From mountains to molehills

Standards are a very paper-intensive business. The Standards Council of Canada — the federal Crown corporation that represents Canada on international standards bodies and approves Canadian standards — spent an average of $19,000 per year on paper from 1998 to 2000, largely because of voluminous

standards drafts circulated to volunteer reviewers across the country. Moving to an electronic system that distributes those documents on the Internet cut the paper budget to $11,000 in 2001.

Zbigniew Ignatowicz, manager of information systems for the Standards Council, adds that its postage budget also dropped from $90,000 in 2000 to $40,000 in 2001 and about $20,000 a year now, and the review process is faster. Ignatowicz says the council has about 4,000 reviewers who work in government, private industry and academia across Canada, but not every reviewer would see every document. They are divided into committees, mostly of 20 to 50 members. Even so, sending a draft that could be anywhere from 20 to a few hundred pages to that many people added up to a fair amount of paper.

So the council began putting all the drafts on a secure Internet site in the popular PDF format. Reviewers can log on to the site from wherever they are and review the documents on screen or, if they like, print them locally. In another paper-reducing initiative, the council is implementing an electronic filing system for other documents, such as those it exchanges with the testing laboratories it accredits. Much of that material has been exchanged electronically for some time, but until recently the Standards Council was printing those electronic documents to file the paper copies. Ignatowicz says he does not know yet how much paper the electronic filing system will save. He does know it will not only further cut the council’s paper use but also eventually reduce filing space.

Electronic documents in PDF format are saving paper and time for Statistics Canada too. The federal agency is participating in an international literacy study involving agencies in about eight countries. Thirty-eight booklets of 30 to 40 pages each, a 50-page questionnaire and other documentation were prepared in English in Ottawa, then sent to other countries for translation. Danielle Baum, manager of product integration, reviews the translated documents to ensure they follow the prescribed format. All this happens electronically. Exchanging PDF files not only saves paper, Baum says, but also eliminates the delays involved in international mailing. Once editing is complete, the booklets and questionnaires will be printed, and workers will soon take the materials to the field to conduct the survey. When they finish, Baum says, the data they gather will be returned electronically to Ottawa for compilation. The end result will be published both on paper and on the Web.

Neither the Standards Council nor Statistics Canada has eliminated paper from its operations, and probably neither ever will. Despite such success stories, the truly paperless office remains a pipe dream. Even as technology opens up opportunities to eliminate paper, it also creates the temptation to use more.

A recent study by London, Ont.-based Ivey Business Consulting Group — sponsored by printer manufacturer Lexmark Canada Inc. — found the average corporate computer user prints 50 pages a day, and 27 per cent of corporate computer users say they print all the information they create. In small and medium-sized organizations the average output is only 35 pages a day, perhaps because of greater budget-consciousness, says Michael Barr, a senior consultant with Ivey — but 34 per cent print 100 per cent of the information they create.

Ivey interviewed 66 Ontario-based end-users and office-equipment decision makers in government and private industry, a sample Barr admits is too small to draw statistically significant conclusions. But just look around: The proliferation of technology has not eliminated paper and may even be increasing its use. Rather than try to dispense with paper, some initiatives focus on using it more efficiently. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has installed about 30 high-volume multi-function printers in its Hull, Que., offices, and plans about 30 more by year-end. The printers — from Xerox Corp., Canon Inc. and Minolta Co. Ltd. — are shared via the network. Larry Eirikson, acting head of environmental management and real property services, says they save paper because they print both sides of the page by default, and their overall cost per page printed is only two to three cents versus 25 to 50 cents per page for some personal printers.

Because they are multi-function machines, the printers can also send and receive faxes. By sending outgoing faxes over the network to these machines for transmission, users avoid printing documents before faxing them. And there is another benefit to replacing individual desktop printers with shared machines. “”Believe it or not,”” Eirikson observes, “”by removing printers from beside people’s desks, making it so they have to walk 10 feet to get it, people print less.””

Canada’s banks must submit substantial amounts of information to the Canada Deposit Insurance Corp., the Crown corporation that insures their deposits.

“”They were literally sending us a book”” each year, says Darren MacIntyre, CDIC’s director of information systems. Under pressure from the banks to reduce the paper burden, about three years ago CDIC began allowing them to submit information as Excel spreadsheets via the Internet.

Then, last year, CDIC took the next step and implemented electronic forms software from Victoria-based PureEdge Solutions Inc. Financial institutions can now download the forms and the PureEdge client software needed to file their reports from a Web site, fill out the reports and submit them online, attaching related documents such as annual reports in PDF format.

CDIC loads the completed filings into an internal database that makes them accessible to its own staff. “”There’s never any particular need to convert that into paper at any time,”” says Michael Fossl, CDIC’s manager of applications development.

The electronic approach eliminates the potential for errors that came with rekeying information from paper forms, saves on document storage space and means supporting documents are more readily available to CDIC staff, Fossl says. The organization plans to convert more filings to electronic form in the next few years.

Paper-reduction efforts can be found at all levels of government. The City of Edmonton has eliminated much of the paper from its building permit and inspection process by equipping inspectors with mobile computers that let them exchange data with the city’s servers remotely. Saving paper was a secondary benefit of the Public One-Stop Service (POSSE) Remote system, the first goal of which was to make inspectors more efficient.

Building inspectors used to visit the office each morning to collect sheaves of paper telling them what inspections to conduct that day, explains Tim Beauchamp, project manager for the POSSE upgrade. They recorded information on paper forms, then returned to the office at day’s end with the paperwork. Now inspectors rarely visit the office. An inspector’s day starts at home with a dial-up connection to a city computer to download the day’s inspection itinerary, and ends with a similar connection to upload results.

POSSE uses SQL Anywhere, mobile database software from Dublin, Calif.-based iAnywhere Solutions, Inc., that synchronizes with database software on the city’s servers. Synchronization means the mobile unit need not be connected all the time, says Mike Paola, group product manager at iAnywhere. Beauchamp explains that wireless technology did not seem mature enough when Edmonton implemented POSSE in 1995, so the city chose dial-up. The City of Calgary has adopted the POSSE system as well, and the province of Alberta has made it available to smaller municipalities, Beauchamp says. In the case of heating and ventilation and plumbing and gas inspections, which don’t require drawings or other documents to be submitted to the city, the process is entirely electronic and contractors can even schedule inspections and check their results online.

Government may never be paperless, but it can use less paper.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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