Vendors demonstrate electronic solutions to FOIA requests

Urging federal Freedom of Information Act specialists to trade thick black markers and Exacto knives for technology four companies last week demonstrated solutions designed to ready the government for a Sept. 30 deadline by which agencies must respond electronically to some FOIA requests.

BTG Inc. Imagination Software Inc. Excalibur Technologies Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. together offered federal users a glimpse of their FOIA solutions at a seminar held recently at Highway 1 a nonprofit organization chartered to educate government on the use of technology. The companies offer technology tailored to FOIA applications under the National Institutes of Health's ImageWorld pact the General Services Administration schedule and other agencywide vehicles.

The fall deadline imposed under the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA) Amendments of 1996 has caused federal agencies to regularly search government contracting vehicles for FOIA solutions vendors said.

For example NIH representatives reportedly receive numerous calls regarding solutions offered under the agency's ImageWorld contract according to Brad Osborne vice president of BTG's Applied Solutions Division. Osborne characterized FOIA automation as a subset of general government imaging solutions. "BTG has been in the business of building document imaging and management solutions so we've taken our best-of-breed [commercial off-the-shelf] products and looked at developing applications templates" necessary in the new FOIA market he said. "We've pre-engineered modules that allow users to capture and archive documents while adding client-based applications like those necessary for redaction." Redaction is a staple of FOIA activity. Before government documents can be sent out to people requesting information they must be marked up - that is manually blacked out or in the case of classified documents carved out with some derivative of the Exacto knife. The other favored tool in the FOIA trade has been the photocopier because personnel must often make numerous copies of a redacted document before it is suitable for mailing to the requesting party. Solutions such as those featured at Highway 1 however address all the shortcomings in the manual-editing scenario. BTG has woven together offerings such as a full range of Kodak scanners archiving and retrieval software from Excalibur and Imagination's FOIA software which provides capabilities necessary for FOIA redaction and other FOIA-specific tasks. "To my knowledge this is the first time somebody has had integration or talked about integration in FOIA applications " said Eugene Jackson a program manager at Kodak. "A lot of times you get people who talk about specific software or manufacturers talking about technology but they are not necessarily talking about the problem " he said. Kodak is providing solutions aimed at the scanning problems inherent in the FOIA process.

Government disclosure requires a lot of paper but scanning needs vary with the size of individual FOIA staffs. "The scanner we showed was our Imagelink 500 scanner and that is for the customer looking to get 100 to 150 pages per minute. What we try to do is to offer a variety of solutions and let customers decide which one they want " Jackson said. Excalibur meanwhile is providing its adaptive pattern recognition processing products as part of the BTG-integrated FOIA solution.

"Unless an agency has a really smart librarian who can index every word in every document " that agency is going to face a challenge in finding every document included in a FOIA request said Dan Agan vice president of worldwide marketing at Excalibur.

Vendors such as Excalibur therefore are urging agencies to take the EFOIA mandate as an opportunity to overhaul entire document management systems. The Army did just that in its Persian Gulf War Declassification Project in which agency officials used Excalibur's Electronic Filing System to provide a "fuzzy search" capability. "Our products overcome one of the most significant problems involved in converting paper and that is that scanning often turns paper into garbage " Agan said. "[Adaptive pattern recognition processing] overcomes dirty data from scanning. Instead of trying to match ASCII text the software looks at the underlying binary patterns " he said. Imagination is contributing its IMAGinE-FOIA software which "electronically imitates the actual work process agencies use to complete FOIA requests manually " according to the company.

Frank Colletta Imagination's director of government sales said the company's software allows users to highlight areas on documents to be redacted. That can be done by a common block highlight or by polygon he said. The highlighted area is accompanied by a drop-down list of FOIA exemptions of which there are nine including national security personal privacy and other categories. Because FOIA offices have to clear FOIA requests through agency legal offices highlighting rather than blacking out redactions is preferable Colletta continued. "Before legal had to have the original so they could see what is behind the black mark " he said. Imagination also has included electronic pop-up notes to be used for correspondence between agency FOIA and legal offices which can be done through e-mail. Colletta predicted that EFOIA eventually will drive imaging solutions among FOIA offices but for now some offices face a tough sell. "Our product is $3 600 so if a person goes into a procurement office and says they want to replace a marker with $3 600 software they meet resistance " he said. "Even though the law has mandated they do so they have to overcome that resistance."

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