Handwriting OCR?
November 27, 2005 12:06 AM   Subscribe

Help my girlfriend get her writing out of a top-secret government compound!

Actually, it's not nearly as exciting as it sounds. My gf works a graveyard shift at a secure facility, which is only pertinent insofar as she isn't able to bring her computer into her workplace to work on her novel on her breaks, nor can she write on her work computer and save her work to, say, a thumb drive. And she can't print anything she might write on her computer at work.
Which leads to the actual question part of the question - if she were to write longhand instead of typing on the computer, is there such a thing as optical character recognition for handwriting that actually works? She has neat, consistent handwriting that most people can read at first glance. This imaginary software can run on a pc or a mac - but she's not willing to invest in something without knowing that it actually works. Buy software or hire a transcriber? Help her choose.
posted by smartyboots to Computers & Internet (26 answers total)
I forgot to mention - she doesn't have internet access, so that method of saving is out. Darn it.
posted by smartyboots at 12:09 AM on November 27, 2005

What about a PDA? You can get proficient enough with the handwriting gesture language that it isn't too annoying, or you could get a little keyboard to go with it.

Or, how about an AlphaSmart, which is just a keyboard, an LCD screen, and 512KB of memory to store your text.
posted by odinsdream at 12:14 AM on November 27, 2005

Isn't there a trusted download process for getting unclassified information off a classified PC? There is where I work.
posted by knave at 12:33 AM on November 27, 2005

1. Your GF works at some secure facility where they don't want information getting in and out
2. Your GF wants to produce information while on the job, and get it out.

Assuming she has the kind of job where stuff like this might be permitted, she should talk to her boss and see what is suggested. If she does figure out a way to get her novel out, but the boss finds out about it months later, she could be in trouble. If her boss doesn't find out, but someone else does, and suspects she is stealing the secure stuff, she could be in REAL trouble. And she would have a very hard time proving that she didn't steal anything.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:12 AM on November 27, 2005

Nokia 6680 + Virtual Keyboard. Sorry no links, but I'm tapping this in on my Pocket PC. Search www.expansys.com for the keyboard.

(Actually, if the PC has Bluetooth, you could copy files onto the phone without even needing to take it out of your pocket/bag.)
posted by krisjohn at 1:14 AM on November 27, 2005

The device you're looking for is Logitech's io2 Digital Writing Pen. The pen has an optical sensor that tracks your writing and stores it to its internal memory, so long as you write on the provided (somewhat expensive) special paper.

The software included with Logitech's io2 has OCR software that can convert your handwritten pages to editable text. I've heard various tales of the software working brilliantly and others who have had trouble with low accuracy. It seems as though those in the low accuracy camp are also in the poor-penmanship camp, so if your girlfriend has decent handwriting skills, this might be the perfect solution for her.

Search the web for some more reviews on the product, but be weary of the cost of their "digital paper" and such. Amazon sells the system for $150.

This system should also completely put to rest any worries of espionage that may be of issue since there will be a paper trail which you can show the employer, proving you haven't stolen any trade secrets. It's also less obvious than a PDA.
posted by disillusioned at 2:49 AM on November 27, 2005

This may not be allowed, but one option might be to narrate the story using a voice recorder, then using voice recognition software to get it into computer text. There's MP3 players that will allow you to record voice -- off the top of my head I know the Dell Jukebox. Here's a link to others.
posted by spiderskull at 3:37 AM on November 27, 2005

How about some way of saving by voice; a tape-recorder, leaving voice mail somewhere, etc? There are plenty of speech recognition software out there that can output spoken files as text.
posted by JJ86 at 3:42 AM on November 27, 2005

It might seem silly, but be aware that the employer probably owns the copyright to anything she produces on her time at work, unless they specifically state that she may work on other things while there and that she retains ownership.

It's not likely to be an issue, but it would suck if there were a problem of some kind just at the moment she was about to sign a publishing contract and that put the ownership of the work in question.
posted by mikel at 4:56 AM on November 27, 2005

A discrete technological solution will be less expensive and less time consuming, as well as have more uses outside of writing than buying professional grade OCR software, a high-end scanner and training them to her handwriting. One more thing. Scanning so incredibly boring. If you do go that way make sure you get a document feeder that works exactly as you need it to. Otherwise you're liable to get sick of the project very quickly.
posted by raaka at 5:14 AM on November 27, 2005

Just as a point of reference for posters: if she's working in a place with the restrictions outlined by smartyboots, odds are that she cannot bring in any outside electronics. I've been in places that require surrender of flashdrives, blackberries, cell phones, etc... She probably needs a non-technical solution.
posted by bonehead at 6:06 AM on November 27, 2005

It seems like an old fashioned solution is required here. Write on paper, type it later. Most of the work on a novel is thinking about what to write, not actually writing it. It seems to me that the time typing it in later will be minimal compared to the time actually composing the text.

