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EPA opening digitization centers to transition agency away from paper records

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to open two centers soon that will help the agency meet a governmentwide goal to digitize records.

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to open two centers soon that will help the agency meet a governmentwide goal to digitize records.

Jeff Wells, director of the EPA’s Office of Enterprise Information Programs, said the agency will open one of its National Digitization Centers (NDCs) in Edison, New Jersey, in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year.

The EPA, he added will open a second facility in Kansas City, Missouri in either December or January.

“Having more ready access to our records, being smarter about how we manage our records, it’s going to enable us to make better and more data-driven decisions,” Wells said in a recent interview.

The centers will help the EPA scan and digitize its vast trove of paper records. Wells said the agency’s paper record archives reach 26 miles in length, if stacked together.

In addition to more accessible records, Wells said the EPA’s digitization efforts will reduce the agency’s costs. The EPA leases space from the General Services Administration to store some of its paper records.

“The quantitative benefits are really the fact that we’re going to be reducing costs by centralizing our digitization activities,” Wells said.

Those cost savings are already coming into focus. Wells said the EPA, since the start of the pandemic, has spent tens of thousands of dollars less on paper. That’s because employees don’t print as much while working from home.

“It’s propelled us toward that digital world where we’re not producing or adding as much to that 26-and-a half miles of paper records,” Wells said.

Employees at the EPA’s digitization centers will be trained to adhere to Federal Agency Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI) standards.

“When you digitize something, it’s not like just running it through the copier. There are very exacting standards that we need to meet, and we needed to establish procedures and processes to achieve those,” Wells said.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Library of Congress in 2007 created FADGI, a set of standards agencies should follow when it comes to scanning, processing and cleaning up digital scans of hard-copy records.

“These [FADGI] standards are pretty exacting, and so you need to have really strong scanning procedures and protocols in place, as well as machines that can actually achieve the standards of granularity to meet these [FADGI] standards.  We’ve designed and equipped our NDCs with the equipment that can achieve these standards, and there’s actually not a lot of equipment out there that can. We had to do a lot of work just to identify the right equipment that could,” Wells said.

To improve employees’ access to records, the EPA created a new Agency Records Management System (ARMS) that leverages artificial intelligence to assist users with identifying the correct records schedule for the records they put into the system.

“The AI will look at the content, actually be mindful of the office or the program that the person works in, and suggest a couple of records schedules for that particular record. It won’t let the user submit a record without assigning proper metadata, and that’s something we’ve never done before. We think that’ll provide enormous benefits, in terms of making the record itself more valuable, not to mention more discoverable and findable when we want to retrieve it,” Wells said.

The EPA, Wells added, uses machine learning to automatically populate as much of the metadata as possible.

Once records are digitized, the agency is also using cloud technology to reduce its overall storage costs. Agencies, under FADGI standards, should keep permanent records uncompressed, which results in large file sizes.

“Slamming that much data anywhere is a pretty enormous amount of information. We believe that by moving that to the cloud, we’re going to reduce our storage costs,” Wells said.

These efforts are also part of the EPA’s ongoing work to meet a mandate from the National Archives and Records Administration and OMB set to phase out paper records.

Under M-19-21, NARA and OMB are requiring agencies to convert all new permanent records to an electronic format. By the end of this year, NARA will no longer accept paper records from agencies for permanent archiving.

The EPA, as part of its efforts under M-19-21, went through an agency-wide transition to electronic signatures, and developed a strategy to ensure the agency wasn’t keeping records beyond their required retention period.

The agency also ran an inventory of its paper record holdings.

Wells said records digitization will increase access to information, which is mission critical for the EPA’s role as a regulatory agency.

Wells said the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of federal office buildings demonstrated the need for digital records. He added that digital records are also an essential foundation for the EPA’s hybrid work environment.

“It increases the amount of information readily available to employees and improves our employees’ ability to share it,” Wells said. “It’s actually available, not only from my desktop, but from my desktop anywhere, whether I’m working remotely or working in the office. I don’t need to be onsite to access that record. That leads to the idea that it’s going to be much more accessible and discoverable, and much more rapidly, than before.”

Wells said the benefits of records digitization are clear, but added that the EPA still needs to communicate these changes and benefits to its workforce.

“It’s always the human element that’s going to be the most difficult. It’s a culture change. One of the things that I think we’re going to find more challenging than anything, but it’s also one that I’m most excited about trying to tackle, is people getting used to the idea that they have much, much more access and availability to records than they’ve ever had before,” Wells said.

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