DatacomIT wins $A3M Army digitisation deal (IDM Magazine 2020)

ARMY RECORDS GO DIGITAL

A $A3 million tender win for Australia’s DatacomIT in August is the first step in a five-year program by the Department of Defence to backscan and digitise a massive paper archive of Army Personnel records held at Victoria Barracks Melbourne.

Until it began creating digital records in 2015, management of personal files in the Australian Army involved a lot of paperwork. Just how much is underlined by the 14 kilometres of shelving at Victoria Barracks containing around 100 million individual documents holding the records of those who served from 1947 through to 2015.

From the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Afghanistan, these records include all documents relating to a member’s routine administration, career management and training.

A spokesperson for the Department of Defence said, “To increase the capacity and capability of Defence to deliver services, DatacomIT will be digitising 2.5 km of these records initially, with the remaining records planned for digitising over the next 5 years via a mix of in-house and contracted models.  Records have been prioritised to ensure those most in demand will be available first.”

The documents will be scanned and OCR’d as text searchable PDFs for storage in the Defence Department’s Objective EDRMS. The process will comply with National Archives of Australia Digitisation standards for Paper products. Non-compressed archival master files in TIFF are also being generated for the National Archives.

“This will allow Defence to provide the records to Defence business units, ex-serving members and/or their representatives, and other agencies such as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988 and Freedom of Information Act 1982.

“Completion of the process will also free up a significant office accommodation, provide cost savings across the reduction of storage, management and access costs, as well as ensure integrity of the records once digitised as physical files are difficult to store and fraught with risk from deterioration, loss, water and fire,” said the Defence spokesperson

This risk is illustrated by the cautionary tale of the massive US National Personnel Records Center fire in 1973 where up to 18 million US military records were engulfed in flames.

That fire was responsible for destroying 80 percent of US Army personnel records for soldiers discharged between 1 Nov 1912 to 1 Jan 1960 and 75 percent of the Air Force records of Airmen discharged between 25 Sep 1947 to 1 Jan 1964.

The effects of that fire are still being felt today as US Veteran’s Affairs faces the challenge of assessing healthcare and benefits without any service records.

“DatacomIT has developed a bespoke suite of products and methodologies to effectively and efficiently process and OCR the records,“ said Eamonn Donohoe, General Manager at DatacomIT.

This will not be an everyday exercise in document scanning. The records are held on old paper, new paper, even some occasional blue paper, thick paper, thin paper, handwritten paper notes and reports, multi-sheet forms, paper typed on ancient typewriters, paper printed out by the earliest generation of dot-matrix mainframe computer printers and by networked laser printers. Paper fed into typewriters or single-sheet printers askew, paper with its content faded and almost gone, paper scarred by multiple staple holes, dog ears and paper clip imprints.

To digitise the Australian Army records, DatacomIT will utilise up to five Opex Falcon V+ scanning devices along with other specialty capture devices. OPEX promotes the Falcon Series as being developed specifically to deal with difficult and unique documents and able to process anything from thick paper to onion skin or fragile or damaged pieces without pre-sorting.

The first 2.5km of records to be scanned by DatacomIT will generate more than 17 million individual document images.

“Pre 1980 records are deemed RNA (Retain National Archives) so the hard copy file will be archived at National Archives of Australia. Post 1980 physical records can be destroyed once Defence provides approval to destroy,” said Donohoe.

“DatacomIT has a strong understanding of the tasks, challenges and expert capability required to complete this Defence Archives digitisation project. The majority of staff to be deployed on this project are highly trained, experienced and possess Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA) clearances.

“The DatacomIT Digitisation Facility at 1 Albert Rd, Melbourne (Corner of St Kilda Road) is a highly secure facility and for this project we have allocated space for Defence quality checking staff to operate from within our facility,” he said.

While the Army tackles its post-war paper archive, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) has begun a $10 million program to digitise the bulk of WWII service records for the Army, Navy and Airforce that have never been scanned.

There are over one million WWII service records however only 209,406 (20%) of these records have been digitised. The Morrison Government made an election commitment to digitise the remainder, which has been enabled by allocating $A10 million over four years to the NAA.

The location of records held by Defence Archives is available at www.defence.gov.au/records.

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