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When Analog Outpaces Digital: New Perspectives On Preserving Documents

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A mounting dilemma for the insurance industry is the long-term preservation of digital information, whether source documents (i.e., paper-based applications and claims that have been scanned) or e-mail correspondence.

The growth of electronic communications based on pictorial content, commonly referred to as infoimaging, adds another layer of digital documents. Unlike the general consumer world, where seven years is often considered a “lifetime,” underwriters are well aware that their records must be accessible, unaltered, and able to be comprehended 50 to 100 years from now.

Some companies are hoping to address the digital preservation dilemma in one of two ways: either maintaining older software and hardware systems, or migrating their data to new formats every few years. Unfortunately, both solutions have serious shortcomings.

Digital systems provide an excellent means to quickly create and widely communicate information, but digital file formats and media are not optimal for long-term, multi-general preservation. For instance, todays CDs, DVDs, and optical jukeboxes are valid for file back-ups and short-term storage, but they may become obsoleteeven forgottenin a very short time as new storage media types and specifications are developed. Likewise, file formats experience the same dilemma, since todays “standard” for any application will certainly shift or disappear within a decade.

Simply stated, data is only as permanent as the hardware and software that give it life. As recent technological evolution has shown, there is little assurance that todays information will retain any more value than a 1989 VisiCalc file stored on an eight-inch floppy disk. And thats just the first strike against attempting to preserve information in digital formats.

A second challenge to digital-only storage is to migrate data to the latest media and software versions on a two-to-three-year cycle. Imagine having to open and resave thousands of documents created in Microsoft Word every few years when new, non-backward-compatible versions are released. Or picture, in 20 years, trying to find a device that reads one of todays DVDs. (Try finding easy access to an eight-track tape deck, the top format for new music releases just two decades ago.)

Not only does this require a significant monetary investment for each conversion, but also constant human attention and personnel training. Consider that digital migration requires your staff to have: knowledge of the old formats as well the new (for every document type); the ability to analyze and recommend the best new formats; the time to implement and test migration pilot programs, and the capacity to develop and continually refine migration processes.

Moreover, during each conversion, the file is susceptible to corruption. Formatting can shift, and in many cases, data drops out bit-by-bit over time. This can result from machine, software or human error, leading to strange renderings of your documents from which the original information cant be recovered.

One promising solution is the use of an integrated archival approach. This involves using digital and analog systems together to gain the benefits of both. Digital allows information to be kept accessible and sharable. Analog provides insurers with the ability to keep digital documents and files available for decades upon decades, transcending technological advances without concern for alteration or loss of readability.

With its value already proven by large corporations across the globe, this infrastructure shift permits digital files to be automatically captured and placed as images on archival film. This bestows 500-year shelf life, cost-effective storage, inalterability, and protection against technology obsolescencethe ability to read the document with the human eye.

Many companies immediately recognize another differencea one-time event and a one-time expense. This frees budget for application against revenue-generating, forward-looking activities.

But what about access? Microfilm conjures up images of large viewers with fuzzy, scratched film that we encountered as kids in the local library. And heaven knows that it was tough to find what you were looking for.

Fast-forward to todays business environment, where new systems rely on rolls of specially formulated film, protected from the environment within their own cases. When access to a document is required, the portion of the film containing that information can be automatically found and digitized by a new breed of film scanners within a few seconds. The resulting image can then be pulled up on a workstation or e-mailed to others requiring the information, while the original remains unaltered in its film-based state.

For example, an insurer might elect to implement such a system by converting from a camera-based microfilm capture procedure. Thousands of pages of documents could be received and digitized each month, with the images being immediately written to film through an automated process. To accommodate the short-term access needs of managers and agents, the files might remain in a digital format for six months. After that time, the digital records could be destroyed, while the microfilm remained intact.

To better handle the many requests per day for archived information, the company in our example could incorporate a film scanning system that can rapidly find and digitize microfilmed images for distribution and display on PC workstations. After the data requisition is received and processed by the company mainframe, an employee would just load the required film package into the film scanner and verify that the correct images were located.

The results would include decreased costs, higher reliability, improved access to records, and increased efficiency throughout the organization.

The insurance industry provides peace of mind to millions of individuals and businesses each year, with customers trusting the availability and integrity of their account documentation to agents scattered around the globe. Only by implementing digital preservation systems can organizations assure that todays information will exist years from now when its most needed. Thats a policy definitely worth writing.

H. Andrew Lawrence is Worldwide Marketing Manager, Imagelink Products, Eastman Kodak Company, Document Imaging Division, Rochester, N.Y.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, June 4, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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