Scanning shortens time and lines at embassy in Mexico

The U.S. embassy in Mexico City is saving three to five hours a day by processing visas with a system that captures and stores handwritten applications and color photos.

The U.S. embassy in Mexico City is saving three to five hours a day by processing visas with a system that captures and stores handwritten applications and color photos.

By automating the process, the embassy is better able to track applicants who reapply for visas and save time looking up information.

That means the lines for applicants who want to enter the United States is getting shorter, rather than longer, as they had been, said Yolanda Arias Alvarado, a systems analyst and programmer at the embassy.

The embassy receives 2,000 to 3,000 visa applications per day. Each applicant is interviewed and photographed, and the embassy stores the documents in case the applicant is rejected and must return to reapply.

Under the old system, data from an application was entered into a database. But the color photo and original handwritten paperwork were stored in file cabinets. When an applicant returned to re-apply, embassy workers not only had to call up the data on a computer, but also had to check the photo and handwriting against the original application. Staff members generally spent 10 to 20 minutes locating these documents in the file cabinets, as the lines of applicants grew longer.

But 18 months ago, the embassy implemented a system to store the handwritten applications and color photos electronically. Workers retrieve applications by name, date or identification number in seconds. Photos, handwritten information and signatures are instantly available for confirmation.

Application and photo images are captured with a Kodak 3590C color scanner. The images are kept on a Compaq Digital Celebris XL6200 workstation with a 2G hard drive running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and on a 144G external storage appliance from Raidtec Corp. of Alpharetta, Ga.

Ascent Capture software from Kofax Image Products of Irvine, Calif., provides handwriting recognition. Indexing, storage and archival management is run using back-end database software called Alchemy from Information Management Resources Inc. of Englewood, Colo.

The biggest problem is managing disk space, Alvarado said. The size of the daily work files has quadrupled since the system was put in place. Previously, the embassy needed only one machine to index, verify and release the information. Today there are four machines doing the job, she said.

The embassy is considering using a similar system for its human resources and procurement offices. Both areas keep documents that have to be held several years, Alvarado said. It would save a considerable amount of time for the staff of those areas if they could call up the archived data on a computer, rather than spending time collecting and making copies of the information requested, she said.

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