time analyzing the benefits of e-forms, some real industry heavyweights showed up. Unfortunately this was a lost opportunity because if I had more time I would’ve handed over the microphone for additional eForm paradigms and parables. Alas I had more material than time. Here’s a brief discussion of some of the topics I covered.

An eForm is of course an electronic representation of a paper form. In fact, many eForms look exactly like their paper counterpart. When a paper process goes electric, you’re not just leaving the paper behind. You are opening the door to processing times that are dramatically more expedient, and a host of other advantages.

Because of their inherent characteristics, eForms:

  • save money
    • When it can costs $20 to file a document and up to $314 per filing cabinet for the real state it consumes, you know storing paper isn’t cheap. And it can cost up to $220 to reproduce a lost document.
  • are green
    • Since the United States is the world’s largest producer and consumer paper, and for more than half of all organizations paper use is on the rise – the green choice is to reproduce paper processes electronically
  • are malleable
    • What if you just snail mailed one million requests for information and then discovered a fatal error in the text of your paper document. You can do the math here — it would be expensive to fix this, and slow. Online eForms can be changed in flash with very little effort or cost.

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ILINX Integrate Redux

ILINX Integrate has been nicely summarized by John Linehan in his December 19, 2009 blog.  I saw Shad White and John’s ILINX Integrate demonstration at last year’s Nexus and was really impressed.  Simply stated, this application allows you to take data from one application and paste it into another without modifying either application.  And to avoid confusion Integrate has also been known as ILINK AIK or Application Extender Kit.  Works for me!

Now that I have worked with the Integrate program I have come up with some tips and tricks that will allow you to get up to speed with this tool a little faster.  This document assumes you’ve at least partially perused some ILINX Integrate documentation as I’ll refer to components without describing them.

Always budget sufficient time for your project!  Not every project is right the first time.  With some testing and massaging, you’ll get there. But remember that taking your time and really testing your project will pay big dividends.  Are you cut and paste results consistent? Do you need to insert any delays?  Have you tested using different logins? Have you moved your target and source windows around in testing? Have you accessed browser-based screens from all possible user links? Have you kept your eye on the Integrate log?  Did you test from the Studio and the Client? Multiple machines? Multiple OS’s?  Multiple browsers? How about under various phases of the moon?  OK scratch the last one as it is (for sure) unnecessary.

Read the documentation! The Designer Guide PDF file is your ticket but the on-line help is also very good.  There’s a lot of functionality packed in and you may find some project shortcuts.  More likely you’ll find the solutions to problems you weren’t thinking Integrate could solve (ok this is a long-cut!).  There’s a mail task component, an FTP task, a script task, an XSLT task, a screen capture task, and many more.  This is not a steroidal snipping tool but rather a feature-rich application extension environment.

Consider starting with a simple thick client application.  I’ve used Windows calculator as a handy target application for testing.  Make your

connection, and define the screen which holds the fields you wish to work with.  It helps to already have data in the field you wish to define.  When you map the field you should see the contents of the field in the Integrate Value field. In this example the field value is ‘brian eno’.

 

Also useful is to add a dialog task.  The dialog tasks provides the ability to perform quick tests to validate that the data you are trying to grab is obtainable.  You can add an event to this task — events are task triggers, essentially.  You can configure this event as a Koolbar button – a taskbar containing buttons you configure.  When executing a project click the button to see the values you are grabbing.

And remember you can add many buttons, associated with many tasks in your project. Label your buttons well!

Is your data not pasting when it should?  Here’s the first thing to do: Continue reading

Lighten your LiquidOffice Development Load

If you are developing forms in LiquidOffice, chances are form owners have asked you to include drop lists to ensure data integrity in your backend database or repository.  And just as likely they have asked for drop list value changes AFTER the form has been published. Or sometimes there is a business need to accommodate frequent drop list value changes. In many cases it is advantageous to allow users to make the drop list value changes themselves.   One approach is to use a LiquidOffice drop list maintenance form, and restrict access to this form to the appropriate power users. Whenever the need for a change arises the maintenance form is available.

To get started, create a database to house the drop list values.  Each field in the table will correspond to a drop list on your form.  Populate these fields with the initial values the form owner has provided.

Next, create a connect agent to your database.  In LiquidOffice Management Console, highlight the Connect Agent icon then select File/ Add.  The wizard walks you through steps where you name the connect agent and the type (SQL DataBase Read/Write in my case). Select a JDBC driver and modify the JDBC URL to reflect your hostname and database name.  Provide credentials, select ‘LookUp Only’, and you are done.

When designing your form’s drop list, go into the properties to select Control type: drop list and List source: dynamic (from database).  You can then select the connect agent, table and column and you are set.  If you want the display column to be different than the storage column, click Storage Column and select another column from the drop list. An example: Display = “Arizona”,  Storage =”AZ”.   Remember you must publish the form to confirm the drop list is correctly populated.

Now create another LiquidOffice form to perform maintenance on the drop-list table.  Continue reading