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Digital pens to prescribe paper some rest

United Kingdom health service, others are experimenting with digital pen-and-paper technology to save time, money--and trees. Photos: Digital pens at work

The U.K. public sector is declaring war on paper as it tries to make services more efficient by cutting the need to re-enter data. Digital pens

Last month, Richard Granger, the IT director general of the United Kingdom's National Health Service, described the reliance on paper records in the health service as a risk. "Wouldn't it be interesting to have a target on paper consumption because we know paper is dangerous?" he asked.

As well as being dangerous, paper is expensive to create and store--and not very environment-friendly.

So as organizations look to keep all their records in electronic formats, getting information off paper is an increasingly important issue.

A number of public-sector organizations have been experimenting with the use of digital pen-and-paper technology.

Leeds City Council is rolling out digital paper and pens to 1,300 social workers in a bid to save 1.2 million pounds ($2.13 million) by 2008, while social workers in Greenwich have been testing a digital pen-and-paper system since April.

Dave Plumb, Greenwich Council social services information systems manager, explained, "There's huge savings to be made from being able to use this sort of technology. It will streamline the way we work."

The council has tested the technology with 10 social workers and is planning a more extensive project later this year.

The digital pen is slightly larger than the average pen--about the size of a marker. When used on specially printed paper--which features a tiny dot pattern--the pen's camera determines where the pen is on the page. The pen can store 40 standard-size pages of text.

"Everybody loved the idea of the pen. You have a pen and a form and a mobile phone--and you are sitting down with a piece of paper and not a laptop or PDA. There was a real feel-good factor," Plumb said.

Staff get more assessments done because they don't have to go back and type up the information, which is sent back via a Bluetooth connection to a mobile phone.

The pens are less likely to be stolen than mobile phones or PDAs, and even if they are, the data on the phone is encrypted.

The second phase of the trial will see the information sent straight into the client record systems. The Greenwich trial, with IT supplier Serco Group, used technology from Ubisense, Nokia and Corelogic.

Steve Ranger of Silicon.com reported from London.