Replacing Paper Forms with Dialogs

Started by Donald Darden, August 14, 2007, 09:58:10 PM

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Donald Darden

There are all manner of paper forms around us.  Look at birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, credit applications, school records, employment records, tax records, property deeds, and so on.  The use of paper forms has evolved over time to give us the highest concentration of information in a given area in an organized manner and is easy to process.

But forms have many limitations as well.  For instance, while long enduring, they are not indestructable, and records have been lost due to floods, fires, and other natural causes.  Another limitation is that they are vulnerable to being lost, misplaced, mismanaged, manipulation, alteration, and forgery.  With new tools that have come with advances in technology, even photographs are subject to being altered and tampered with.  And perhaps the biggest limitation of forms today is that they are slow and cumbersome - a lot of redundant information is required (fill in name, last, first, middle, age, height, weight, DOB, address, phone number, etc.).  For formal documents, you also have to go through a Public Notary or someone else who will serve as a formal witness, and with several parties involved, you have to go through signing cerimonies and circlulate the various copies by mail or dispatch.  A signing process can take a week or more to accomplish, and this is in an age when technology has rendered fractions of a second as critical.

Look at the volitility of the economic markets, where some people buy and sell stocks or commodities multiple times a day.  There can't be that type of delay involved.  Seats on the exchanges go for millions because it puts the client within fingertips of the heart of the action, and speed and timing are everything.

Increasingly, paper forms are being relicated to a backup roll for storing data, to be replaced in the interum with databases that have the same data in a more convenient and immediate format.  But that data is relatively inpermanent, and even more easily manipulated, and leaves no trace of alteration.  The world is being pressed ever harder to find some way to continue to protect, secure, and validate the data on which modern society thrives.

There was a time when everybody knew their neighbor, and you could determine whom chould be trusted and who's word was a bond.  But that has all changed, and as the lawyers have found ways to help us squirm out of unfavorable deals, the question of what is legally binding and enforceable has become a real challenge to answer.

As programmers, some of these problems will fall to us to help solve.  The first issue is whether we can render existing forms into dialogs, and certainly the answer to that is yes.  But is that desireable or necessary?  Remember that one of the main problems with paper forms is that they require a high degree of redundant information to be provided.  Might not that information be acquired from existing sources first?  Or should we use the redundant information as a way of validating the source?  What should we do, or our programs do, when the newly acquired data differs from what is already on file?

Another issue that was original with paper forms is the questions that are not applicable.  One form had to serve all, so many fields were set there on the possibility that the candidate might fall into one category or another.  As a result, you weeded through or had to step over portions of the form that had nothing to do with you personally.  At the same time, the form was made much longer, more difficult because of the decidion points that had to be negotiated throughout, and the form was still hampered by efforts to keep it reasonably short.  It was a compromise at best.

And yet another issue with paper forms is that we devised machines to help us fill out those forms,  We called them typewriters.  Yet today you cannot find many typewriters remaining, and there is no way to adequately use a computer, scanner, and printer to replicate that functionality.  So being tied to forms, yet without a mechanical method for entering the data, we are forced to solicit for handwritten input instead, and it can be very hard to read what somepeople write.

There have been programs written for a computer that will allow you to try and recreate forms through a scanning process.  The trouble is, that most scanner programs do a poor job of determining actual physical dimensions, spacing, fonts, and so on,  If you merely chose to create the form and print it again, you will get a reasonable copy.  If you could somehow create the form as a background on your monitor, then adjust font and size to print in the right areas, you might be able to handle it rather like a typewriter, with the idea of storing it or printing in out in the same manner.  But then we are faced with the fact that the produced copy may be impermanent - many people have printers that can only handle water soliable inks or dyes.

So there are many issues to be confronted and dealt with, and the future of form data is just one of these.  Everybody is already on record somewhere, and you have to ask if it is really necessary to have them repeat all that information again or not.  The manner of collecting necessary information could also be organized differently than with merely mimicking paper forms, in that only related information is asked for and collected, and the unrelated categories are ignored.
There has to be some way to ensure that the data collected is secured, validated, protected, and archived against possible loss or damage.  These mechanisms have to be designed into the program and supported by the system hardware and interconnects.  It's no trivial task.