Lowell Deeds

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

August 28, 2009

LowellDeeds Blog has moved

by @ 2:16 pm. Filed under Website

We’ve moved the LowellDeeds blog to a new location - www.lowelldeeds.blogspot.com - but will keep this site active for archival purposes. Please bookmark the new site and change your “Favorites” so you will continue to receive the most up to date news and information from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds.

Again, the new address of our blog is www.lowelldeeds.blogspot.com

August 13, 2009

Update on new Masslandrecords site

by @ 11:28 am. Filed under Website

Yesterday I travelled to Worcester for a meeting with representatives from other registries of deeds, from the Secretary of State’s office and from ACS, the company that provides computer services to many of the registries. Our purpose was to review feedback that’s been received about the new masslandrecords site. Not surprisingly, the feedback has been mostly negative – that’s usually the case when you propose something new – and much of it was of the “new site is horrible” variety. But other comments were specific and we focused our attention on those. Rather than compile all comments and then try to make one big fix, fine tuning the new site will be an evolutionary process with gradual change implement in small doses over time. Two upgrades that will be implemented fairly soon will be to convert them format of document images viewable on the site from TIFF to PNG which should improve the speed of performance considerably without sacrificing image quality (and printed or downloaded images will continue to be of a very high quality that will yield a clear print). The other change will be to make a popup image viewer the default setting. A number of people found that having the image appear in the right half of the viewing window (the data retrieved in the query was in the left half of the screen) made it difficult to navigate around the image. The pop up viewer can be easily repositioned to allow the user to see as much of the document as the user’s screen will permit. Another change that should be implemented fairly soon is to add the ability to print multiple pages of a document rather than just the first page or the entire document. Other possible changes remain under consideration.

August 4, 2009

Update on new Masslandrecords.com

by @ 9:59 am. Filed under Website

The new version of masslandrecords.com continues to be available for testing by customers. When you go to that web address, the old (a/k/a “classic”) version displays and is fully operational. There is also prominent language inviting customers to “click here” to try the new site. Unfortunately, many customers are interpretting that as a command and not an invitation and are clicking through to the new site and becoming discouraged by what they find.

My sense is that the criticism falls into three general categories: The first is that the new site is more difficult to use which is true, at least for the first few times you use it. Once you become familiar with it, however, the added functionality of the new site should be readily apparent. Every time we’ve deployed new technology at this registry, it has resulted in a negative reaction from users, but that negativity only lasts for as long as it takes for them to get acquainted with the new system. Ironically, when “classic” masslandrecords first came out, the reaction to it was quite negative. Now that folks have grown comfortable with it, the reaction is much more positive.

The second area of criticism is the speed (or lack thereof) of the new site. I have to agree with this. For someone pulling up a random document, it might not be too bad, but when you have to do a title search and retrieve dozens of documents, it’s aggravatingly slow.

The third area of criticism is the layout of the front page. The page is dominated by instructions and other non-functional items with the search boxes and links to advanced search funcitons tucked away in the upper 20% of the page. The functions available on this new site are an improvement over the “classic” version. I’m just concerned that no one is going to get to them to discover this on their own.

Sometime next week there is a meeting of all the registers of deeds who utilize the masslandrecords site. More information about whether it will be fully deployed or sent back for a re-configuration will be available then. I’ll keep everyone posted.

July 17, 2009

Downloading docs from the new Masslandrecords

by @ 11:59 am. Filed under Website

A website user emailed yesterday asking if the new version of masslandrecords.com had the capability of downloading document images, a useful feature of the “classic” version of that site. The answer is “yes” according to the site’s directions which say:

Document Downloading: In addition to printing, documents may also be added to your basket for downloading. The “Add to Basket” link is available at the top right hand side of the page once you have begun your search. To manage your basket contents, please Click on the Basket link available at the top left hand side of the page.

