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Title Companies Convert Their Records to Electronic Format

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March/April 2000 - Volume 79, Number 2

by Harvey Spencer

There has been a lot of discussion about the theory of putting title records and the results of searches on the Internet for Banks and Attorneys to access, but who has actually done this and how have they done it?

The obvious future solution is for the counties and towns to scan their microfilmed and paper records and make them available to the title records companies directly, rather than forcing everyone to buy the microfilm or print out the records. While there has been some movement toward this by some counties or states (see note at end of article), in other states title companies have taken the lead. I spoke with two such companies.

Attorneys’ Title - A Microfilm Conversion

Florida, which is the number three state in nationwide real estate activity, has 67 counties who have been storing their land records on microfilm. Attorneys’ Title Insurance Fund, Inc. (The Fund), located in Orlando, FL, is the seventh largest title insurance underwriter in the country, with 6,000 member attorneys. The Fund prides itself on the ability to provide its members with land records within 24 hours of request.

According to John Sayers, Imaging Research and Development Manager, the decision to go to digital images was made in the early part of the last decade when it became apparent that they could no longer turn around the documents manually without large increases in staff. So starting with a conversion in late 1995, they built a proprietary indexing and retrieval system and came on-line with their first images in 1997. Now they are acquiring film from all of the 67 counties in Florida. Member attorneys can now dial up The Fund and check off those records they want, which are delivered via fax or mail within 24 hours - some 40,000 to 50,000 pages per day. In a few months, they will roll out the next phase of the system which allows members to request documents over the Internet that will be downloaded to the attorney’s desktop. At present the attorneys cannot review the documents on-line over their Internet connection.

Behind all this is the conversion of the microfilmed records into digital images. The film is either 16mm or 35mm, but it is not consistent as some counties have changed from one to the other, and as equipment has been changed. Most counties have film going back 20 or 30 years - a huge number of records - many of which are accessed infrequently. The Fund quickly found that it would be extremely expensive to convert all of the records, particularly since many are not being accessed. To manage this more effectively, The Fund discovered that there has been a high level of activity in the last 7 to 10 years, and that the average Florida homeowner keeps his property for seven years. So they focused on converting records from the past 10 years, but it is really based on demand, so in some counties they have done all 20 years.

The main actual conversion is performed with seven high speed microfilm scanners from Mekel (a subsidiary of Houston Fearless 76) running two shifts per day. These scanners can scan approximately 120 film pages per minute. The Fund’s goal is to convert 90,000 to 100,000 pages per shift, with two operators managing the scanners. Most of the time they achieve this, but it is highly dependent on the quality of the microfilm. Microfilm has some unique characteristics which users of microfilm scanning equipment need to be aware of:

  • It comes in rolls of 100 feet or so which means that you can load it onto a scanner and let it run unattended. Unlike paper autofeeders, there is no chance of a double feed.

  • The image quality may vary from reel to reel depending on the microfilmer used, the set-up and the quality of the processing.

  • Pages are sometimes out of sequence on the roll.

  • Image sizes vary from 16mm on some rolls to 35mm on others.

  • Reduction ratios vary.

Microfilm scanning has improved substantially over the last few years. The principle is simple: you shine a light through the film and lens onto a charge coupled device (CCD) which creates an electrical charge line by line. This is converted into a digital representation of the image with little dots (known as pixels) in up to 256 shades of black and white (known as 8 bit grayscale). In these types of applications there are normally 200 dots per inch in the recreated image. The grayscale is then converted into black or white pixels using some intelligence to sharpen the edges of characters (known as thresholding). Noise or speckles are identified and eliminated. This normally results in better quality digital images of the original than those recorded on the film.

Since the internal algorithms within the scanner work off subtle shades to fill in gaps in the image or draw out faint images, it is always better to get back to the original film, rather than a copy roll, if possible, but in some cases where the local authorities do not do their own microfilming of records this may be impossible.

The Fund’s system used software from Amitech Corporation (a division of Lason) based in Springfield, VA, who supplied the hardware and integrated the system. The software, known as TurboScan, scans their pages, checks for image quality, crops and deskews the images and then automatically re-sequences the pages from the film. The Fund supplements the system’s automatic quality control on the images with an eyeball scan of small thumbnails of the images. Those that need re-scanning are found and re-scanned on one of four ScreenScan microfilm scanners or a Canon MS-400, both of which scan at slower rates more suitable for re-scans, and electronically re-sequenced by dragging and dropping them into the record book.

