Tips & Stories

How a Private Investigation Company Uses Evernote for Case Management, Field Work, and More

Posted by Jason Frasca on 01 Nov 2011

Posted by Jason Frasca on 01 Nov 2011

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Name: Jason Frasca & Steve McDonald
Profession: Private Investigators
Location: New York City
Company: Davis Investigations, Inc.
Website: www.davisinv.com/
Twitter: @davisinv

Bio

Jason Frasca & Steve McDonald are expert private investigators at Davis Investigations, Inc., a company that specializes in video surveillance and investigations related to insurance, medical malpractice, personal injury fraud, and divorce. The company has turned Evernote into their case manager. Read on to see how they used Evernote’s open data format to build additional functionality to help them manage 600 legacy cases and 200 open cases.

We use Evernote, Everywhere:

Employees are often out in the field with their mobile devices. In the office, they primarily use Macs and some log into their Evernote accounts from home, on their PCs.

We use Evernote for…

Our whole company uses Evernote. We all have Premium accounts and sharing is absolutely critical for our work. We primarily use Evernote as our centralized case management system. We have 2408 notes in the system. Imagine how many manilla folders it would take to house our entire case file, which lives virtually.

When we first started using Evernote as a company, we realized that we could customize it to our unique needs (much like the way 3rd party developers have done with a breadth of integrated Trunk applications). We used Evernote’s open data format to create our own custom interface for the .enex format, allowing us to work with Evernote even MORE efficiently.

Using the Evernote data format to customize Evernote to our liking

We have to be able to quickly capture case information and also be able to search through all of the notes from an investigation, at a moment’s notice. Opening a new case file often involves a lot of repetitive work, entering in redundant information. We wanted to figure out a way to create a template inside of Evernote. Having some technical knowledge allowed us come up with a neat structure for helping us capture information for new cases using our own template inside of Evernote.

When we realized that Evernote notes can be exported as .enex files, we saw an opportunity to use a text editor to make changes across multiple notes at once. From there, we went on to build a full featured application that can manipulate a blank case template file and generate all of the notes necessary to open a new case with much of the information already filled in. This templated approach to creating new case files has saved us an immeasurable amount of time in the document-generation process.


Evernote for case file management

Every person in the company has a Premium account and we use Shared Notebooks when we capture information, create new cases, and need to access information related to any given case. Transitioning from our old case management system was easy; we used the Evernote Web Clipper to move all of our case files into Evernote. Here’s a look at how we keep our case files organized in Evernote:

  • Universal Index for every case. We have one Shared Notebook that serves as a universal index of every case. We use Note Links to navigate to the head note of each individual case. [Learn more about sharing in Evernote]
  • Shared Notebooks for all cases. We have another Shared Notebook that contains all of the cases. There are 12 notes per case and the bulk of our case files live in this second, shared notebook.
  • Tagging cases. We tag each case with the year, client, and file number. Each case has 2-6 tags. The title of each note has a an associated file number as well.
  • Notes to remember people. Every case we open includes a note on the person we are investigating. This includes their physical description, location, car, etc.
  • Client correspondence. Client correspondence is also saved in Evernote, so we always have a record of it. We have one tag that keeps it all together in one neat pile.
  • File storage. We store documents in Evernote, too. It’s easy to attach them to any note and always be able to access them when we need them.
  • Video storage. Since we do video surveillance, we have a lot of video saved in Evernote. Videos are saved to notes associated with each individual file.

At this point, 80-85% of our office work is done in Evernote. If we wanted to see all of the files from a certain client, we’d just have to start typing in their name (we wouldn’t even need to know their case number) and all of the notes associated with that case would pop up. Now, we can search back to 2005. That’s incredible.

Evernote in the field

A big part of our job involves being out in the field conducting and capturing video surveillance. When you’re in the field and it’s 5 a.m and you’re looking at your Android phone screen, you want to look in a specific area, get the details you need and then focus on the task at hand. You don’t want to be wandering around, searching for information. Here are a few other ways Evernote helps us in the field:

  1. For capturing information on the go. Clients call all the time to give us new cases, but we’re not always at the computer to process a case. The other day, Jason was out in the field and he had a pen and paper on hand. He was able to jot down information the client shared, take a photo of it and send it to Steve. Back at the office, Steve was able to open the case. Now, not only do we have the formal case, but the original piece of paper saved in Evernote, too.
  2. For collaboration. We always have two private investigators working on every case and Evernote allows everyone to be on the same page. If an update is made by one person, the other investigator is able to access it. It’s critical to be able to access notes as they’re being made.
  3. For having access to thousands of notes on your mobile device. When you’re out in the field, you don’t have your computer with you, but you need to have immediate access to information. Having access to our entire case file and having it be completely searchable — in seconds — is invaluable.

