Brian Limotti, project manager for the state of Washingtons Department of Transportation, found his agency under the gun in 2001. In the 1990s, traffic safety officials in Washington had embarked on an ambitious program to modernize the analysis of accident-report data. They had ended up pretty far off course.
The State Patrol (Washingtons name for its state police) then spent four years trying to implement OCR (optical character recognition) technology so it could automatically scan troopers written accident reports into a database.
Alas, OCR wasnt ready for prime time, and by 2000, the project was considered a boondoggle. Worse, state accident data fell years out of date, risking the loss of precious federal highway funds.
“If a state is habitually behind schedule, the federal government tends not to view it very favorably,” Limotti said. “Washington had been living on borrowed time here.”
In 2001, Limottis agency was charged with fixing the mess. The legislature appropriated $1 million for the project; in exchange, it wanted a system that would make all accident reports available to the public within two weeks of a trooper submitting them and data from those reports compiled into DOT databases within three months.
It took three years, but along the way the DOT discovered a vital truth: Sometimes a little manual entry can save a lot of automation cost.
To tackle the problem, the DOT turned to ImageSource Inc., a systems integrator based in Olympia, not far from Limotti and other state officials. The two sides conferred for six weeks at the end of 2002, studying DOT workflow patterns and reviewing the projects past wrong turns. “On a frustration scale of 1 to 10,” said Limotti, “the previous OCR system was a 20.”
Shadrach White, chief technology officer at ImageSource, said the biggest mistake made by state officials was to assume that OCR technology would abolish the need for manual entry of report information. In reality, OCR failed to record data on the handwritten reports (sometimes missing whole pages) so often that the State Patrol had to hire more staff to make corrections.
“Clients in those days thought you took a big stack of paper, threw it in the scanner and the software does the work for you,” White said. “Even today that wouldnt work.”
Washington generates approximately 150,000 accident reports annually, Limotti said. State troopers, county police and city police all use the same basic form, which has 120 data fields for victim names, car type, road location, weather and more.
With that many data points to track, ImageSource turned to Kofax Image Products Inc., a maker of imaging and data-capture applications based in Irvine, Calif., and carefully mapped out what data should be entered manually to avoid making mistakes from the beginning. The thinking, White said, was simply to cut OCR and its risky consequences out of the data-recording process so workflow software could route reports with less delay.
“That was the linchpin. As soon as we got them away from correcting OCR errors and directly keying in information, productivity skyrocketed,” White said.
The Project Begins Anew
The project began anew in March 2003. ImageSource spent much of its time scrutinizing exactly what the DOT wanted to achieve to ensure that the data fields manually entered at the start of the report processing delivered the right indexing information for back-end databases that analyzed the processed reports. Again, the concern was to not repeat past problems.
“We couldnt just rush in and get scanners installed, Kofax installed and start scanning,” White said. “We needed to make sure the Kofax applications would be architected in a way that would support everything wed be doing down the road.”
The way the system works now, when an accident happens, state troopers write up an accident report the same way they always have. (Citizens can also submit a report to give their version of events but rarely do, Limotti said.)
At the end of their shift, the troopers submit the report to State Patrol administrators, who ensure that the document is complete and legible. Clerks then collate the reports into batches, such as for fatal accidents or single-car crashes, and label each batch with a cover letter.
Kofax software now enters the picture. Report batches are scanned by Böwe Bell + Howell LLC machines, which are managed by Kofaxs Ascent Capture 6.0. The images are then cleaned up by Kofaxs VRS (VirtualReScan)—”a great tool for us,” Limotti said. VRS adjusts any oddly skewed images as well as stray ink marks, coffee stains or other debris on a report. Cleaner images also mean smaller images and less memory to store them.
Once a batch of reports is imaged, State Patrol clerical workers index the batch by hand to ensure accuracy. They record 10 to 12 fields, such as driver name, date of collision and location.
Workflow software from Stellent Inc. then sends each batch of images in two directions. One copy goes to a storage database, where the public can inspect reports for insurance claims or similar matters; another goes to the DOT for analysis. “That was one of the key factors in the design, that it had to be available to the public immediately,” White said. “At the state level, they want the data. If Im John Q. Public, all I get is a printed or electronic picture of the actual report.”
Limotti said he is delighted with the results. Accident reports are now typically processed and available to the public within three days rather than three weeks. The DOTs accident data is only a few months old and can be sorted by county to help local officials in Washingtons 39 counties gauge their own transportation needs.
The implementation itself went “fairly smoothly,” Limotti said. ImageSource installed the system from March through June of 2003. The workload was heavy that year because the DOT converted several years of old State Patrol records from microfilm to electronic images, but by early last year, the state had moved to a fully digital system.
Limotti measures the new systems return on investment in terms of better-quality information rather than on man-hours saved. He said hed much rather have staffers spending time analyzing new data than re-entering old data because of errors or routing problems. Still, “its been difficult to quantify,” he said.
Will the state ever move to an all-digital process, complete with troopers filing reports electronically from the accident scene? “Down the road, thats something theyll look at,” said White. For now, however, a little manual entry still saves the day.
Matt Kelly is a free-lance writer in Somerville, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected].
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