IRS to launch PDF 2-D barcode pilot project with Adobe

The continually expanding success the past few years of its ambitious e-File program and promotions notwithstanding, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) still receives a goodly amount of tax returns in good old-fashioned paper. The thoroughly PDF-aware agency makes considerable use of document scanners and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to convert user-entered form data on the submitted paper forms into electronic information, says Paul Showalter, senior publishing analyst in IRS Media and Publications.

Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the IRS is participating in the first pilot test of the 2-D barcode technology introduced by Adobe Systems at this week’s AIIM 2004 event. (A 2-D barcode, however, uses both the vertical and horizontal dimensions to encode information, allowing storage of much larger amounts of data in a single barcode symbol than a traditional 1D barcode.) The agency can leverage its current scanning and OCR technologies and expertise, Showalter says, while improving the efficiency and data accuracy of forms printed to paper and submitted by mail. ‘The 2-D barcode on the tax form will allow the IRS to capture the data entered on the form quickly and easily,’ Showalter says, ‘and it’s 100 percent accurate. That’s pretty key for us.’

IRS Schedule K1 with 2D barcode

The upcoming pilot will test the barcode solution on three of the IRS’ most paper-processing intensive forms: 

  • Substitute Form 1041 Schedule K-1 – Beneficiary’s Share of Income, Deductions, Credits, etc.
  • Substitute Form 1065 Schedule K-1 – Partner’s Shares of Income, Credits, Deductions, Etc.
  • Substitute Form 1120-S Schedule K-1 – Shareholder’s Share of Income, Credits, Deduction, etc.

According to Showalter, they represent about 18-19 million tax forms and about 20 percent of the tax agency’s paper processing. Next year the IRS will do the same pilot with do same pilot with its 940 series, representing about 26 percent of its paper processing efforts.

The past few years the IRS has purchased and distributed to customers via CD-ROM copies of Adobe’s low-cost — but since discontinued — Acrobat Approval software, which allowed users to save data entered into form fields along with the form itself, something not possible with the free Reader. However, Approval was not upgraded when Adobe launched the Acrobat 6 product family last year, and thus is not included on the latest versions of the annually updated IRS’ CDs.

Showalter says the IRS is instead this year ‘leveraging the investment we were making in Approval in two CDs’ — the 2003 Tax Products CD-ROM (IRS Pub-1796), produced for the IRS by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), and the Small Business Resource Guide CD-ROM 2004. He says the IRS is still planning to eventually purchase the Adobe Document Server for Reader Extensions technology that will allow it to rights-enable publicly available tax forms, granting users additional functionality — ability to save locally, digitally sign, add comments, and submit electronically — using only the free Adobe Reader. At present, Showalter says, the IRS is able to distribute rights-enabled tax forms on some of its CD-ROM products through a limited-use license purchased by the NTIS.

Sample: Rights-enabled Tax Form [PDF: 74kb]

The first examples of the three Schedule K-1 forms with 2-D barcode functionality will be on the soon-to-ship final release of the Tax Products CD, he says. Also on the CD will be an installer for an enhanced version of Adobe Reader 6.x, one that includes a special Adobe plug-in that must be used with the barcode-ready forms. (If you use an Adobe Reader version 5.1 or later, you will still be able to complete the Schedule K-1 forms and use their save features, but the 2-D barcode functionality will not operate.) When the special K-1 forms are printed using the enhanced Reader, a barcode will print — using any standard inkjet or laser printer to print the Schedule K-1 forms and their 2-D barcodes — on the page. Instead of manually keying information from Schedule K-1 forms that have been submitted on paper, the IRS will use 2-D barcode scanner equipment and software to capture the same information with increased accuracy in a fraction of the time and cost.

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