IRS tests 2-D bar codes for scanning e-forms

The space the bar code takes up on an IRS form is proportional to the amount of data it holds.

Hoping to reduce manual rekeying in future tax seasons, the IRS is testing an embedded 2-D bar code from Adobe Systems Inc. to automatically capture information from tax forms.

'Electronic filing has become the preferred method,' said Paul Showalter, senior publishing analyst in the IRS' Media and Publications Division. 'The 2-D bar codes are the best alternative to paper processing.'

The 2-D codes, embedded in Adobe Portable Document Format, will appear first on three e-forms on the Tax Products CD-ROM that the IRS began distributing in March to tax practitioners, agencies, libraries, companies and other institutions. The 2-D forms also will appear on the IRS Web site, Showalter said.

A taxpayer fills in a form on a PC. As each field is filled in, the bar code automatically updates with the new information. Then the taxpayer prints and signs it and mails it to the IRS.

At an IRS processing center, a worker scans the bar code with a handheld reader or scanner. The embedded information, captured in Extensible Markup Language format from the bar code, can be then routed to a database or otherwise processed.

The PDF bar codes were developed as a bridge between paper and electronic forms, Adobe's Lori DeFurio said during a recent presentation in Washington. Because most taxpayers still cannot attach a digital signature to a document, it must be printed out to affix a legally binding signature.

The hybrid form could save the agency money, DeFurio said, because it is in legal paper format, yet its information does not have to be manually entered into a database.

Adobe expects the technology to be ready for commercial release by year's end, said Adobe's Dan Baum, who helped develop the bar code.

Any agency can add bar codes to its PDF forms with an extension to Adobe Acrobat Professional software or a new version of Forms Designer set for release later this year.

The new Forms Designer will import XML schemas, Baum said, so agency developers could embed their own schemas directly on the forms. Additional Adobe server software would be necessary to extract information from the forms after scanning, however.

Data can still be read if someone writes on top of the bar code or wrinkles the paper, DeFurio said, but reading is problematic if a piece of the bar code has been torn off.

The IRS is placing the bar code on modified versions of Form 1041 Schedule K-1, Form 1065 Schedule K-1 and Form 1120 Schedule K-1.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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