Set it and forget it OCR

Sep 22

My office is a paper monster. Paper comes in and never leaves intact. The scary part is how fast this happens. Paper in hand, review its contents and asses its value, scan it, shred it. Usually within minuets of its existence. The value of set it and forget it OCR is tremendous, but you have to be comfortable.

Set it and forget it OCR is where you take your OCR product and configure it to automatically process any images that appear in a certain folder. For my office, I scan to an “input” folder and all the resulting compressed and OCR’ed PDF files end up in the “File Cabinet” folder. My strategy will not work for the timid because basically I’m relying solely on the power of OCR text and search to retrieve documents when I need them. Most would rather configure their ADF scanner to have a setting or folder for each particular class of documents. Most document scanners anymore have as few as 9 and as many as 99 destinations you can program. You can set each destination as its own input folder with its own OCR settings with its own output folder.

I know I can do this because I know what settings it takes to get the quality of OCR I would need to at least have one or more usable keyword on the document for search.  And after-all, I’m an expert in OCR so to not use it everyday would be crazy in its own right. I’ve yet to be proven wrong, my “File Cabinet” abyss has always given me the information I need at the time I asked for it and sometimes even new information I did not realize I had.

Now for you records management folks shaking your head, I understand your complaint. It should not be about my approach but should be about what I do with the final paper product. For those items that are for legal or business reasons that are deemed as a record by your taxonomy, they should be filed as such, perhaps scanned again as a record, and for heavens sake if you are not supposed to, don’t destroy it!

The purpose of my madness is to touch paper as little as possible, and get information only when I need it. I am an extremist, but I assure you there is serious value, and a little fun in the set it and forget it OCR technique.

Chris Riley – About

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There is OCR and then there is Formatting

Jul 26

What is the greatest difference between the most accurate Optical Character Recognition ( OCR ) products and the least? It might not be what you think. The greatest improvements in OCR in the last 10 years has not been so much on character level recognition, it’s been more about how the engine’s understand the structure of documents. This is called document analysis. Theoretically, if you were to compare two engines that had identical character recognition, but engine A had document analysis and engine B did not, engine A would win.

Document analysis is first how the engine breaks apart components of a document such as paragraphs, lines, columns, graphics, etc. Without this, the engine is OCRing blind, and its assumption is that every object it encounters is text. This sometimes leads to clumping of lines, or OCR of graphics. The second aspect of document analysis is the delivery of formatting in the export that matches the formatting in the document. This can also include font style and color.

With traditional documents you can expect that products with document analysis will get the formatting spot on. This is very important, not only for editing and re-purposing, but also for keeping the readability of a document. Another aspect of document analysis is to determine reading order. For example if you have a multi-column, multi-paragraph page, the software has to decide in what order the paragraphs are read. This is useful during recognition, but also in case a formatted document is converted to a more flat file structure such as TXT file where the order stands a chance of being confused.

The reality is that for clean documents character level recognition is not getting any better, it’s amazingly accurate today. The opportunity to improve is in document analysis and language morphology, but that is another post.

Chris Riley – About

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Dropout, all or none

Jan 20

Color or Greyscale dropout is a great tool for increasing accuracy of extracting data from forms. But a bad dropout is far worse than no dropout. Partially dropped out forms have the ability to confuse data capture technology. These forms are commonly called “Zebra” forms where portions of the form have dropout, performed correctly and other portions have the fields now outlined in black. If you have control of the scanning and this is the situation, you are better to turn off dropout, or improve it’s use.

It used to be the only way to dropout a form was to use scanner driven dropout. This approach was limited in colors that could be removed. Essentially what would happen is the scanner would be equipped with lamps of red usually. During scanning, the lamp would be turned on thus canceling out the red in the form. Because of this, it was important that printed forms used a certain type of red. If you have ever had experience with color matching you know it’s quite frustrating. Especially because the colors you see on the screen are not usually what is printed. Things have improved, now even scanners are using software dropout, where images initially arrive as color and algorithms then remove pixels of a certain color range from the document. This has created the added benefit with some scanners and software packages of being able to dropout any color, and multiple colors at a time. There are even some packages out there where you can drop out things like colored lines.

When dropout with any technology becomes difficult, it is when there are gradations on the form because of bad printing, color wear, sun or other damage. Because the software is looking for consistency with any dropout, it will avoid colors that don’t match the norm. This is often seen when the first half of a form is dropped out and not the second because of a color change mid document. There are tools that allow you to specify a threshold that can assist with this. This can be a very low threshold when dealing with documents where it’s one color and black text, but more complex documents with a low threshold can lose important data.

