Source: Sherman Publications

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Resident helps local government go paperless

by CJ Carnacchio

October 17, 2012

Most folks who visit the Oxford Township office complex at 300 Dunlap Rd. probably won't see Glenn McCaw as he quietly works away in the basement day in and day out.

But when his job is finally complete, they'll definitely know his work because the process of storing, finding, sending and receiving township records will be quicker, easier and much more efficient.

McCaw, who owns the Holland-based Alcogare, is being paid up to $30,900 to scan tons of paper records and turn them into high-resolution digital files. He started in August and estimates he'll be done in December.

"This will be a benefit to the community," he said. "Being able to access a million records with a click they're going to see their money's worth in a month. It will almost be immediate."

McCaw is currently in the process of scanning all of the building department's paper files.

"All municipalities are required to keep the records of a building pretty much for the life of the building," he said.

He estimated there's close to 1 million documents for the building department alone contained in somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 files, which are stored in metal cabinets that take up an entire room in the township's basement.

"It's a big project. It's not for the faint of heart," McCaw said. "But once you save it and you never have to worry about it again."

"Everything from soup to nuts" is being scanned including building permits, site plans, blueprints, inspection checklists, memos, etc.

"Even the smallest things like telephone messages," McCaw said. "We have several checks and balances while we're doing the records to make sure we don't miss anything."

He stressed that he scans everything, so the electronic file is a duplicate of its paper counterpart.

"Every piece of paper is crucial to us. It's all like the Dead Sea Scrolls," McCaw explained. "I have no reason to ever think anything isn't important, even a little scribbled memo from someone in 1981. If somebody put it in here in 1981, there was a reason. It's not for me to decide it shouldn't be in there."

When he's done, all of the Portable Document Format (PDF) files will be stored on two external hard drives, each capable of holding 1 terabyte of data.

One will be for active use by township staff, while the other will serve as a backup and be stored someplace that's fireproof. Should something happen to both of these hard drives, McCaw has the township covered.

"I keep a copy of everything I've ever done for every community unless they ask me not to," McCaw said.

When he's done scanning all the building department's files, he'll do other township documents as well including meeting minutes for the township board, planning commission and zoning board of appeals; cemetery records; contracts; and other day-to-day records.

So, why spend all this time and money turning all these records into digital files?

There are two reasons, according to McCaw.

The first is safe storage.

"The Number One reason government exists is to store records," he said. :One of the main functions is to hold on to information and disseminate information. They're required to safeguard it as best they possibly can."

Fire and water damage are the two biggest concerns when it comes to paper files. Then there's age.

"I've worked on records that are just crumbling," McCaw said. "Paper just doesn't last that long."

Turning them into digital files completely eliminates the risk of losing records that may go back 80 or 90 years and cannot be replaced should something happen to them.

"Whether you're ever going to use that blueprint from 1927 again isn't as important as the fact that it's there," McCaw said. "If it's gone, it's gone for good. And you don't know what you've lost until you don't have it anymore."

Fortunately, given the way the township stores its records, McCaw indicated they appear to be quite safe.

"I don't think these records here are really all that vulnerable, honestly," he said. "They've got a sprinkler system. They've got a brand new building. The chances of anything happening here are like one-in-a-million or one-in-10-million. There's plenty of other buildings out there I won't name names where the chances are about one-in-four."

So, for the township, switching to digital files is more about the second reason convenience.

"Right now, when they need a record, they have to come down here, pull it, look for what they need and photocopy it," McCaw said.

Now, when developers, builders or even homeowners request a record, township staff will be able to "instantly" pull it up on the computer and e-mail it to whoever needs it.

"Nobody has to come in to get it. Nobody has to photocopy it. It's all electronic," McCaw said.

Once the system's in place, McCaw said township employees will come to rely on it like many folks rely on Google for internet searches.

"How did we ever get by without it?"

Another benefit is say somone is looking for a particular document within a 100-page file. Instead of manually flipping page after page, township employees will be able to search for a key word, like septic, and automatically view any page containing that word.

"The goal is when we're done, they never have to reopen these (paper) files again," McCaw said. "There will be no reason to really."

McCaw has done this type of job for approximately 100 cities, villages, townships and counties since founding his own company about seven years ago.

"I only work for local governments," he said. "All of them have just been a delight to work with. I have not had a client that hasn't been good to work with (or) that hasn't appreciated it."