Sometimes microfilmers index their records with small marks above the pages known as blips. These are then counted by the microfilm search system to find the right page. The Fund tried to use the blips, but gave up as they were found to be unreliable. Instead, they use an edge detection feature included within the scanners to find the pages.

The advice offered by John Sayers is, "Take it gently - trying to go too fast too soon will cause problems."

TitleServ - A Paper Conversion

TitleServ of Plainview, NY, claims it is one of the largest private title insurance companies in the country covering the New York City and tri-state area of northern New Jersey, southern New York, and Connecticut. With 15 full-time lawyers and 15 paralegals, TitleServ produced more than 30,000 title insurance policies in 1999, but it also offers additional services such as foreclosure searches, property reports, last owner, Judgement and Lien searches, and many others.

TitleServ wanted to make the insurance records available 24 hours a day to its clients over the Internet. Now clients can place orders on-line, check the status of their files, and have reports e-mailed directly to them. In the future, they will be able to access them directly on-line. The title records are all coded into a PDF format. PDF is an image format developed by Adobe and now extensively used by government and other organizations to electronically store and deliver documents in a format that can be read by anyone.

There are three types of PDF files available - PDF normal, PDF Image and PDF Image plus Text. These are mostly transparent to the end user as they all result in displayed images which can be viewed from a browser (with a plug-in), printed or sent to another person. But the different types have implications. PDF normal is created directly from a PC application using a software tool known as Acrobat from Adobe. This software emulates a printer and outputs formatted files using simulated fonts for the textual areas, so any application that can print can output PDF normal files. TitleServ outputs PDF normal files for the correspondence it generates. PDF image is really either a TIFF group/4 image used regularly by the document imaging industry, or a JPEG image, most often used for photographs over the Internet, with a PDF wrapper around it. TitleServ uses PDF images for the supporting records from the towns or counties. The lending organization gets an electronic packet consisting of PDF files just like receiving a cardboard folder. He can print it out (and probably does) or display it on one or more monitors.

The problem for TitleServ was how to convert the town and county records into readable electronic images. Many images, particularly those that were photocopied from paper are clear and easy to read. This is particularly true where they have been reconstituted from an image by the county, as happens in some cases. These papers scan perfectly well at a resolution of 200 dots-per-inch (dpi). But some are very faint, and in particular, those that originated from microfilm - which are printed on shiny thermal paper - do not scan well at all. In addition, most of today’s autofeeders do not satisfactorily feed a batch of bond sheets interspersed with thermal papers without double feeds.

It transpired that the shiny papers would capture well in JPEG format with a color scanner, while the bond papers were better off scanned in bitonal outputting into a TIFF group/4 format. The problem was how to do this, without interfering with the integrity of the batches, at the highest speeds, for a reasonable sum of money!

After much research, TitleServ ended up purchasing two Kodak 3590C high speed color scanners for this job. These scanners, which scan up to 57 pages per minute in color at 150 dpi, can also scan 85 pages per minute at 200 dpi in bitonal. With the use of a coded sheet (known as a patch card), TitleServ can automatically switch from bitonal to color and back without stopping the scanner. The autofeeder that Kodak developed handled the different papers without difficulty. As George Sakellaris, who selected the scanners at TitleServ, puts it, "It cost more than expected, but it does the job extremely well."

A Paperless Society?

Both these companies have made the transition from hard copy records to electronic. Both are allowing their customers to order the records on-line and delivering the records via e-mail. Electronic records are faster and easier to find and the Internet provides a lower cost delivery mechanism, but at the other end, the records are still being printed out and paper is still used as a transition document. Will we ever be all electronic with the settlement parties sitting around a table looking at screens rather than paper? When that happens maybe the transition to electronic records will be complete and we will truly be in the paperless society.


Note: Some government examples available:

The State of Maryland has all its records available at http://www.dat.state.md.us/sdat/CICS/ 

The county of Dona Ana in New Mexico http://www.co.dona-ana.nm.us/clerk/deeds.cfml 

The Bureau of Land Management is publishing records for Arizona and some other states http://azwww.az.blm.gov/plats/statempics.cfml  for an example from where you can download.


Harvey Spencer is a consultant with Harvey Spencer Associates, Inc., specializing in image capture and recognition technologies. He can be reached at 631-368-8393 or via email at harvey@harveyspencer.com



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