The biggest key to proper dropout assuming good form printing is to scan the document as quickly as possible, removing time for damage to possibly take place. Dropout is a great tool, but if you find that forms are partially dropped out, it is better for data capture accuracy that dropout is turned off and deal with the black and white form than to include it.

Chris Riley – About

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Path to simple yet robust document routing

Dec 30

When it comes to the input path that documents follow, for many it’s as simple as scan, convert, save, but others require more complex work-flows. The good news is there are tools out there to perform even the most advanced work-flows you could imagine. The bad news, they are expensive. I’m here to tell you about a way of combining your scanner and data capture, OCR, and document conversion software to make more complex work-flows without the premium.

By using settings that come with most document scanners and the ability of most data capture, OCR, and document conversion products to utilize hot-folders ( watch folders ) you can create robust multi-step work-flows out of the box. What you need is a scanner that supports multiple destinations usually 9 or more. This is indicated by an LED on your document scanner which at the point of a batch scan allows you to pick a destination number. Second you will need all the software required to perform the conversions needed for final result. In our example we will want to be able to OCR, data capture, compress and archive.

Basically the task is to create a funnel for your documents and the end result is saved where you want final destination to be. If your scanner supports what is called duel-stream then you can be working with two funnels simultaneously making your work-flow all the more robust. The first part of the funnel is identifying the document type. Each of the 9 destinations on your scanner should be configured for one document type ( you may want it to be one destination per business process instead ). The configuration would include the scan settings, 300 DPI of course, and what folder the document will go in. This is just the staging folder for the next step. Lets assume that we setup destination 1 for invoices and our scanner supports duel-stream. We want the invoices when it’s all said and done to have one copy to saved in a search-able directory, where the file is both compressed and in PDF/A format. Then we want another copy of the same invoice to be data captured and put in a working directory for someone to review. Lets put it all together.

Destination one on the scanner is configured for invoices. The first copy of any invoice will be saved to a hot-folder that the PDF conversion utility is watching, the second copy will be scanned into a hot-folder that the data capture product is watching. Because these are hot folders, both copies are picked up instantly and processed by each application. Our requirement for the second copy was only to be data captured and exported to a working directory, so we have now completed it’s task. For the first copy we have more conversions to do. The PDF conversion utility saves the OCRed search-able PDF to a hot-folder for the compression utility, the compression utility compresses the PDF and saves it to a hot-folder for the archive utility, and FINALLY the archive utility saves the result in our final destination for all invoices. Below is a basic diagram of the work-flow we created for invoices ( destination 1 )

Scan >PDF Creation >Compression >Archive >Final Result
> Data Capture >Final Result

Although it may have been slightly difficult to read, hopefully it’s clear that above is just one work-flow getting the most out of the tools offered by both the document scanner and conversion software packages. Now you can proceed to program each other destination with different document types and their associated work-flows. Programmers and tech savvy individuals will be able to easily envision ways to add scripts to make the process even more robust with email notifications etc. This approach is not a replacement for advanced work-flows but a middle ground between no work-flow and very pricey work-flows.

Chris Riley – About

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Down and dirty paperless office

Jul 28

In my office, paper comes in, is reviewed for value, gets scanned, and shredded or filed. I have setup a system that allows me to very efficiently scan documents to my “digital file cabinet”. Here is a quick guide on how I do it!

What you will need:

  1. An unused computer attached to your network

  2. Google Desktop Search with network browsing enabled

  3. A document scanner

  4. A server based automatic OCR product

  5. A file compression product ( optional but recommended )

Now to put it all together. How I have my system setup is an inexpensive desktop computer with Windows XP installed. Once all the applications are installed you don’t even need a monitor attached to this computer. The computer is visible on the network and has one folder shared the “File Cabinet” folder in my case. This computer is my stand alone digital file cabinet. Attached to it is a document scanner with a 30 page feeder. I have the scanner configured to scan to an “input” directory on the machine.

The automatic OCR processing product is configured to pick up images as soon as they arrive in the input folder “hot folder”, OCR them using specific index level OCR settings, and create a PDF with a hidden search-able layer. The resulting PDF is put into another hot folder that the PDF compression tool is watching. As soon as a PDF arrives in this folder it is instantly compressed and the compressed PDF is moved to the “File Cabinet Folder”.