Here’s how I would explain it: Go ahead and conduct your search on click on the line of data that’s of interest to you. That causes an expanded amount of data to appear in the right-hand window (the data appears under the “details” tab). Clicking on the “image” tab displays the document image. To print the document, click on “print document.” To download the document, click “Add to Basket.” When you’re ready to download the document image, go to the very top menu bar and click “Basket.” That causes a list of all the documents in your basket to display in the left-hand window of your screen. Click “Download All” which opens a small window that has both “download image” and “download document info” checked – leave both checked or de-select one or the other, and click “next.” Another small window will appear giving you the choice of “open” or “save.” I recommend “save” which will allow you to save the downloaded image to your computer. Clicking “save” causes that download to occur.

When the image reaches your computer, it’s in a file that is “zipped” (compressed) so you have to “unzip” the file to get at the document which is actually saved in the very common PDF format. Zipping files used to be more common than it is today, so this task might be unfamiliar to you. If your computer uses Windows XP or Vista as an operating system, clicking on the zipped file should open it automatically.

July 8, 2009

The new masslandrecords.com

by @ 12:51 pm. Filed under Archived, Website, Registry Ops

This is the first chance I’ve had to write about the new version of masslandrecords.com which was made available to the public alongside the “classic” (or existing) version of MLR. Please take some time to test drive the new MLR and suppress your natural urge to dislike it because it is unfamiliar and new. If you do give it a fair, unbiased evaluation I am confident that you will quickly discern the major improvements in the new as compared to the old.

Back in the summer of 2002, this registry was the first in the Commonwealth to convert to the ACS computer system. By Labor Day of that year, our entire electronic holdings were available online on an ACS-hosted site. After additional registries’ switched to the ACS system, masslandrecords was born and was physically moved to the Secretary of State’s Office in Boston where it has resided ever since.

From the very beginning, website users have expressed an unreserved preference for the in-registry public search terminals over the web-based search function on masslandrecords. I and my colleagues from other ACS registries have always agreed with this assessment and have been diligently working to make the website function more like the in-registry public access terminals. The new masslandrecords is the result.

Here are some of the items requested by the registers of deeds that have been included in the new masslandrecords: (1) the ability to see all names returned pursuant to a query on the screen at the same time and not just groupings of like names with the number of documents in each group as is the case on the current MLR; (2) the ability to review the data about the document and the document image on the screen at the same time; (3) the ability to easily print the search results, not just the document images; (4) the division of the search functionality into separate pages for “basic” and “advanced.” Frequent users of the registry might not see the value of this last item, but those of us who routinely answer telephone calls from members of the public who are stuck on our website know that the single biggest obstacle to the layman’s use of our website is his propensity to over-populate the search screen and thereby prevent the retrieval of the very document he’s looking for. By initially presenting only a simple name search box, we hope to avoid this kind of consumer obstacle. Full search functionality (fuller than currently exists on MLR) is available on the “search criteria” link on the upper menu bar (in other words, “search criteria” is the “advanced search” we had requested). Finally, despite the presence of links to a “basket” and a “shopping cart”, all data and images on masslandrecords will remain available at no charge. The shopping cart function is built into the system so that registries that already charge for images may continue to do so and still use the same system as everyone else.

So that’s my initial take on the masslandrecords. I think it’s a huge improvement over what we’ve had thus far.

April 14, 2009

New MassLandRecords application

by @ 10:22 am. Filed under Website

A new version of MassLandRecords, the statewide search site for registry records, is now in the hands of registry personnel for testing and evaluation. While we’re not able to open it up for public use just yet, I can describe some of the features. The test version we’re using has all of our existing data and images and is updated in real time with new recordings. The new website is designed to function more like the 20/20 Public Search system now in the registries than like the current MassLandRecords site. For instance, almost all data containd in a particular record is immediately visible on screen when that record is first returned in response to a search. Just a few clicks later, the image of a particular document will appear in the right hand portion of your screen with the indexing data on the left side, just as with the Public Search system. There are some changes that will take some getting used to: We’ve asked for a simplified search to be the first thing to appear with an “advanced search” just a click away. So when a customer first logs on, the first search screen only has fields for first and last names. To further refine the search (doc type, town, date range), you click through to advanced search. The reason for this change is that we found many casual users “overpopulating” search screens and thereby excluding documents of interest. If someone sees a field, it seems, they feel obliged to type something in it. As time permits, we will report on more of the features of this new system and on a possible timetable of its public release.

