Lowell Deeds

The latest on real estate recordings and new technology from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell

August 13, 2007

Paperless Safeguards

by @ 5:01 am. Filed under Registry Ops

A representative of REBA (Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts) sent an email over the weekend asking some thoughtful questions about the safeguards we have in place to secure our records once we fully transition to a paperless registry. My response was lengthy, but I thought it should be shared with everyone:

The first imaging system was installed in Middlesex North in November 1994. All documents recorded since then have been scanned either at or shortly after the time of recording. All of those images are initially verified by the scanner operator immediately after scanning and then are verified in a separate process by other registry employees within 48 hours of scanning. The third verification occurs after the developed microfilm of those documents is returned to the registry. An employee reviews the film frame by frame to ensure the quality and existence of images. I am confident that all images created of documents recorded from 1994 to the present are available on the in-house computer system and on the internet (which are essentially identical versions of the same database).

At various times since 1999 we have added images of pre-1994 documents to the system. The most common method of acquiring those images was by scanning existing microfilm. This was usually outsourced to companies that had multiple, high-speed automated microfilm scanners. Because of the automated method of naming these millions of images, some were misnumbered which accounts for many of those that cannot be located on our computer system. For example, if a microfilm camera operator years ago forgot to turn a page and photographed the same document twice, that would throw off the numbering scheme of the images yielded when that roll of film was scanned. Despite this type of challenge, we have found that this mass scanning method, produced images with an accuracy rate of approximately 97%.

Before existing record books can be entirely dispensed with, however, we must get that number to 100%. We have made good progress filling gaps in the most recent of the pre-1994 images because they are contained in the white plastic, snap together books in an 8.5 by 11 inch format. Because these books are easily disassembled and then reassembled we can manually scan those pages that are missing from the electronic images and fill in the gaps.

The older books, those in a 10.5 by 16 inch format with sewn bindings have presented more of a challenge. We have used an overhead scanner specifically designed for bound books to try to capture those images, but it takes one employee several days to rescan one book by this method. Because this is not an efficient way to fill in the gaps for our older records and because the microfilm of older documents does not yield a particularly good image in some cases, we have decided to disassemble all of the large size record books and rescan them on our existing high speed scanners. We believe using this method, one employee will be able to scan multiple books each day. We have tested this and the image yielded is of superior quality. Of course a consequence is that the pages will have been cut out of the original binding. We will be ordering customized storage boxes for the loose pages of each book, but we will not be rebinding these books since the cost of such an effort will be huge. One of the reasons I have not aggressively addressed the gaps in imagery of our older records prior to this is that cutting up these books is a major step, one I was hesitant to take. But not doing this leaves us straddling two worlds, the paper and the electronic, and until we get full coverage of our documents on the electronic side, it will continue to fuel unease with a non-paper system.

Other registry documents such as plans, registered land documents, and pre-1976 indexes have all been scanned from paper and have created very good images. Most of these are already on our computer system and the rest will be added soon. My objective is to have every single document of any relevance in the possession of the registry fully available electronically.

As for the reliability of our system, we have all records on a server in Lowell and an exact duplicate of all those records, continuously updated, at another server in Boston. If one system was to fail, the other would continue operating. In addition, appropriate tape backups are made daily. With the plummeting cost of electronic storage, we also have most of our records duplicated on external hard drives. I could easily load the entire electronic contents of the registry into my backpack and still have room for a notebook computer. This kind of mobility and flexibility would allow us to reconstitute the registry anywhere should a catastrophic disaster occur. Finally, all documents continue to be microfilmed. All microfilm that is shot is verified by registry employees after it has been developed. One copy comes to the registry; the other goes to a professional data storage facility located at a distant location.

Regarding changes to the index, they fall into two types. When a document is first recorded, a registry clerk enters data about the document to create that index entry. Sometime after that, another employee “verifies” that entry. In Lowell, we use “blind rekey verification” which means that the other employee calls for the next document which then appears on the verifier’s computer screen along with a blank data entry form. That clerk re-enters all of the data that was originally entered at the recording counter without seeing those previous entries. If all the new entries match all the old ones, the system automatically moves to the next document. If the entries differ in any way, the verifier is then able to view the two versions and, after scrutinizing the document image, choose the most appropriate one. In Lowell, verification usually occurs 24 to 48 hours after recording. We rely on the computer system alone to track these changes (and it does track them) but we produce no separate report of these types of changes. Index changes made after verification, be it 10 days or 10 years after recording, are also tracked on the computer system. In addition, we keep a log book showing for each change, what the original entry was, what it was changed to, the date and time it was changed and who changed it. One employee is primarily responsible for this log. While this log is not readily available for public inspection, upon some preliminary showing of a need for access to the log, we would provide copies of any relevant entry in the log and a written explanation of our standard operating procedures for keeping the log. I believe that this system fully protects examiners from any instance of an index entry being changed after their examination. If an examiner missed an attachment because we had spelled the name wrong but we later corrected the name, our records would show that at the time the examination was conducted, the attachment was misindexed and that the examiner had not missed it.

I do have one unsolicited suggestion you might share with anyone agitated by the phasing out of paper records. That advice is that searches conducted using our website on one’s own computer provide an unrivaled opportunity through the use of screen captures and downloaded images to replicate exactly what the examiner examined. There won’t be any question of whether the registry changed anything because an exact replica of what was there when the examination was done will have been retained at no charge to anyone. It seems to me that would be the best evidence of the competency and completeness of the examination. If some of the energy now being expended on trying to retain a 19th century, paper based way of doing things was diverted to developing imaginative ways of using our electronic records, the business of title examination would become both more efficient and more precise, but that’s just my opinion.

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