User Tip

The Offline Notebook is a killer feature for mobile devices. When we’re on surveillance, we’re not always in an area where we have connectivity. We travel in a 150 mile radius on a daily basis and there’s not always a cell phone connection. With Offline Notebooks, we can access the case we’re working on, even if we’re ‘out of range.’

Evernote offers us a really fantastic tool that is super efficient and gives us everything we need to organize our entire company incredibly well. It’s also helping us move towards a paperless and incredibly mobile environment. Evernote has cut the time it takes us to open a new case in half.

*Names and places in screenshots have all been changed.

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54 Comments RSS

  • John Pearce

    I would sure like to know more about creating the note templates. I keep a lot of notes with similar format but very different information (character info for writing, for example) and this would be a help.

    EN guys — can you point me to a guide or link on this?

    Congratulations on taking an already outstanding app and customizing it so well.

    • Steve

      Hey John – this is the Steve that was mentioned in the article.

      Without going into a huge amount of detail, we were able to create a template system for ourselves because Evernote can export and import a series of notes via a .enex file. This kind of file is written in XML that EN can interpret, but since it is an XML file, you can run basic operations on it (think find-and-replace, but across multiple notes at once) either in a UNIX shell, text editor, or in our case, via a custom application.

      The templates are all normal EN notes with “filler” information which then gets overwritten by our application. We’re considering working on a universal version of our CaseMaker app if the desire for such a tool is there.

    • Alberto Martinez

      I am in the same situation, I keep a lot of notes with similar format but very different information, and I would like to learn how to create templates. Stay tuned.

    • John Mayson

      It’s a third-party piece of software it appears.

      I have written some Perl scripts to create basic .enex files. It was more of an exercise just to prove to myself I could do it. This has me intrigued now. Maybe the project to get me programming again. Hmmm….

    • Mike

      Amen.
      The templating feature is a long-time coming.
      There are some standard things Evernote should be perfect for – such as journaling/diary-keeping. But in fact it is a little bit of a repetitive pain to use that way because of the complete lack of template capability so far.

    • Jim Sewell

      I for one would be interested in the app. We use Evernote at my workplace (online ticket sales) as a knowledge base tool. A template would help certain of our members to remember to add their name when they create a note as well as other important information we should have in every entry.

      I am impressed with how you guys (Steve and the others at Davis Investigations) have taken a great tool and customized it to be exactly what you need.

      I wonder, when you use your app to create the enex files do you then have to manually import the set of files into Evernote or is there another way to incorporate them?

      Thanks for the inspiration!

      • Jason Frasca

        Jim, thanks.

        The enex file is one, incorporating the entire set.

        You then just simply drag & drop it to the notebook of choice and it imports automagically.

  • Chrpr

    Are there no security and privacy issues? Storing so much of this sensitive data in the cloud, on servers which are not your own, and not encrypted seems to be bad practice to me. What if somebody hacks into your accounts?

    • Luke

      This was my first thought as well. I thought a laptop was stolen this weekend and my first thought was “oh shit, the thief will have access to my evernote.” I’m trying to come up with a good way to secure it.

    • John Mayson

      That could just as easily happen with a server they control. Their weakest link isn’t Evernote, but loss/theft of a laptop or smartphone.

      You either trust Evernote or you don’t. I’m glad to see a PI is using Evernote this way. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for my mundane stuff.

    • Mike

      I have to agree.
      I hold back from many use cases (though I do seeing others using them without issue – color me paranoid) such as putting receipts etc on Evernote for lack of good encryption.
      I’d like encryption to be settable with a label perhaps.
      So right when I put the note in, if I use a particular label, that entire note is encrypted.
      Maybe it could use something like a public/private key where the public key is stored with the note and the software provides the private key as a password to encrypt/decrypt completely client side.
      Would LOVE that.

    • Jim Sewell

      As with any security question the formula ends up:

      Data is considered safe if Value of Data < Effort to Hack My Security

      In my case I don't care if they get our notes on how a certain API works. I have used Evernote with no concern for security (perhaps recklessly) and when I looked at what I consider my most sensitive notes my bank statements don't have my full account number and nowhere in there are passwords, I use LastPass for them, and I couldn't find my SSN.

