Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

How to improve a government form (part 4)

A new version of the Board of Review appeal form, now with fillable and calculating fields
Today’s government form that can be improved (see earlier improvable government forms) comes from a department of the Montgomery County Auditor, specifically the Board of Review, which has a handy form that you must complete if you wish to complain about the county’s valuation of your property. Except that the form that the Montgomery County Auditor provides isn’t quite as handy as it could be.

The auditor’s form would be handier, of course, if it had fillable fields (why any IT person, even one working for government, would post a PDF form to a website without making its fields fillable, I do not know), but if you take a closer look at the form, you might notice some ways in which the form could be even more user-friendly. Notice that the form has two sets of fields for parcel numbers — wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of the user’s having to copy and paste parcel numbers, the form automatically set the values of the second set of fields based on what was entered into the first set? Also, notice that some of the fields on the form require calculations. Making life easier for users by keeping them from having to copy and paste is one thing, but preventing mathematical errors is even more important, and something one might think the auditor would want.

Luckily both these tasks—automatically copying values from one set of fields to another and automatically calculating fields’ values based on the values of other fields—are easily accomplished in Adobe Acrobat. I don’t claim to be particularly intelligent just because I figured this stuff out—Google is my friend and should be yours (as well as the friend of any IT person whether working for government or elsewhere). I did feel inclined to post what I found here though to make Google even smarter and helpful to future Googlers looking to improve their government (and non-government) forms.

Calculate tab on field properties dialog box
Right-click on a field, choose “Properties”, go to the “Calculate” tab, click on “Custom calculation script” and click “Edit.”
Where you need to go to make a field smart is the “Calculate” tab on the field’s property dialog box. You’ll be doing a “Custom calculation script.”

To have a field’s value set automatically to the value of another field, use a formula such as this:

event.value = this.getField("Parcel_number1").value

In this example, “Parcel_number1” is the name I assigned to the first parcel number field on the form. Assigning names that mean something when you set up the fillable fields will make your calculations easier.

To calculate a field’s value automatically based on one or more other fields’ values, you might use a formula such as either of the following examples.

The first example:

if (this.getField("Fair_Market_Value1").value == 0) { event.value = ""; } else { event.value=this.getField("Fair_Market_Value1").value * .35; }

sets a field in Column B on the form to 35% of the value of the field in Column A, but it also checks to see whether the field in Column A actually has a value. Failing to do that would mean that the field in Column B would be set to 0.00, which is ugly if there’s no other data on that row.

The second example:

if (this.getField("Fair_Market_Value3").value == 0) { event.value = ""; } else { event.value=this.getField("Thirty_five_percent3").value - this.getField("Current_taxable_value3").value; }

is very similar to the first example but uses two fields’ values to calculate the value of a third.

Even if you’re not proficient in Javascript, you can copy examples and modify basic equations to match your needs, can’t you? Sure, it might take more of your time than simply printing a form to PDF and uploading it to your website, but think of all the time you’d be saving your users, and if you’re uploading a form to a government website, you’re a public servant, aren’t you, and so your job should be to serve the public by making things easier for them.

Bonus tip: If you need to pop between enabling the editing of form fields and going back to data entry so you can test your work, SHIFT-CTRL-7 is a handy keyboard shortcut.

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