E-FOIA expected to spur agency demand for systems

A new law requiring agencies to make documents available to the public in electronic form is likely to cement demand for systems to automate processing of Freedom of Information Act requests according to vendors.

The Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996 (E-FOIA) require agencies to provide documents in electronic form when asked. In addition the measure demands that agencies offer digital versions of frequently requested materials and aims to expedite FOIA queries.

Agencies already are turning to a variety of technologies including imaging document management text retrieval software and the Internet to speed public disclosure of once-classified papers as well as other unpublished materials. E-FOIA validates these approaches suggested Brad Osborne director of the Imaging Division with federal reseller BTG Inc. Vienna Va.

"I think the representatives of the government are saying we need to do it because we have the capabilities to do it " Osborne said.

Over the past few years BTG and other vendors have packaged systems designed to help agencies declassify millions of pages of Cold War documents. Agencies that are using or planning such systems include the Defense Department intelligence agencies and the Energy Department.

Responding to FOIA requests involves similar processes and agencies can apply the same technologies. The State Department automated its FOIA process a few years ago while the FBI has been planning such a system to cope with its huge backlog of information requests.

While the features of these systems vary they generally include scanners to capture the content of paper documents databases to store them text retrieval software to index them and electronic annotation and redaction functions so agencies can block out portions they do not want to release. Tom Reinhardt national account manager for criminal justice information systems with Litton/PRC Inc. which developed a prototype FOIA system for the FBI said a system for handling documents that originate in electronic form "might have some different nuances."

Strong Demand

Imaging tools vendor Imagination Software Inc. Silver Spring Md. believes the demand for such products is so strong that it chose to introduce a desktop FOIA application as its first end-user product offering last month. "The requirement for FOIA-based documents has increased tenfold in the last couple of years " said Louis Jurgens vice president of Imagination. "The requirement to make documents available electronically has increased another tenfold."

According to Gil Van Schoor a marketing executive with Eastman Kodak Co. the digital publishing requirements of E-FOIA also could boost the use of CD-ROM authoring tools by agencies particularly those that are dealing with requests that involve thousands of pages of documents. In addition he said agencies may want to publish the results of smaller requests on the World Wide Web.

Mark Mandel vice president of operations with Intrafed Inc. which is providing image capture technology to the Army for declassification of Persian Gulf War documents wondered whether imaging technology might be able to help agencies meet the E-FOIA requirement to provide electronic versions of documents to requesters. "They [lawmakers] are probably thinking about the data format [as] WordPerfect or PowerPoint and probably didn't consider images as electronic form " he said. "That's kind of a new wrinkle " he added though it would require users to be able to view the images.

The law might be interpreted this way said Steven Aftergood who runs a project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. But he added "I think we may be at or past the last generation of predominantly paper products and more and more we're going to be seeing electronic-only versions."

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