      Even if someone went to the extreme measure of hacking EN I still feel pretty safe for as long as it takes to change my EN password. Now, if I lose my laptop and it automatically logs in then I'm being risky with the weak point, as John Mayson said.

      The key there is to not remember passwords on the Evernote application if you are using a laptop. That and, of course, keep your equipment as secure as you can.

      Don't forget also that you can encrypt pieces of notes so if you do store a SSN or something else sensitive you can use Evernote to encrypt it.

    • Bill

      Also being a PI firm, we have similar needs. However we are prohibited from storing or transmitting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) unless in an encrypted format. Some basic information, notes, information on mileage, etc would all work fine in the manner described. Names, addresses, SSN, DOB, Drivers License Number, confidential informants, sensitive narratives, etc. could not be used on a unsecured cloud system.

      • Adam Ross

        I have to agree with Bill. I work in a school and due to the poor quality and lack of flexibility of off-the-shelf software solutions currently available something like this could provide solutions to many of the problems we are having trying to wean the staff off paper records.

        However, without guarantees about the security of data sent to and stored in the cloud we could not consider using it for our record keeping.

      • Jason Frasca

        All of our data transmitted with Evernote is encrypted – twice.

  • Patty

    I agree with John, templates would be awesome! It seems like there was some sort of templates in the very early versions of Evernote, and the ability to create tables? I really liked that aspect.

  • Maxa

    As for creating templates, you might take a look at what this guy is doing… http://michaelhyatt.com/how-to-use-evernote-as-a-blogger.html

  • Wil c

    I second John’s request. That looks dawesome and I can think of a quite a few uses both for my business and personal needs. Fantastic article all around!

  • Josh

    Maxa’s link isn’t a bad workaround (essentially create note templates by copying ‘base’ notes and then filling in info). It’s free, it’s available now, but it’s clunky because every item of info get’s it’s own line.

    However, the ability to create custom forms or templates for Evernote is something I would pay for.

  • John Mayson

    Coolest use case story ever!

    • Jim Sewell

      I agree. Great use and great inspiration! Thanks!

      • Jason

        Thank you Jim & John!

  • Gordon Robb

    Great use case. I too am very interested in the idea of creating ‘forms’ in Evernote.

  • Mike

    Great use case, as a PI as well, I’m going to implement something very similar. I think there would be an interest in an app for the template.

  • Yasuhiro MIKAMI

    Impressed. I use EN as a personal productivity tool and at the same time many note books are for my business matters. I want to utilize EN to increase my company’s productivity but I’m not in charge of the corporate IT infrastracture. But if this kind of templates is used in my business, the outcome increase is apparent so I can persuade the guy in charge. Thanks for your sharing the case.

    On the other hand, if this kind of template is installed as a whole in my company, I may solve the problem that separating offcial docs from personal notes looks difficult to me. There may be some solutions like utilizing shared notebooks but so far this doesn’t fit to my way of use of EN. Before that, I have to let my staff members accustomed to put the data in some cloud services and to share among the members. Some guys still hold their docs on their local strage only!!

  • Henning

    This was the best post on Evernote. Made me think about the Evernote as a system. I am wondering how do you deal whit the usage “limit” on 1 gig. Whit some video the storing can be a problem as a professional tool, ore?

    • Jason Frasca

      Henning –

      Great question… First, not every case has video… and only cases that have digital video would be candidates for storage on Evernote. Second, We only store a “scene” from a case where appropriate to aid in any future surveillance. It is a temporary storage, not a permanent one. Like you pointed out, the the usage limit thresholds would be met rather quickly otherwise.

  • Dan Collins

    Just wanted to add my thanks for a very intriguing use case.

    And for the ability to utilize templates. The use cases for templates are infinite.

  • Phillip Rodokanakis

    Until Evernote develops the ability to store multiple sub folders within a master folder, it’s pretty useless for serious case management or other serious management tasks…

    • Kasey Fleisher Hickey

      Philip, Not sure if you’re aware, but you can create Notebook Stacks in Evernote, stacking notebooks under one main ‘header’ notebook.

    • Jason Frasca

      Phillip,

      When we first started fleshing out how we would use Evernote to manage our cases this was the first obstacle we encountered as well.

      Evernote’s flexibility makes it incredibly overwhelming at first and not seeing familiar organizational structures like sub folders, it seems like a daunting task. Stacks work, though they were not available to us when we got started.

      However, we were to committed to making Evernote work for us and found there are many tools available that offer greater flexibility than a typical folder structure does which is how we made it a very serious case management application. We just had to think outside the box a bit…

  • Steve

    Hi guys – Based on the comments we’ve been seeing it looks like there would be a pretty solid demand for a template authoring/completion tool for EN. I’ll be working hard on it! Stay tuned.

