Washington Apple Pi

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Close Encounters of the Paperwork Kind

by Tom Herlihy

Washington Apple Pi Journal, pp. 68-70, May/June 1999, reprint information

Imagine yourself as a beleaguered bureaucrat, awash in a sea of paper. Easy to do for many of us who toil for Uncle Sam. If this is your fate, rejoice, for the marvels of the Macintosh can set you free.

That is, the marvels of the Mac, UserLand Frontier, Adobe Acrobat, Fetch, and a fax modem package such as Global Village Fax Center--all working together to spare you hardcopy document handling, filing, and storage/retrieval problems.

The problem you face could be--

(1) You work on agency rulemaking and experience delays because many comments faxed in by the public take forever to appear in the docket file of the rulemaking;

(2) You "coordinate" legislative, regulatory, or other policy documents for a living, and staff shortages now seriously interfere with distribution of multiple copies to multiple offices, some located blocks away in another building; or

(3) You are in charge of maintaining a central directory of "Departmental Instructions" for a far-flung set of regional entities, and a welter of different word-processing formats complicates electronic posting unnecessarily.

These are the types of headache that try one's soul. These and many similar problems interfere with getting the actual work accomplished, and yet they seem to become the central issue all too often. As helpful as the IRM team may be, the cost and delays of "big solutions" may discourage putting the problem in professional hands. Or you may work for a small group that has no IRM support group at all. This is a situation that calls for self-help.

Wouldn't it be great if the steady stream of documents you normally process in one way or another somehow magically appeared on a Web site or agency server with no manual processing? You (and others) could view them instantly from your desktop machine, and then handle them electronically--attaching them to e-mail with a standard form that seeks comments, posting them to a dockets Web site accessible to the public and your fellow analysts, or simply forwarding them to an electronic storage point. Moreover, depending on the form of handling you use (e-mail forwarding, for example), it could automatically generate a complete record of the document's disposition--a searchable electronic log of office action--that is created effortlessly as a by-product of circulation

All this is in reach now, with existing software applications (which are even free in some cases). To demonstrate this new process clearly, let's take a specific example from the federal government--the policy clearance of a legislative proposal that will be sent to Congress after the agencies involved have reviewed and approved it. Let's imagine that the document is 15 pages long, includes a descriptive bar chart in the supporting analysis, and has to be seen by five cabinet agencies. Let's further stipulate that the "originating entity" does not have to employ new technology or techniques to make this process work.

Today the agency that creates such a document (in WordPerfect for Windows, perhaps) typically faxes the 15-page item to the other five agencies--to a fax machine that is designated as the "receipt point" for incoming documents of this type. This is actually very common, accepted practice in federal agencies, but the unfortunate result is that each receiving agency has to work from the hardcopy that arrives at the tray of the fax machine. Fortunately, solving this basic problem does not require a change in practice by the originating entity.

The "hands off" automation starts exactly at this stage. Instead of using a true fax machine to receive hardcopy documents, you instead employ a Mac, a fax modem, and the accompanying software to capture the incoming facsimile to disk. Let's call this "Machine 1" and declare that its entire job is to capture the fax and store in on disk with a unique name (that's a job the fax modem software does easily). Already, you've got the document in electronic form.

You maintain a second Macintosh on the office network to do all the fancy work. Let's call it "Machine 2." This machine runs a set of programs and drivers to process the incoming fax:

(1) Using the free AppleShare software available on every Mac, you mount the Machine 1 hard disk on Machine 2, so that it can copy over each incoming fax as it arrives.

(2) Using the fax modem software a second time (this time located on Machine 2), you "print" out a copy of the fax--but in this situation you actually substitute Adobe Acrobat's "PDFWriter" software that produces a PDF (portable document format) file on disk instead of sending the print job to the printer. This is what you want--the fax remains in electronic form but it has now been transformed into a universally available format that is common on the web and elsewhere.

(3) Last, using AppleShare again (or Fetch if you are placing the completed PDF files on a UNIX Web site), you place each item in a directory on another machine in the office (let's call it "Machine 3"), and clean up before the next processing round (deleting extraneous files left on Machine 2, for example).

