The pen is mightier than the tablet: The system that's got the write stuff for biometrics

Polish company IC Solutions has turned filling in paper forms into a new form of digital biometrics.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

It's a common complaint levelled at IT: digitise something as simple as writing on paper and it ends up becoming more convoluted and complicated than the process it's replacing. However, a Polish company is working to change that situation and has got the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) onboard.

Starting from the elections in Kyrgyzstan in October, the OSCE will be using a SaaS service that digitises handwritten forms on the fly. Any notes penned by the OSCE's observers on the scene are tracked and sent to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna over the web. Handwriting is then recognised and digitised. At first poor handwriting can throw a spanner in the works, however, the system will learn from any corrections made to the digitised text, to stop the mistakes in future.

So far, IC Pen seems a pretty standard digital pen. But the digital pen algorithm developed by IC Solutions, a 15-person company based in the Polish city of Poznan, has some tricks up its sleeve that could make digital pens a more attractive option for organisations that are constrained by legal red tape. The system not only registers what's been written down, but also the way they have been written down too.

The service, for example, can recognise the characteristics of handwritten signatures, said Przemyslaw Jesionowski, the company's sales director. "Fingerprints or iris scans are easy for computers to authenticate, because they are always the same," he told ZDNet. "But a written signature is different every time and can be forged by someone with a steady hand."

One of the things the in-house developed algorithm does is register metadata at the moment the signature is jotted down. The angle the pen is held at, the pressure of the pen, and the speed at which the signature is written are indicators of the authenticity of the signature, and are the basis of what Jesionowski calls a biometric signature. Importantly, the moment the document is signed is also registered by IC Pen. "The system recognises when someone writes the signature first, and then [afterwards] starts filling in the form, which is against normal procedure and regulations, and possibly the law."

The OSCE was specifically looking for a digital pen system as using tablets in the field wasn't practical as they tend to break down or get stolen.

The third-party developed digital pens resemble normal if somewhat thicker ballpoints, and include a built-in scanner. "You can safely drop them, they are very robust," Jesionowski says. "Also, a tablet handles differently. Observers would need to get additional training to handle the application. In this case they can work like they always have. The added advantage is that the moment the user writes something down, it is registered and added to an XML-table which can be put through statistical analysis."

Such features, as well as the lingering need for ink-on-paper at such institutions, are IC Solutions' raison d'être. Many of Poland's institutions are still very reliant on paper despite increasing digitisation.

The company has previously completed various rollouts in Poland, including a large IC Pen implementation at a Warsaw hospital which involved integrating the system with the hospital's existing IT, whereas the OSCE bought the solution 'as is' and runs it in a cloud.

For the system to work, however, the forms need to be prepared in a special editor. The form is first imported as a PDF file and the user 'activates' the required fields and contextualises them so the filled-in data can be processed.

The documents themselves are recognised through the way the ink is dotted on the paper, which works almost in the way a fingerprint does. The scanner recognises the layout of the dots and knows which document is being completed. That does mean the forms need to be printed out with a laser printer, as only laser printers print the structure in exactly the same way every time. After that, however, the pen can also 'see' writing done outside of the fields, adding extra room for ad-hoc notes. The whole process of preparing a PDF and activating the fields takes 10 minutes, Jesionowski says.

After that, however, the pen can also 'see' writing that is done outside of the fields, adding extra room for ad-hoc notes. The whole process of preparing a PDF and activating the fields takes 10 minutes, Jesionowski says.

For IC Solutions, a spinoff from a voice recognition company which has a close working relationship with the Mickiewicz University in Poznan, the next step would be further capitalising on bridging the divide between paper and IT. One possibility is using the system for school exams, which would allow pupils to check their work after the sitting without having to wrack their nerves waiting for the results.

Jesionowski also gives the example of problems during the vote count after local ballots closed during local elections in 2014. "A system such as ours can provide for a failsafe," he says. "The basis would be paper still, but you can check digital records if something is amiss." However, he also admits that so far it has been political parties rather than election committees that have shown an active interest here, and that IC Solutions would rather not get involved in party politics.

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