April 8, 2009

Masslandrecords on your cell phone

by @ 3:52 pm. Filed under Website, Technology

A regular website user emailed yesterday reporting an inability to view our web-based index and images on a Blackberry Curve cellphone, while an associate’s Palm Treo could access the index but could not display any images. Although I’ve owned a so-called smart phone for several years, I confess that I’d never tried viewing anything from the registry website on it. I’ve tried now but had no success. I did ask one of my associates who uses an iPhone if the Apple device did any better. The iPhone had no problem searching the registry index or displaying the document in the “quick one page viewer” (we stopped there). So now I’ve added “what can we do to make the registry website more accessible to cell phones” to my To Do List. In the meantime, if you think you might need that capability in the short term, your best bet is to go with the iPhone.

March 20, 2009

Website down this weekend

by @ 11:31 am. Filed under Website, Registry Ops

www.masslandrecords.com, the central website that hosts land records data from all the registries of deeds within state government, will be shut down this weekend beginning at 5 p.m. tonight. It is expected to be back online by 8 a.m. on Monday, March 23. As I understand it, the technicians will be performing maintenance to the central website. www.lowelldeeds.com will continue in operation through this period, so older documents will continue to be available from the “Record Books” link.

August 26, 2008

Website Problems Persist

by @ 1:45 pm. Filed under Website

The www.lowelldeeds.com site has been inaccessible for most of today. We can reach the site through our internal network and it’s working OK by that route, so that tells us that the server that hosts the site is working OK and that the problem is with its connection to the outside world. A number of technical people are working on it. If you’re able to read this, it means the problem has been fixed, at least temporarily. As a long term solution, we’re in the process of transferring our website to a more reliable setup. Unfortunately, since that is a major change, it will take some time to get it done. In the meantime, we will continue troubleshooting the existing setup.

August 15, 2008

Changes Coming to Blog

by @ 4:48 pm. Filed under Website

We’re in the process of modifying this blog to add more features, especially the ability for users to post comments. Overall the site will be more interactive and may have guest columnists. In other web-related developments, we’re still trying to track down the cause of the problems that users have experienced accessing www.lowelldeeds.com. The company that provides our communications link to the internet tested its lines last night and found no problems so we’re still searching for the cause. We also continue to work on the index image program that will make all pre-1976 indexes available online. The initial version that we’ve been testing is very promising and we hope to have a workable version online by mid-September.

August 12, 2008

Website Peformance Issue

by @ 3:33 pm. Filed under Website

www.lowelldeeds.com continues to have some problems. The work we performed on our computer system last night confirmed that the problem is not with the computer server that hosts the website. That leaves the line that connects it with the internet as the most likely culprit. We’ve been advising people who call to report problems to use www.masslandrecords.com if the site. We have some long term changes planned for the mechanics of the website - nothing that will be noticeable to users except, perhaps, for more reliable performance.

August 7, 2008

First Look at Index Imaging Application

by @ 3:38 pm. Filed under Website

A frequent question asked by our customers is “when will the electronic versions of the pre-1976 indexes be available online?” Since April 1, 2008, such an application has been available on the computers at the registry (that’s the date that we took all paper books including old indexes out of public circulation). The in-house app, however, combines hundreds and sometimes thousands of images into single PDF formatted files. While they’re easy to use on the registry’s internal computer network, the files are too large to use efficiently online even with high speed cable or DSL connections. So to make a practical online version, we need something that will yield a much smaller group of pages, those pages grouped around the name that you’re searching. We received a prototype of this application several weeks ago and have been testing it ever since. The application shows much promise but there are some programming tweaks that must be made. I’m hopeful that an operational version will be available on our website in early September. For now, thought, you can catch a glimpse of the product as it stands today. The search page asks you to select the date range and index you wish to search then you enter the first and last name of the party. That returns a link with the first and last name on a particular page. Clicking on that link displays the page. The final version will return a group of pages that bracket the one with your name on it so you can quickly paginate forward and backward. We’ll share more news about this program as it becomes available but for now, here are some screen shots of what we’ve been testing.

July 3, 2008

by @ 4:21 pm. Filed under Website

The June sales and foreclosure reports and the 2008 reports to date (January 1 thru June 30) are now available online.

