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

Having to deal with paperwork is a real pain, 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 that receipt for your two-year-old laptop, it’s nowhere to be found.

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

7;s powerful DocAI enterprise tool for document analysis, so 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 order. To keep their 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 would see what this stack was all about.

Bring in the stack

First, a 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 known as G Suite). Once you’ve installed the app, you can access documents stored on any of your Google Drive accounts, including Workspace accounts. This kind of confusion is not new to anyone involved in juggling multiple Google Accounts.

When you first open Stack, you get a series of icons representing a series of stacks, including bills, bank, house, IDs, medical, receipts, and starred. If none of them fit 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 that you can add to your top stacks . You can also create your own stack by pressing a plus button.

You organize your documents into stacks.

You organize your documents in 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 first screen where you can see your stacks) and “All Documents” (where you can view and search all your 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 the Stack:

  • PDF: Drag an existing PDF from any Google Drive account or from your device
  • Gallery: find a recently photographed image on your device
  • Camera: Use the device camera to scan a document

I have a lot of documents sitting in Google Drive, so I thought I would start by using the PDF method to import 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 bring in my entire PDF history.

The gallery method was also not very useful as it only gave me access to about a month and a half of the images 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, using my phone’s camera to scan a document from inside Stack worked fine. 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.

Either way I imported a document, I was impressed with how well Stack incorporated it. The app creates the name of the document based on its contents, isolates important details such as date and purchase amount, and uses the contents to determine which stack to go in. For example, it correctly identified a document that had information about the CDCs v-safe app as from the CDC and placed it in the medical stack. And when I photographed a very crumpled store receipt, it chose the retailer’s name and the purchase amount without any noticeable difficulty and put the document in my receipt stack.

You do not have to rely on the app to determine which stack the document goes in. You can assign a document to a stack by going to the “All Documents” tab and then selecting that document; its 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 stack if you want – for example, I put the CDC document in both my medical and star stacks.

What you cannot do is create subfolders (or subfolders) in a stack. You can also not tag a document. So if you e.g. Collect many medical documents from different doctors, 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 gets worked on, some additional organizational tools will be added.

On the other hand, a search (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 managed to find text in the pdf documents.

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

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

You can search for content from the PDF file.

You can search for content from the PDF file.

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

How much protects your documents from Google itself is, as always, up for question. In order to use Stack, you agree to Google’s Terms of Service (which you probably have accepted before, anyway, if you have a Gmail account) and Privacy Policy (same). You will also be asked to give the app access to photos and media on your device and take pictures and record video (while using the app, only this time or refusing). Both of these permissions are optional, but if Stack can’t access media or take photos, it probably won’t be very useful.

So is Stack a viable option for those of us trying to track life’s paperwork? For me, it’s not there yet – because it’s so early in its evolution, and because I’ve become a little cynical about Google’s tendency to abandon its experiments, I’m not ready to rely on all my important papers for Stack. But it has a lot of potential and I want to keep an eye on it.

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