Using Optical Mark Recognition Software to Expedite Data Entry

by Teresa McCoy, University of Maryland Extension

The last thing I want to do or subject anybody else to is manual data entry.  It’s time consuming, requires a lot of attention to detail, and just not the way to get others interested in the field of evaluation as a career.  I almost feel apologetic when I have to hand over a box of surveys to undergraduate students and tell them their job is to enter all of this data.

Of course, with the Internet and survey software, we can often bypass the paper route and go to electronic surveys:  But, not always.  Extension still has audiences that require the traditional route of paper, pen, envelopes, and stamps.  That’s why I have found the Gravic, Inc. product, Remark®, to be quite a handy tool.  If you have audiences that aren’t reachable by electronic surveys, it’s well worth your time to check out this type of technology.  I will get into more details, but the bottom line is you can use paper-based surveys (developed in MS Word) that require only a quick pass through a scanner and your data is ready to check and clean.

Any word processing software (or even Excel) can be used to create survey/evaluation instruments that answers are read by fill-in-the-bubble marks.  These bubbles are like what you might have seen and filled in on standardized test forms.  However, your document retains a pleasing look without the machine-readable form appearance.  There are certain parameters in the design of your instruments that need to be adhered to and which I will discuss in more detail later in this post.

Gravic, Inc. does provide special bubble fonts that can be downloaded (free) to use.  The primary direct cost to get started is in licensing the software.  A single user license is listed at $995; a three-pack license is listed at $2,535.  You will need an automatic document feed (ADF) scanner, as well, and there are plenty of good scanners around the price mark of $400.  So, for a one-person set up, you can be ready to go for an investment of around $1,400.

A couple of items are important to consider if you have to buy a scanner.  The price points for ADF scanners are structured about the pages per minute (PPM)—the speed at which the scanner feeds through the pages.  I use an Epson scanner that is rated at 25 PPM, can duplex, and has a 75-page loader.  That is plenty of speed for me for the projects I am involved in.  An important note is that Remarks requires a Twain compliant scanner.  I just returned a Fujitsu ix500 scanner because it did not support Twain (lesson–do not assume).  If your scanner is not Twain compliant, you can still scan your images into a PDF and read them from that file.  That is not my preference, however, because I don’t want that extra step involved.  Remark® doesn’t recommend any particular scanners, but there is information on the web site, as well as from other users in the Remark® Knowledgebase.

There are some indirect costs that you need to consider if you want to invest in this technology.  There is a learning curve that is associated with any new software, of course.  With Remark®, there is also an investment in learning how to design instruments/surveys that scan well.  For example, the white space between the bubble marks is important so that the machine can get a good, clean read.  Lines, shading, tables, and other types of formatting that you may want to employ to help the user experience may cause trouble in the scanning process.  Read the manual carefully to avoid mistakes in your form design.  A nice feature that Remarks offers is to have your instrument reviewed by one of their design experts.  I have taken advantage of this service and they offer a quick review turnaround.  In addition, I am willing to share surveys that I have designed for Remark®.

As with any other technology, this software does not replace thoughtful evaluation planning, survey design, and data analysis.  However, if you have audiences that still require paper-and-pen surveys/evaluations, this software is a great option for you to consider.  After all, who wants to do manual data entry?  Not me.