Because Google desktop search is enabled to index all files in the “File Cabinet” folder the PDFs very quickly become a part of the index. Configure your Google desktop search to enable network searches so that any machine on the network can open a browser, go to a URL located on the digital file cabinet machine and be located with a search.

Once it’s setup it’s simply a matter of putting paper in the scanner and pressing the scan button, and you’re done. It’s that easy, and extremely useful!

Chris Riley – About

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Why OCR is for everyone

Jul 07

You may come to this site looking for OCR software, PDF Compression tools, or maybe it was a StumbleUpon. Maybe a friend said they used OCR and loved it, and you just had to Google it to find out what IT was. Unfortunately tech industries have the habit of making great technology visible to only those who know the acronyms and have a good idea of the benefits it can provide. Everyone can benefit from Optical Character Recognition. So lets break the barrier.

What is most important about the technology is not how it works, but the result it produces. Sometimes when people who are unfamiliar with scanners see the slew of document scanners I have they ask “why do you have so many printers”. Barrier one scanning. To OCR documents they need to come via email or some digital transfer as images, or more likely they are paper that needs to be scanned. We all get mail, some mail is junk some is useful. We all also have paper documents sitting around and in cabinets we need to keep for a rainy day. At the same time we annually increase the use of our computers and are creating many files on them. So at the very least, wouldn’t it be nice to take the useful mail, and other useful documents you have around: mortgage documents, nice letters, business cards, etc., and get them with all your other digital files? To do so you scan them, hopefully using a document scanner as it’s more efficient than a flatbed. Consumers are very used to the idea of scanning photos, scanning documents is no different except for the fact that you have more. A document scanner, not a printer but looks like one, allows you to batch documents and scan them to a folder on your computer without doing it one-by-one one side at a time like a flatbed scanner. . Now that you are scanning you have an image representation on your computer of your files right by all the other digital files you have. Now what? Now it’s time to get the data out and make them just as useful as all your other files.

Barrier number two OCR. It’s an acronym that stands for Optical Character Recognition, this does not tell you much, so forget about it and use it only to reference the process. Simply it’s just a helpful technology that gets text from images and converts them into a format you can use. OCR converts the image into usable text, so you can search for that nice letter, or you can edit that party invite and print it again. The result can be PDF, DOC, TEXT pretty much any format you can imagine.

Now coming full circle that good mail, and useful documents you have are not sitting somewhere cluttering up desks and drawers, they are with all your other files on your computer ready to use. OCR is useful to everyone, you just have to clear your mind of the techie talk and understand it’s value.

Chris Riley – About

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You can read the fine-print

Apr 28

As fonts get smaller the challenge to read them with OCR software increases, however there are some key things that organizations should be aware of when reading the fine-print.

OCR technology today is capable of reading fonts as small as 8 pt or even 6 pt very accurately. It used to be the case that unless you have a 12 pt font you stood no chance. Because of increased quality of scans and more advanced OCR engines, reading small fonts will not be a problem if the right approaches are used.

Small fonts have a higher sensitivity to image quality and degradation to the document. For this reason, original source images that are scanned at 300 DPI or higher are necessary. For normal fonts there is seldom reason to scan higher than 300 DPI but for small fonts the goal is to get them to appear more or less the same as the regular fonts, so scanning them at 400 to 600 DPI is useful. Additionally documents that are “clean” are very important. A smudge or spill on a document impacts smaller fonts many times more then a larger font because of the closeness of lines. Once you have a good image quality you can start the conversion.

The next best benefit for small fonts is for them to be zoned separately. Zoning is the process of rubber banding the region where the text exists. When small fonts are grouped in the same zone with normal sized fonts the OCR software assumes that they should be of the same size and the confidence and accuracy go down. If you zone the small fonts separately you increase the OCR engines ability to use experts just for small fonts and increase the accuracy on them.

Next time someone tells you to read the small print, tell them you wont read it, you will scan and OCR it.

Chris Riley – About

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The Magic of 300DPI

Apr 21

Many users of OCR don’t realize what the impact of resolution and bit-depth is or even what they are. Usually in the case of OCR, more is better. More resolution, more bit-depth. It’s more information the OCR engine can use to interpret text. But as with many things, there is a point of diminishing returns and when relating to image resolution, diminishing returns are very interesting.

