Automating records a boon for BLM and users

Automating records a boon for BLM and users

BY MERRY MAYER | SPECIAL TO GCN

An automated system lets the Bureau of Land Management bring to a user's desktop PC records that previously could only be read at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

BLM Logo
In addition to managing historically significant public lands, BLM also preserves more than 5 million land records, some dating back 200 years. The agency's records are an important resource for those wanting to look into their family histories or conduct research for title companies.

Yet before they were automated, accessing those records meant a trip to the agency's Washington office and days of research. And many of the oldest records were in danger of being destroyed by handling.

BLM gradually automated the system over the last decade, first setting up the records for remote access via modem, then putting them on CD-ROMs that could be purchased from the agency. Now BLM posts them on the Internet.

The site, at www.glorecords.blm.gov, has been a boon for land records researchers. Under the old paper system, a researcher couldn't search by a family name, but would need to know the specific property the family owned, including the property's legal description, said Patricia Tyler, a supervisor and quality assurance specialist for BLM.

If they didn't have that information, researchers would have to pore over all the land records for a given area in which the family was known to have lived.

Better service

The agency's main goal in automating the records wasn't to help researchers, but rather was to preserve the records, Tyler said. The results, however, have meant better customer service. BLM and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, which helped design the system, won a Hammer Award from former Vice President Gore for their innovative approach.

SAIC designed the indexing application using Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 and the Web apps with Visual Studio 6.0 Enterprise Edition.

The Web site's traffic has been brisk. At any given time, the site has 400 to 500 simultaneous users, said Todd Bocik, project manager and system architect at SAIC.

'We initially thought that maybe 50 people would hit the site per week,' Bocik said. Instead, the site has averaged around 4,000 visitors daily.

The first week the site was online, BLM had more requests for hard copies of the records, known as land patents, than in the 10 previous years, he said.

Although this has meant more work for BLM's staff, the document retrieval system has also made it easier for the staff to locate documents. As a result, the price for a copy of a patent has come down, said Tyler, from $15 to about $2.50.

So far the Web site contains just over half of all BLM's land patents.

More records coming

The database servers include a 500-MHz Hewlett-Packard NetServer LH4 with 1G of RAM and 18G of hard drive storage as the automated records database, and a 400-MHz Hewlett-Packard NetServer LH3 with 512M of RAM and 9G of storage as the document conversion system database.

The reports server is a 400-MHz Client Pro with 132M of RAM and 16G of storage from Micron Electronics Inc. of Nampa, Idaho.

Tyler's staff of eight is working to get more documents and their corresponding images online.

The system consists of two arms, the Automated Records System, which manages the Web site, and the Document Conversion System, which captures the images and data from the physical documents.

BLM workers use scanners from Fujitsu Ltd. of Tokyo to digitize the records and store them on DiskExtender, a jukebox server system from OTG Software Inc. of Bethesda, Md.

The agency uses Ascent Capture by Kofax Image Products of Irvine, Calif., for document and data capture.

Land patent images appear in GIF, TIFF and PDF formats. An on-demand image format conversion system reformats the native TIFF image into the format requested by the user. The conversion system consists of two 500-MHz Gateway ALR 7300 network servers, each with dual Pentium III processors, 256M of RAM and 9G of storage.

Security was an important issue for BLM not only to protect the integrity of the data against hackers, but also because the Web site accepts credit card payments for copies of a patent.

One problem early on was that the firewall, from Check Point Software Technologies Inc. of Redwood, Calif., almost worked too well, Bocik said.

It sometimes wouldn't accept a request from a legitimate source, and the firewall had to be reconfigured to recognize the Web server.

Data protected

The only part of the system that is accessible by the public is the Web server.

'It's our sacrificial lamb, so to speak,' Bocik said. A hacker could tamper with the Web server, but it could easily be rebuilt because everything important is behind the firewall, he said.

The Web server is a 400-MHz dual-processor platform with 256M of RAM and a 4G hard drive, running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and Internet Information Server.

The agency uses the Active Server Pages specification with Microsoft's ActiveX Data Objects interface to a SQL Server 7.0 back-end database.

The land-record Web pages were written using Microsoft Visual Basic and Java scripts.

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