Pen and paper tackles data capture

IT directors have deployed laptops, PDAs and even tablet PCs to provide end-users with the ability to input data when they are out of the office, but there is another option.

IT directors have deployed laptops, PDAs and even tablet PCs to provide end-users with the ability to input data when they are out of the office, but there is another option.

A digital pen works like a normal pen, but has a built-in sensor that captures and digitises handwriting while the user writes. Some versions work on ordinary paper, while some require paper printed with tiny patterns so future changes can be associated with the correct form.

One example of the latter approach is from digital pen specialist Anoto. Its digital pen, which is also a ballpoint pen, contains a digital camera, an image processing system and a wireless Bluetooth connection to link to a mobile phone.

The paper the user writes on has a special dot pattern, invisible to the eye, that is either pre-printed or printed on a laser printer. According to Anoto the displacement of the dots, 0.1mm in size, can be used to tell the pen the exact location on the page - such as which box on a paper form is being completed.

The tiny camera registers the pen's movement across the grid surface on the paper and stores it as a series of map coordinates. These convert into an image of the handwriting script and can be sent to and displayed on a computer.

So how does this technology work in practice? Handwriting notes with pen and paper have helped debt collection firm Equita speed up and clean up data capture to achieve a £100,000 cost saving.

The company implemented digital pens for on-the-hoof data collection by bailiffs. IT manager Daniel Grant-Brown, said, "I knew Windows Mobile 5.0 was coming out later in the year and was looking for mobile solutions."

But he also knew that handheld devices had not worked well in the past for Equita. "In the pre-wireless days bailiffs downloaded a week's work onto their Casio from an analog line, and then uploaded their casework at the end of the week.

We discovered that they were not inputting anything directly onto their Casio, but inputting handwritten notes at the end of the day," he said.

Anything that deviated from the routine had not been readily embraced by the bailiffs in the past, so the idea of effectively generating a barcode that could be sent in real-time and integrated into the company's back office case system had immediate appeal.

"With the digital pen we are not adding or subtracting anything from the norm - bailiffs still have their pen, paper and mobile phone."

The one piece that needed customising was the design of the digital paper template. It is in A4 format with a maximum number of tick boxes and a couple of free prose sections where all the options are not covered.

Three iterations were necessary - all tweaks to wording rather than technology - and it was ready.

The kit itself is inexpensive - the pens cost £135 each and the forms cost £35,000 per million. The other piece of spend is the file conversion which is performed by Destiny Wireless.

The barcode image is sent via bluetooth as a .pcg file to the supplier, who in turn converts it into XML and sends it to Equita's FTP server. An auto processor updates the in-house case system with the received files.

A major objective was to reduce the number of bailiffs and data in-putters, but the system has had a more radical impact. "Fundamentally it has delivered cleaner data and this means unwanted visits and incorrect details have been massively reduced," said Grant-Brown.

A big leap to 95% accuracy of bailiff data has been achieved, compared with the 25% accuracy previously recorded. "Handwritten notes are inherently error-prone," said Grant-Brown.

A further stage, currently in pilot, will see bailiffs use digital pens and paper to capture a cheque counterfoil of the money banked at the end of each day.

Clients, including London boroughs, can view the cleaner, more transparent data capture too. ­Token-secured web access to the management stats means they can view debt collection in real time and detail - down to the image of a debtor's case notes if they so wish.

Gartner recommends users consider digital pens in applications where there is value in simultaneously capturing a digital and handwritten copy of data.

"In many cases, the attraction is in the "low tech" feel of the technology, where writing with a pen on paper is more acceptable than using a handheld device," Gartner said.

However, in most cases, Gartner sees digital pens as a stopgap that will ultimately be replaced with handwriting recognition on tablet PCs or other mobile devices.

Jackie Fenn, an analyst at Gartner, expected digital pens to be used in specialist application areas. She said, "I expect the tablet PC will become a very common device and will be much more useful than the digital pen."

Read about Tablet PC systems

Vote for your IT greats

Who have been the most influential people in IT in the past 40 years? The greatest organisations? The best hardware and software technologies? As part of Computer Weekly’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we are asking our readers who and what has really made a difference?

Vote now at:

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)