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Home / Technology / Google’s Stack is a smart, if incomplete, way to digitize and organize documents

Google’s Stack is a smart, if incomplete, way to digitize and organize documents

Having to deal with paperwork is very painful, whether it is paper or digital. Tax documents, explanations of benefits from insurance companies, purchase receipts, prescriptions, bills, vaccination cards – the list of daily papers goes on and on. And of course, when you suddenly need to find the receipt for your two-year-old laptop, it’s nowhere to be found.

Google’s latest experimental app, Stack, is meant to make that part of your life easier. A product of Google’s Area 120 incubator, Stack is designed to be the the place where you can keep PDF copies of all these documents. As mentioned in our first article, Stack borrows the technology that underpins Google̵

7;s powerful DocAI tool for document analysis, so that it can organize them into categories – or, in Google-speak, stacks – and allow you to search for words in the text. .

I have a lot of papers to keep track of. To keep the digital copies stored and available, I use a combination of Google Drive, Evernote and a PDF-creating app called Tiny Scanner. It’s not an ideal solution, so when Google came out with a document scanning / organizing app, I thought I’ll see what this stack is all about.

Bring the stacks

First note: Currently, Stack is only available on Android devices and can only be installed using a personal Gmail account, not a Google Workplace account (formerly called G Suite). However, once you install the app, you can access documents stored on all your Google Drive accounts, including Workspace accounts. This kind of confusion will not be new to anyone involved in juggling multiple Google Accounts.

When you first open Stack, you will be presented with a series of icons representing a variety of stacks, including bills, bank, house, IDs, medical, receipts and the star badge. If none of them suit your needs, you can click on an Edit link at the top right, and you will see other stacks dealing with taxes, immigration, vehicles and other categories, which you can add to your top tier stacks. You can also create your own stack by pressing a plus button.

You organize your documents into stacks.

You organize your documents into stacks.

You can choose different stacks, or create your own.

You can choose different stacks or create your own.

At the bottom of the main screen there are two tabs: “Home” (the home screen where you can see your stacks) and “All documents” (where you can view and search all saved documents without the “stack” organization).

To start adding documents, tap the plus symbol on the Home screen. You get three ways to fill out Stack:

  • PDF: pull in an existing PDF from any Google Drive account or device
  • Gallery: Find a recently taken photo on your device
  • Camera: use the device’s camera to scan a document

I have a lot of documents in Google Drive, so I thought I’d start with the PDF method of importing documents. I was disappointed to find that I could only import one document at a time – which means it would take me a very long time to retrieve my entire PDF history.

The gallery method was also not very useful since it only gave me access to about a month and a half of the photos on my device.

You can add an existing PDF or scan one using your phone's camera.

You can add an existing PDF or scan one using your phone’s camera.

There are basic editing features for PDF.

There are basic editing features for PDF.

On the other hand, it worked well to use the phone’s camera to scan a document from Stack. The document is previewed before saving, and you can adjust the color, crop it, and rotate it, if necessary. You can also add multiple pages, so you can have a document on more than one page.

No matter how I imported a document, I was impressed with how well Stack incorporated it. The app creates the name of the document from the content, isolates important details such as the date of purchase and amount, and uses the content to decide which stack to go in. For example, it correctly identified a document that had information about the CDCs v-safe app as from CDC and placed it in the medical stack. And when I photographed a very crumpled store receipt, it picked out the dealer’s name and purchase amount without any noticeable problems and put the document in my receipt stack.

You do not have to depend on the app to decide which stack the document goes in. You can assign a document to a stack by going to the “All Documents” tab and then selecting the appropriate document; the stacks are listed below the image and you can add or remove them there. And yes, you can assign a single document to more than one pile, if you want – for example, I put the CDC document in both my medical and starred stacks.

What you can not do is create subfolders (or subfolders) in a stack. You also cannot mark a document. So, for example, if you are collecting many medical documents from different doctors, you need to put them all in the medical stack and search for the document you need, or create a separate stack for each doctor. Hopefully, as this experimental app is being worked on, some additional organizational tools will be added.

On the other hand, searching (by going to “All Documents”) will usually find what you need. As one would expect from a Google app, the search works very well; most of my searches were successful in finding text in the pdf documents.

Stack's AI retrieved data even from a curly receipt.

Stack’s AI retrieved data even from a curly receipt.

You can search for content from the PDF.

You can search for content from the PDF.

If you go to the Settings page (which is accessible from your personal icon), you can automatically let the app import photos of documents you take with your device. You can also automatically save all your PDF files to Google Drive (which is a great idea since Stack is experimental and can very easily end up on Google Graveyard). And if you decide that Stack is not for you, you can export all existing documents to Drive and delete all your data from Stack.

Privacy and security

According to Google’s description of the app, “Stack uses Google’s advanced security and login technology to protect your documents.” You can also require a face or fingerprint lock to access the app – a good idea if you plan to include sensitive documents.

As always, how much protects your documents from Google itself is questionable. In order to use Stack, you agree to Google’s Terms of Use (which you probably have accepted before anyway, if you have a Gmail account) and Privacy Policy (same). You will also be asked to allow the app to access photos and media on your device and take photos and record video (while using the app, only this time, or deny). Both of these permissions are optional, but if Stack does not access media or take pictures, it will probably not be very useful.

So is Stack a viable option for those of us trying to track life’s papers? As far as I’m concerned, it’s not quite there yet – because it’s so early in development, and because I’ve become a little cynical about Google’s tendency to abandon experiments, I’m not ready to trust all my important articles to Stack. But it has a lot of potential, and I’m going to keep an eye on it.

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