If she wants to keep her job, she should not look into any sort of electronic solution for this problem. These locations are secure for a reason.
posted by bh at 6:17 AM on November 27, 2005

Why does she have to write in longhand?
She could print, in careful block letters, so that it would be easy for an OCR scan later on.
posted by jozxyqk at 6:24 AM on November 27, 2005

she should really talk to someone higher up the food chain. probably a senior non-security person who she can rely on to give her some cover if things go wrong (talking to a security person might backfire if you get one that takes things too seriously). in my (limited) experience of secure places, they tend to put rules in place, which get ignored and bent, until one day they decide to make an example of someone to "tighten things up".
posted by andrew cooke at 6:48 AM on November 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

I hate to throw a wrench into a thread filled with otherwise great suggestions, but I have to emphasize b1tr0t's point above. It sounds like the problem here isn't technological, its legal.

Your GF's workplace is "secure," meaning they do not want information leaking out in any form - electronic, longhand, semaphore, or cuneiform carved on stone. If they do not allow her to remove print-outs of work done on the computer, what makes you think they would let her take longhand notes? Or work done on a PDA?

It sounds to me like the problem here is not finding the right medium to transport information on, its transporting information itself. To give an (admittedly extreme) example: lets say she works at a secure nuclear facility, and the employer is worried that its employees might smuggle out designs on technology being used there. They don't care whether she is taking notes on her computer or writing them in magic marker on her arm - its the information itself that is the problem.

IANAL, but here's my advice anyway: before she tries a technological workaround, tell your GF to have a talk with her boss in order to clarify exactly what the facility's policy is. Find some convenient cover story for why she wants to take information out ("yesterday on my break I wrote a letter to my Mom - is it OK to remove that from the facility?"). Maybe I am wrong, and they will allow longhand notes to be removed; but if I'm right, she could be in a shitload of trouble for doing so. Its one thing to be caught writing your novel during hours when you're supposed to be working; its another to be caught violating a government's (or campany's) security policy.
posted by googly at 6:51 AM on November 27, 2005

Write it in a notebook, then type it in at home. Though I rarely do this any more, there's nothing like typing something up for a good round of editing.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:02 AM on November 27, 2005

I'm merely posting to reiterate what's been said above: she absolutely must speak with someone in authority, for both copyright and security reasons. She should also get any agreements IN WRITING, signed and dated by the authority figure.

...if it turns out she's broken some obscure regulations by even using a pen & notebook her employer could potentially seize everything she's written (thereby terminating the novel, since they'd own it) as well as tossing her in prison for a non-trivial length of time.
posted by aramaic at 7:58 AM on November 27, 2005

...if it turns out she's broken some obscure regulations by even using a pen & notebook her employer could potentially seize everything she's written (thereby terminating the novel, since they'd own it) as well as tossing her in prison for a non-trivial length of time.

Maybe reconsider this job?

I think the best course of action is to go to whoever is in charge and just explain what she wants to do, and ask them what she needs to do to be able to do it.
posted by lemonfridge at 9:00 AM on November 27, 2005

What lemonfridge said.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:48 AM on November 27, 2005

The cost of having text input by a freelance typist can be absurdly low, like $5 a page, as contracted through classified ads.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:07 AM on November 27, 2005

$5 a page is absurdly high, imo. I can type a page in a more than a minute from (good) handwriting, checking my mistakes. This would be something along the lines of $300/hour, for 60 pages. Is one of your hours worth $300?
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:07 AM on November 27, 2005

after using the "letter to my mom on my break" question to her boss, if the answer is "that's alright", then she should write it out longhand, type at home

i don't know about her, but i'm not capable of writing something that doesn't need some editing later

as far as the legal question of who owns the novel, it would be up to them to prove it had been written at work ... considering that the manuscript submitted would be typed on a computer that she didn't have at work and it would be a different draft, i don't see how they could prove such a thing ... especially if she destroyed the notebooks after typing it up

she just shouldn't tell them she's writing a novel

obviously, if her boss says she can't write letters to her mom at work, (or take notes from a textbook she's studying), then she's just going to have to give up on the idea
posted by pyramid termite at 12:12 PM on November 27, 2005

is there such a thing as optical character recognition for handwriting that actually works?

Nope. But typewritten text, from a good typewriter with a fresh ribbon, can be read very well by even cheap OCR. Why not bring a typewriter (or portable word processor, if that's allowed)?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 3:35 PM on November 27, 2005

If the letters to Mom are allowed, then write, "Dear Mom" and the date at the top of the first page for each session. Just to CYA.
posted by acoutu at 7:01 PM on November 27, 2005

I think the "letter to her mom" advice is horrible. She should discuss with her boss writing her novel during breaks before doing anything else that could get her in trouble. Lying about a letter to mom is not a good idea. Sorry I don't have a specific suggestion for getting her writing off paper and onto a computer.
posted by 6550 at 9:40 PM on November 27, 2005

I agree about the "letter to mom" advice being flawed. Having worked in a secure facility (albeit more lax in these types of rules), she must maintain a clearance to be in that position. That clearance comes with a certain amount of trust. Lying about something even this small could be the cause of losing that clearance.

I suggest discussing the truth with her boss. If it is still allowed, write it on paper and transcribe it. It could be her first "revision process."

Also, bear in mind that she may not use any of her experiences at work to feed the novel. That's another big no-no.
posted by stew560 at 8:59 PM on November 28, 2005

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