May 8, 2008

Indexes on the Internet

by @ 1:49 pm. Filed under Website

Since April 1 and the rollout of our pre-1976 indexes on our in-house computer system, many customers have asked us when they might expect these indexes to be available on the internet. The files we are using on the internal network are huge with each file eoncompassing 1000 or more separate images, so it would be useless to just place them on our website: your computer would time out before you could download one of them. We’ve known that for a while and have explored different (more streamlined) methods of presenting this information that would be more suitable to internet hosting. After several false starts, it looks like we have found a programmer who can make this happen. Our expected delivery date for this new application is June 30, 2008, just about seven weeks away and right in time for the really sticky weather that makes this old, only partially air conditioned building a difficult place to spend the summer.

April 8, 2008

MassLandRecords Update

by @ 3:26 pm. Filed under Website

The ACS User Group - the collection of Massachusetts registries of deeds that use the ACS computer system - met this morning in Worcester. From my perspective, the biggest news to emerge from the meeting was that the new MassLandRecords website will be delivered to the Secretary of State’s office for testing within the next two weeks. MassLandRecords is the central website that houses the online data and images of the registries that use the ACS system. It has recently been plagued with complaints of slow performance but this new version should fix that and many other issues. The existing site was designed in the late 1990s using the best available technology and while it still works, it was never intended to handle the huge volume of traffic that the site now sees. This new version, in addition to resempling the in-registry public search system, is also built using the latest and most reliable internet applications and should provide greatly improved performance. Assuming that there are no glitches, the new version should be fully rolled out to the public late this summer.

March 18, 2008

Pre-1976 Indexes on Computer

by @ 4:23 pm. Filed under Website

Index information from 1976 to the present is available in a searchable database on public access computers in the registry and remotely via the internet. Earlier indexes will soon be available in a different way. Some time ago, we scanned all of the pre-1976 indexes for disaster recovery purposes – they had never been microfilmed – and the resulting images were quite good. So good, in fact, that we completely changed our approach to adding index information to our computer system. Rather than spend thousands of hours (or dollars) doing data entry, we decided instead to present the scanned images of the existing paper indexes as electronic books. After all, back when we produced a current index on paper as well as on the computer, registry users would often say that they preferred the paper version because it allowed them to flip forward and back through the pages, potentially catching spelling variations that would otherwise be missed on the more precise database search.

Here’s how these “electronic index books” work. We have duplicated the Grantor-Grantee and date range divisions that existed in the paper books. For example, there are ten sets of books divided into the following year groupings: 1639-1855; 1855-1880; 1881-1900; 1901-1915; 1916-1925; 1926-1940; 1941-1950; 1951-1960; 1961-1965; 1966-1975. Within each of these date ranges, we have taken all the images containing names that begin with the letter “A” for example, and bundled them into a single PDF file. Since some of these files may contain 800 or more images/pages, they are quite large and cannot be made available over the internet in their current form (but more on that later). To assist users in finding the relevant entries, we have created a table of contents consisting of the first name on every page and the corresponding page number. To illustrate, let’s say you’re interested in Grantee Index entries for “Richard Howe” in the 1940s. After navigating your way through the Grantee folder to the 1941-1950 folder, to the letter “H” folder, you would peruse the table of contents looking for that name. You see that the closest name that alphabetically precedes it is “Raymond Howe” on page 581 and that the first name on the next page (582) is “Samuel Howe.” Using the “go to page” feature in the Adobe PDF viewer, you enter “581” and are immediately forwarded to that page. You view the page just as you would view that page in the paper index book. If you want to flip backwards or forwards, you use the “next” and “previous” page arrows to do it. It’s as simple as that. When you find an entry of interest, you just jot down the book and page on your legal pad, just as you do with the paper index, and then use the appropriate computer application to display the image of that book and page. That’s how it all works.

We’ve made these PDF files to our customers on CD for several years now, providing them on a barter system that requires the customer to provide us with a set of blank CDs which we swap with CDs containing these PDF files. Registry employees have used them for years on our internal network, rarely having to look at paper index books. On April 1, 2008 when we make the leap to the entirely paperless registry, these PDF files will be available on most public access terminals within the registry. Users will find this method of viewing our pre-1976 indexes superior to the current method. As for offsite access to this data, we’re working with a computer consultant to devise a simple application that will work on the internet, but that’s still a few months away.

