A Public-Facing Records Search Application for Macomb County, Michigan
- Macomb County wanted to make public records search and fraud detection as easy as possible
- Xerox, Google and Search Technologies helped transform the vision into reality through providing superb real estate records search capabilities and effectively combatting mortgage fraud.
Macomb County, Michigan, is one of the three counties comprising the Detroit metropolitan area. While the area is known for manufacturing, county officials are known for using technology to make their citizens’ lives easier. Back in 1996, the county partnered with Xerox to capture and index land records dating back to 1818, making Macomb the first county in Michigan with computerized land records. The system now holds roughly seven million records. Although the system worked well, an increase in mortgage fraud, nationwide, in combination with a growing local housing market, left county officials wanting more.
At the time, fraudulent mortgage warehouses were on the upswing. Falsified documents, notarized by a fictitious “Linda Green” made national headlines. Yet, even the most sophisticated land records databases weren’t searchable by notary. In fact, most weren’t even searchable by anything more than the very basics. This made it more difficult for property owners and home seekers to search, yet easier for criminals to hide deceptive mortgage practices.
Macomb County Clerk and Register of Deeds, Carmella Sabaugh, believed it was time for a new change.
“The American Dream of home ownership was threatened by loose regulations and a lack of accountability,” Sabaugh said. “In Macomb County, Michigan we have the audacity to believe in the American Dream. So, we were willing to take bold action to make it harder to hide fraudulent mortgage practices.”
Her vision, a “Super Index”, enabling constituents, corporate users and law enforcement personnel to conduct free-form land record searches, was to make it as simple as “Googling a topic on the Intranet.”
Macomb County chose Xerox, a long time trusted partner with expertise in document processing and land records to lead the project.
Xerox brought in Google, with their strong enterprise search, offering, the Google Search Appliance, and Search Technologies, with their deep expertise in search solution design and integration. Together, these three companies brought this vision to life. Although the county already had images of its land records, these needed to be converted to text files via OCR, so that they could be indexed and searched by the Google Search Appliance.
Each of the 7 million files were converted into PDFs with embedded OCR text. These files were then processed through Search Technologies’ Aspire content processing framework to analyze, normalize, clean and load them into a Google Search Appliance, to create the Super Index of almost 200 years of land use documents.
Xerox, Google and Search Technologies researched what metadata information was needed within the index, necessary to provide the optimum search relevance. This includes, for example, a capability to identify every property for which Bob Smith is a grantee, or Mary Jones is the notary.
At the time, all of the records didn’t include spouse information, so a variety of new index categories, data sources, and metadata extraction techniques were applied using Aspire, to fill these categories, both for residential research, and fraud prevention use.
Because of the complexity involved with this project, Macomb County officials agreed to a proof-of-concept, in which:
- Eight years’ worth of images were OCR’d and converted to PDF
- An interface was designed around the standard GSA search, yet with the sophistication required for the “Super Index” vision
- The main “search user types” were identified, and their specific needs assessed
- A prototype was created, for testing by various stakeholders
One of the key challenges of the “Super Index” was that it had to satisfy a multitude of user types – from residents, to title companies, and from law enforcement personnel to commercial enterprises. To ensure that the resulting system fulfilled everyone’s needs, the prototype was field tested by a hand-selected group chosen by Sabaugh herself. As a result, the team gained great insight, from key users, and confirmation that the project was headed down the right path.
From here, the project moved to production mode, working through the nuances of emailing receipts, extracting data, and adding features such as intuitive search for practical identification of numbers, and other conveniences – all while continuing to convert the remaining electronic files to OCR PDFs.
The “Super Index” had a soft roll out early 2013, with a more expansive “go live” phase during the Spring. The index, which has already been recognized with awards and honors, and has produced the following results – even in its early stages of use:
- It provides residents with much easier, online access to Macomb County land records
- It provides law enforcement personnel with a tremendous tool to research and combat fraudulent activities
- It gives land record professionals, title companies and other commercial users, a versatile tool to make their jobs more efficient
- It enables users to perform searches using a multitude of variables, and not just the standard fields from the original data
- It improves search-time from minutes to seconds
- It provides images of land records in the universal PDF format
- It provides search navigation options to narrow down search results. This popular technique, used by Amazon, Ebay, and many other leading online brands, is familiar to users and highly effective
Macomb County is also positioned to expand the use of the Google Search Appliance and Aspire in the future, incorporating voice searches, mobile search capabilities and Google Maps™.
But, back to today, Macomb County officials are receiving accolades from users, the press and other government entities for following a vision, and accomplishing something no similar agency had done before.
“Property owners now have a tool to protect their property rights,” Sabaugh said. “With help from Xerox, Google and Search Technologies, Macomb County is making the search for the American Dream a little easier.”