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Sunday, 5 May, 2002, 22:58 GMT 23:58 UK
Shredding for gold
Shredded paper and scanned documents
Scanning strips of shredded paper is what it's all about
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by David Schepp
BBC News Online's North America business reporter in Houston

For one Houstonian, the shredded documents at the heart of the Enron scandal have become a source of inspiration.

It's another vital investigative tool to help sort through a task that was thought impossible

Cody Ford, inventor
That spark has resulted in a computer-software program that can reconstruct bits of tattered paper into once-again readable documents.

The technology, the brainchild of software developer Cody Ford of ChurchStreet Technology, means thousands of hours of painstaking human endeavour have been reduced to a few minutes of computer sorting and matching.

The implications for such technology are many, Mr Cody says, even though he has had a difficult time convincing the Department of Justice (DoJ) his invention has real-world applications in its case against Arthur Andersen.

Matching and sorting

Andersen, the auditing firm brought under indictment by the US Government for obstructing justice, has admitted to shredding documents of its client, Enron.

A criminal trial, based on that admission, is set to begin in Houston on Monday, which could result in a $500,000 (340,500) penalty against the already beleaguered accountancy.

Worker taping strips of paper onto a piece of A4
Workers must manually assemble the strips
Mr Ford got the inspiration for his invention early this year when he, along with millions of other Americans, viewed on television the piles of shredded paper, believed to be important evidence in the case against Enron executives.

Mr Ford told BBC News Online he realised then he could create a computer program that would sort and match the strips of paper and then reconstruct them.

Phenomenal task

Within a matter of weeks he had a working model for his software invention and began shopping it around, looking for interested parties.

But even the media has been slow to pick up on his creation, partly because it seems the improbable task of reassembling scraps of paper must be the work of a crackpot not a serious businessman.

He says, however, it is not as implausible as it might seem.

The program works by scanning and assigning each strip a unique identification number. By noticing unique patterns among the bits of paper, it can then reconstruct documents.

The software "allows for the matching of strips from a phenomenal task down to just seconds," Mr Ford told BBC News in a Houston hotel room.

Cody Ford, president and chief executive of ChurchStreet Technology, based in Houston
Ford's idea is but a few months old
"Once the images are scanned and put into the computer, the matches returned occur almost instantly."

Saving labour

The amount of time involved to reconstruct documents manually requires hundreds if not thousands of man hours, Mr Ford says. His software reduces it to six or seven minutes.

The process requires adhering strips of shredded documents onto A4-sized paper with double-sided cello tape and then scanning them.

This itself seems a labour-intensive process. But Mr Ford says a team of workers with little training can quickly assemble vast numbers of the strips into "documents" while other staff proceed with matching and cataloguing at computer stations.

What is the demand for such technology?

Mr Ford says he realises the market for his product is unique. But the ability to save thousands of hours of tedious labour and better-quality documents should create high demand for his software and services.

"It's another vital investigative tool to help sort through a task that was thought impossible," he says.

See also:

02 May 02 | Business
Andersen lawsuit talks collapse
02 May 02 | Business
Audit giants called to account
19 Mar 02 | Business
Q&A: Andersen offices defect to KPMG
19 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen offices to merge with KPMG
19 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen regions in break-up talks
15 Mar 02 | Business
US bans Andersen from official work
15 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen UK denies Enron cover-up
02 Mar 02 | Business
Andersen suffers double blow
05 Feb 02 | Business
Audit giants called to account
29 Jan 02 | Business
Andersen on the defensive
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