March 13, 2008

New Look and Features on Website

by @ 11:51 am. Filed under Website

We’ve made some changes to www.lowelldeeds.com. Besides changing the appearance of it, we have added a “marginal reference lookup” capability. We spent several years entering all marginal references from book 1 through book 4216 (which is in 1987) into a database. Using the lookup link, you enter the book and page of the beginning document and click “find marginal references” and the screen will display the book, page number and document type of any reference that was written in the margin of that book. All references later than 1987 exist as hyperlinks in our main database. We have also made images of our Middlesex South books - those containing documents for the towns in this district recorded prior to 1855 - available online. To retrieve them, you must know the town, the book and the page number. Finally, we’ve put the images of all documents from book 1 to book 2789 in the “record book” link. But we will soon add higher numbered books that for whatever reason do not appear as images in our main database. We have already scanned them and stored them locally, but importing them into the ACS system has been problematic. This will provide a short term solution. Please send me an email if you have any comments about the new design and the new functionality.

March 6, 2008

New Websites Under Construction

by @ 12:42 pm. Filed under Website

Last night I finished a “web design” class that gave me many pointers on how to improve lowelldeeds.com, so I’m about to begin a redesign that will hopefully be easier to use and filled with more information. Rather than wait a month until the new version is completely finished, we might roll out new features as they are ready and then bring it all together at the end. As always, stay tuned to this blog for details.

In addition, I also got a glimpse yesterday at a proposed new version of masslandrecords.com. The registers from the registries that use the ACS system (like we do), met with ACS almost a year ago and presented a comparison of the in-registry public search system and the website version. Almost everyone prefers the in-registry system, but for security, cost and reliability reasons, we want to move to an entirely web-based public search application. Before we can do this, we have to get the website functioning more like the in-registry software. I think this new design does that. I won’t go into the details because, as I said, this was just a prototype and there’s no specific timetable for when it will be fully implemented. But from what I saw, I am quite optimistic.

January 22, 2008

Weekend Website Woes

by @ 7:01 am. Filed under Website

For some reason on Sunday morning I went to www.masslandrecords.com to look up some property records. The site was down. I reported it to a contact at the Secretary of State’s office who informed the IT folks. I’m not sure when they were able to get to it, but the site came back online yesterday (Monday - the Martin Luther King Day holiday) at about noon. While the site was down, I received a dozen or so emails from what appeared to be first-time users complaining about our “lousy website.” I think our regular users were familiar enough with the workings of our site to know it was a temporary problem, but it was clear that first impressions mean a lot. I replied to each of the emails explaining the situation and sent additional replies yesterday when the site came back online. As for the cause of the outage, it appears to have been a software or programming issue that involved the firewall that protects the database from intruders. While it’s unfortunate we had any outage at all, this type of issue is less worrisome than a major equipment or software failure, neither of which has occurred for several years.

September 25, 2007

ACS User Group Meeting

by @ 4:27 pm. Filed under Website, Registry Ops

The ACS User Group had a productive meeting in Worcester today. This group consists of folks from the 13 registries of deeds that use the ACS computer system (the one we have in Lowell) along with representatives from ACS and the Secretary of State’s office. Attendees got their first glimpse of the new ACS browser-based search program that has a February 2008 target installation date. If you’ve used the public access terminals in the registry to conduct a search and then performed the same query on the Internet, you will receive the same information but it will be displayed in very different ways. (Most people prefer the in-registry system). This new application takes the best features of the public access terminals and combines them with the flexibility of a web-based system. While the current system will remain available beyond next February, I expect that we will completely remove it from the registry in Lowell and shift entirely to the browser-based search program. That way, whether you use a registry computer, your own wireless enabled laptop at the registry, or your own computer at home, you will utilize the exact same program which will be better for everyone once the initial trauma of losing the comfortable and familiar in-registry system goes away. This new approach has the added benefits of being much easier to install and maintain while greatly strengthening the security of our computer network. This is still a long way off, but what I saw today was impressive.

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