Making all this happen automatically is where UserLand Frontier (version 4.2.3 or 5.x) comes in. This is an amazing product, written and constantly improved by Dave Winer and Doug Baron. It is described in all its wondrous detail and capability in Matt Neuberg's "Frontier: The Definitive Guide" (O'Reilly and Associates, 1998) (go to http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/frontier for a description of the book). Although this scripting tool (really much more and dubbed by Neuberg as the "Ultimate Macintosh Productivity Tool") has once again become a commercial product, a free, totally capable version remains on the web site as version 5.0.1. It has valuable, comprehensive web-publishing capabilities that are in addition to the powerful scripting capabilities used in the process described here. You can look over Frontier and its many potential uses at http://www.scripting.com/frontier5/.

As an aside, Apple's own AppleScript could probably substitute for Frontier, but so many needed capabilities are readily available in Frontier that it looked like the far more robust scripting environment. Out of the box, for example, it has a script that tests whether the "newest" fax file on Machine 1 is still being captured (in which case it leaves it alone), or whether it is ready to be copied over to Machine 2. Also, Frontier easily stores the creation date and time of each new facsimile (as a so-called "persistent value"), so that the program accurately "remembers" which files it has processed versus which ones have come in since Frontier last quit. This is valuable when you suffer interference or worse on the network.

To be fair, Frontier can't solve absolutely every problem. For example, the version of Global Fax software used is not "scriptable" by either Frontier or AppleScript, so a $95 addition called "Player" from Prefab software (http://www.prefab.com/) is needed to work with Frontier and make various menu choices to cause the fax software to go through its print cycle.

Here are all the steps that Frontier undertakes automatically once a minute:

Fetch is a very handy shareware tool, scriptable in either AppleScript or Frontier. Essentially, it puts a smooth user interface on the FTP (file transfer protocol) UNIX capability to move files between computers. In this case, it allows a Mac shop to move files into a UNIX environment such as a Web site. As noted, moving files to a Mac server is extremely simple, using AppleShare.

Here's the lowdown on Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat is a very high-quality set of programs that can do amazing things--but what they boil down to at the basic level is that they can create a very faithful reproduction of almost any document created by other software, and the resulting PDF file can be read on any platform (Mac, Windows, UNIX x-windows and probably others) with a free, universally available "reader." The reader is now often found as a plug-in to popular web browsers--that is, shipped as a part of the browser so that PDF files are as easily viewed and printed as JPEG, GIF and HTML files. If you go to the Internal Revenue Service's web site to obtain tax forms, they are now in PDF format. At the Government Printing Office Web site, enrolled bills being presented to the President for signature are also in PDF format. Thus, you can confidently expect users of the documents you process to be able to display and print them no matter what platform or word processor they use. Amazingly, PDF files can be smaller than the word processor files they were created from. You can obtain the free Adobe Acrobat reader for any platform at the following URL: http://www.adobe.com/prodindex/acrobat/readstep.html.

There are many refinements possible. To take one example, the Adobe Acrobat Pro. 3.x product (which is not free, but in the $300 range) includes a product called Distiller that directly converts into PDF the postscript file that most word processors produce as part of printing to a LaserWriter --these are absolutely crystal-clear, high-quality products. Thus, if you are handling large documents you would rather not fax, or if you want beautiful looking "Departmental Instructions", you can process PostScript files direct to PDF. Frontier could easily automate this process as needed. Incidentally, Acrobat's PDFWriter driver is not free, but is part of the Pro package. The package also includes a product called Capture that turns scanned material into PDF (even storing searchable text strings as part of the file), but this is for high-volume conversion, and is paid for on a per-copy basis.

Refinements aside, the arrangements I have described are in place and functioning on a daily basis in a federal agency legislative office. They are easily implemented by a set of three Macs (and could probably be duplicated on PC's) at little cost and with no maintenance overhead. It is probably not coincidence that these arrangements are in place and working just as federal offices everywhere become "clerically challenged," but such are the ways of bureaucracy. Hmmmm. . . ., this is the line I came in on.


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Revised April 11, 1999 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/