You will hear a lot that 300 DPI is the best resolution to scan an image for OCR. But why? 300 DPI is that magic number where you gain the most accuracy without sacrificing speed and file size. If you were to put the resolutions on a progressive line starting with 96 DPI and run test of both OCR accuracy, scanning speed, OCR speed, and file size. You will notice something very interesting, the improvement gap between 200 DPI scan and 300 DPI scan will be at least 2 times the improvement gap of any other resolutions. Now if you look at the same line between 300 DPI and 400 DPI the improvement gap is nearly absent, but still there. This simple study is the reason 300 DPI is the ideal resolution for OCR scanning. Now lets look at why.

There is one major reason that 300 DPI is optimal besides the fact that it has a reasonable scan speed and reasonable file size, but the biggest reason is the Engine cores were all initially trained on this resolution. Some engines, no matter what resolution you give it will actually sample up or down to get to 300 DPI. The image pre-processing/cleanup engines are similarly setup.

There are always exceptions, and the area of exceptions are usually in hand-printed forms ( ICR ), or documents with small print.

The beauty of the 300 DPI as to why it is best practiced is that it’s one of the few things in the area of OCR and Data Capture that is consistent through document type. You have been told to use 300 DPI and now you know reason behind it.

Chris Riley – About

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It’s not that you don’t want to, it’s that you can’t

Mar 03

Many of us tech heads are quick to give you an answer to your technical needs and propose a solution even if you did not ask. I’m no different, if you tell me you want your documents digital I will explain OCR to you and then explain the best solution for your document types. To my dismay, if you work for a large company your response will likely be, “but I’m not allowed to install anything.”

It’s very common for large organizations to lock down their employees’ computers to the point it becomes more of an appliance than a computer. This lock down makes perfect sense especially considering the amount of personal and private information these organizations encounter. The lock down however makes it very difficult for a technical operator to increase their efficiency with new technology. While the offer stands to approach an IT department with requests for new technology, the reality as we know is very small, especially with the current situation of shrinking IT departments.

Most recently I was in a conversation with someone working for a bank. She had stacks of business cards that needed to be digitized and of course being the tech head that I am, I got excited and explained about business card reading ( BCR ), and that perhaps it would be easier to get a document scanner that could scan the business cards and everything else. But to no avail, she could not install the software.

The real hurdle with the computer lock downs is not so much hardware installations. This can be overcome with a simple request. It’s the approval of new software that requires many months of review and approvals. Because OCR is a software driven process, this complicates things. Eventually, I hope that document automation becomes a part of the standard build for end-users machines. Until then, the solution is a scanner and an OCR service either web based or on an intranet.

If an organization can deploy centrally an OCR server that users send documents to and receive results from, they will eliminate the risk of installed software. Alternatively, an end-user with an attached scanner can leverage the OCR web based services that exist, either via FTP or E-Mail upload documents and receive results.

I hope soon we all have OCR as a standard so we can start removing the reliance on troublesome paper, but until then, the OCR services exist to get the job done, and may sometimes be the preference.

Chris Riley – About

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File size, get over it – When to consider file size, when not

Feb 17

There are times when an organization’s focus actually stabs them in the back. When it comes to Data Capture, file size is one of these common focuses. The most common mistake companies are making is not the concern of file size, but when they are concerned about it. Many companies will investigate heavily the size of a file at input. Tweaking and tuning to get a smaller input file to their data capture solution, and in their mind final storage. But at what cost? Companies often overlook that file size can be changed at any point, and the best point is not input, but after Data Capture has been run.

When you assign anyone a task, or teach anyone anything, you expect to give them the proper tools to get the job done as best they can. If they are missing some tools, you can expect quality to go down. Data Capture is the same way. Scanning at 150 Dpi vs. 300 Dpi, Scanning at Black and White vs. Grey-scale or Color, are limiting the tools of Data Capture. Yes they all dramatically reduce the file size, but also your quality. Give your Data Capture the best chance at success, then worry about file size.

The proper way to address file size is at the point just before it’s stored into a file system or content management system. At this point you can down sample, reduce bit depth, or even better to keep the re-purposing integrity, use reliable compression technology to get the job done. I say compression is best as it’s the most true to the input image and anytime you consider printing or re-purposing or even another pass in data capture, this will be very important.

So, while file size is important, delay the concern until after OCR or Data Capture is done.

Chris Riley – About

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