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Scanners for Non Profits

scannersEven though office scanners have only been around since the early 1990s, when they were aimed (and priced) mostly for the business market, in just a little over a decade the devices have become nearly ubiquitous, either as stand-alone devices, or built in to all-in-one printer/scanning/faxing devices.

Throughout this period, scanners have become, like almost all computing equipment, much faster, much cheaper, and much easier to use, and in doing so have suggested possibilities that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But in the past two years, advances in scanning technology mean that many nonprofits might benefit from integrating the technology into their everyday workflow, or from using them for special projects. Scanners: The Basics

While there are four basic types of scanners (drum, flatbed, film, and hand), the most commonly used today are flatbed scanners. These are most commonly of the type you can pick up at your local office supplies store, or that's built into your printer. At the very low end, scanners are slow and paper must either be placed one piece at a time on a flat glass surface, or placed in a small sheet feeder that can process five or six pieces of single-sided paper at a time. At the upper range -- where scanners are freestanding office equipment that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, automatic sheet feeders can quickly process thousands of double-sided color documents at a time, and output them in a wide variety of electronic formats.

Most nonprofits will likely benefit most from mid-priced scanners, such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap, a $400 portable that's very popular because it has many capabilities of higher end scanners -- it can take sheet-fed documents and turn them into searchable PDF documents quickly and accurately. Fujitsu is one of the leading scanner manufacturers, and several nonprofits have used Fujitsu scanners with great success.

Some Success Stories

In late 2007 and early 2008, the Suncoast Hospice of Pinellas County, Florida, began to consider using scanners to handle the huge quantities of medical records flowing into its system. Many of these were electronic clinical records, says Joe Eckert, the Hospice's director of MIS applications. "But the problem we had was that they told only half the story, especially for those working out in the field with our patients. The other half of the story was the rest of the medical record, which was paper."

Suncoast Hospice acquired a scanner and a document management system -- software that processes and organizes the scanned documents -- and by April 2008 it began scanning paper records. Now, says Eckert, when a field worker brings up a patient's record, "they see an entire history of the patient -- both their dealings within our organization and any information we've obtained from the outside."

Suncoast doesn't use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to make the documents computer-searchable and readable after scanning. Instead, it developed an indexing system that includes about 30 different document types. "We had a very good filing system," says Eckert, "and we just wanted to duplicate that."

Throughout the planning process, the focus of the Hospice was on providing solutions to problems, and not on the technology. Among the considerations for the Hospice, said Eckert, were:

· Ergonomics and office space. Because of limited space, the hospice decided it wanted to go with desktop scanners, not standalone machines.

· The needs of field workers. Some document management systems can be expensive and sophisticated; others are inexpensive and have basic organizing capabilities. The hospice decided field workers didn't need anything fancy. They just needed to access all of a patient's documents at one time, from any location.

· Ease of use. "We carefully considered how easy it is and would be to train the folks who would process the documents as well as the folks who would retrieve and be looking at the documents," says Sue Rivelli, the Suncoast Hospice manager of health information management. The hardware/software combination decided upon was one that required little technical expertise and training, but quickly output clear, legible documents that could be accessed easily by field workers.

The Wolfgram Memorial Library at Widener University of Chester, Pennsylvania, has used inexpensive but effective scanners for a different type of project, says archivist Jill Borin, who's worked extensively on a project that has focused on getting Wolfgram's historical documents online. Among the online exhibits that have been produced by a recently implemented scanning initiative are ones that feature old yearbooks, promotional brochures, and school newspapers. They also used Fujitsu scanners for the project, but chose to output the scanned documents as searchable PDF files.

All of this was done at minimal cost, says Borin, with much of the manual labor performed by student workers. Much time that might have gone into implementing an indexing system was saved by using searchable PDFs. The result of the project, which is in its early stages, has been excellent, says Borin. The quality of the scanned files has been excellent, and overall the goal of the project -- to make archival materials more accessible to the general public -- has been fulfilled. Now, for at least some material, researchers don't have to travel to the university and get special assistance from an archivist just to do some basic research.

Like the Hospice, Widener focused not on scanner technologies, but rather on solutions, when considering what hardware and software to purchase. The customer (in this case, library patrons) drove the technology decisions.

Scanners and document management systems have dropped significantly in price and have become much easier to use in the past few years. Meanwhile, the amount of information that nonprofits have to process, both in electronic and paper form, has exploded in the Internet age. Scanners can be used for a wide variety of projects that can help nonprofits manage information more efficiently, and also help reduce the amount of paper the organization has to hold on to for legal, accounting, or other reasons. The technologies have evolved to a point where they might help solve many problems that nonprofits face in managing information without contributing significantly to the bottom line.
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