    • Katelyn Gleason

      @Steve, will you be making this for the mobile iOS apps as well?

      • Jason Frasca

        Hi Katelyn,

        We will be starting with the Mac platform.

        You can create and manipulate your templates there. Then you will be able to utilize them in iOS as needed.

        After we launch on the MAC, we will determine future releases on other platforms…

      • katelyn gleason

        I asked because I have been working on an iOS application for this as well :) we should collaborate.

      • Steve

        Hey Katelyn – no plans for an iOS version at this time. Just taking it one step at a time. Let me know how your development goes. Are you designing a template creation tool or a template manager?

        • Greg

          Steve or Jason,

          My name is Greg and I am currently a private investigator in Missouri looking for a case manager like you have created. Would you be will to sell/share your template. I am new to Evernote as a user. I do have a business account and would love to implement a template like yours with my agency.

          Respectfully,

          Greg

    • Neil Chapman

      I’m an attorney who’s been using EN now for about 4 years in my personal injury practice: over 17,000 notes so far!

      I would love to have some template functionality like your PI firm has created. I’m trying to scale my practice, and this would be a step in the right direction. Right now I use the Apple Address Book, iCloud and iWork, though I’m investigating a Salesforce.com solution and a project management app called SmartQ that uses the Kanban approach.

      • Libby Thompson

        Hi Neil

        But how do you manage the confidentiality issue. This data is not encrypted so how do you store client information? I too have client information would love to use Evernote to store – but my code of conduct requires that this be encrypted and stored securely.

        Is there a work around you have found?

      • Neil Chapman

        Libby,

        My understanding is that Evernote IS encrypted. There is a post above from Jason Frasca with the PI firm that is profiled in this article stating that Evernote is encrypted twice. I don’t know; I’m no expert in this regard. But I’m fairly sure that Evernote is sufficiently confidential for legal uses.

  • Jeremy

    Can you explain in more detail how you use Notebook Sharing and Collaboration? Are you searching shared notes from a laptop or the cloud? I did not think there was a way to Search a shared notebook among users (from an iPhone or other mobile device). Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Jason Frasca

      Jeremy,

      We search shared notebooks from the cloud, macs, androids, tablets, whatever. Edit them too.

      The only limitation is tagging which we would love to see Evernote change [ehh hem] and allow anyone with permissions to edit a shared notebook, tag it too.

  • Bill

    Anything cloud is not terribly secure in my book. They are dealing with mountains of fluid content. I would say don’t put anything sensitive or inflammatory in Evernote. Think of it as a Facebook app. At least that is what I do.

    Also, if I were an elite private investigator, I sure as hell would not tell the world that my company uses any particular software.

    Yes, I do doubt the story we are commenting on.

  • Bill

    I have contacted the Private Investigation co and I will post if they respond to me.

  • Dave

    This site collects all the best tips for Evernote. http://appvancement.com/Category/Evernote. Have a look.

  • private investigator

    One needs to consider which is more important though: Privacy or family. As a basic institution of society, the family often weighs more. It is understandable it a spouse will contact an investigator if he or she has reason to believe that there is something wrong in his or her marriage life for reasons like suspected drug abuse, criminal activities, or extra-marital involvements.

  • dc

    Great idea.
    Thanks

  • Ronald Beaton

    I have tried about a dozen times to make your program work on my iPod4, from answering “yes” to query “do you want to open this in Evernote”? Then absolutely nothing happens. Ever. Most frustrating. It is usually a file unsupported on iPod by any program such as flash image, etc. where can I go to find out how to use Evernote?
    Thanks, Ronald Beaton

  • Lars Koudal

    Very interesting user case. I use Evernote daily, but I can see that I have barely scratched the surface of the potential that Evernote has.

    Keep up the great service.

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  • Private Investigation

    Hi,
    Set your goals: make a checklist
    Clearly defining your goals is a big key to your success. We often say something like “lose weight” or maybe even “lose 20 pounds” but what’s missing is when that will happen. Leaving the door open on the goal makes it easy to then say, “I’ll start tomorrow.” Set a completion date for your goal and check off milestones as you complete them.
    Gurpreet

  • Alex

    What I am interested in is the input form the PI company uses to input information. It looks like a Mac interface. How was this created?

  • John Pearce

    I would sure like to know more about creating the note templetes. I keep a lot of notes with similar format but very different information.