The Google stack is a smart, albeit incomplete, way to digitize and organize documents

Having to deal with paperwork is a real pain, whether it is a printed or digital copy. Tax documents, explanations of giving from insurance companies, purchase receipts, prescriptions, invoices, vaccination cards – the list of daily papers goes on and on. And of course, when you suddenly need to find an account for your two-year-old laptop, it’s nowhere to be found.

Google’s latest experimental Stack app is designed to make that part of your life easier. A product of Google’s Area 120 incubator, Stack is designed to be the a place where you can keep PDF copies of all these documents. As mentioned in our initial article, Stack borrows the technology behind Google’s powerful DocAI enterprise document analysis tool so it can organize them into categories – or, in Google Speech, stacks – and allow you to search for words in the text.

I have a lot of newspapers that I have to keep organized. To keep their digital copies stored and available, I use a combination of Google Drive, Evernote, and a PDF creation application called Tiny Scanner. It’s not an ideal solution, so when Google came up with the document scanning / organizing app, I thought I’d see what this Stack was all about.

Bring the stacks

First, note: The stack is currently only available on Android devices and can only be installed using a personal Gmail account, not a Google Workplace (formerly called G Suite) account. However, once you install the app, you can access documents stored on any of your Google Drive accounts, including Workspace accounts. This type of confusion won’t be new to anyone who has to deal with juggling multiple Google accounts.

When you first open the Stack, you will be presented with a series of icons representing various stacks, including bills, banking, house, IDs, medical, receipts and with an asterisk. If none of them suit your needs, you can click the Edit link in the upper right corner and you’ll see other stacks related to taxes, immigration, vehicles, and other categories that you can add to your top classes. You can also create your own stack by tapping the plus button.

You organize your documents into piles.

You can choose different bundles or create your own.

You can choose different bundles or create your own.

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

To start adding documents, press the plus symbol on the Home screen. Here are three ways to complete 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 on Google Drive, so I thought I’d use the PDF method to import documents to begin with. I was disappointed to discover that I could only import one document at a time – which means it would take me a very long time to enter my entire history of PDFs.

The Gallery method was also not particularly useful as it only gave me access to about a month and a half of photos on my device.

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

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

There are basic features to editing a PDF.

There are basic features to editing a PDF.

On the other hand, using my phone’s camera to scan a document from Stack seemed nice. The document is previewed before saving and you can adjust the color, crop it, and rotate it as needed. You can add additional pages so that you can have a multi-page document.

Either way I imported the document, I was impressed with how well Stack fit it. The application creates the name of the document from its contents, isolates important details such as the date and amount of the purchase, and uses the content to decide which stack to go to. For example, it correctly identified a document that had information about CDCs of a v-safe application as if it were from a CDC and placed it in a medical stack. And when I photographed the very crumpled trade receipt, she chose the merchant’s name and purchase amount without any noticeable difficulty and put the document in my account list.

You don’t have to depend on the application to decide which stack the document goes into. You can assign a document to a string by going to the All Documents tab and then selecting the desired document; its stacks are listed below the image and you can add or remove them there. And yes, you can assign one document to multiple bundles if you want – for example, I put a CDC document in both my medical and asterisks.

What you can’t do is create subgroups (or subfolders) within layers. You cannot tag a document either. So, for example, if you collect a lot of medical documents from different doctors, you have to put them all in a medical stack and search the required document or create a separate stack for each doctor. We hope that, as this experimental application is being worked on, some additional organizational tools will be added.

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

Stack's AI extracted data even from a crumpled certificate.

Stack’s AI extracted data even from a crumpled certificate.

You can search the content in PDF.

You can search the content in PDF.

If you go to the Settings page (which can be accessed from your personal icon), the app can automatically import all the 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 because Stack is experimental and can very easily end up in Google Cemetery). And if you decide that Stack is not for you, then you can export all existing documents to your drive and delete all your data from Stack.

Privacy and security

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

How much this protects your documents from Google itself, as always, is in question. To use the Stack, you agree to the Google Terms of Service (which you may have already agreed to if you already have a Gmail account) and the Privacy Policy (same). You are also prompted to give the app access to photos and media on your device, and to take photos and record videos (while using the app, only this time or decline). Both of these permits are not required, but if Stack can’t access the media or take photos, it probably won’t be of much use.

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