Google Reader: Digitize your paper administration

Keeping track of your paper administration can be a pain. Well, I know it is to me. Most countries’ laws force you to archive your paper administration pieces like invoices and tax-related papers for up to 10 years. Aside from the legal requirements, it’s important to archive in an orderly fashion, so you can retrieve a given piece easily and quickly.

There are obviously several ways to do this; you could get a shoebox and let everything pile up, or you could go with something more organized like a bunch of [real life] folders in which you divide sections with tabs. This is a fine methodology, but it tends to get rather voluminous after a couple of years. And along with added volume comes greater difficulty at finding what you need when the occasion proposes itself.

To accommodate this issue, I started scanning and digitally storing the most important pieces for a while now. While you could come up with a virtual folder system for local storage, it soon also becomes unpleasant to retrieve something – even with Windows’ Search or Mac OS X’ Spotlight. There are some proprietary database archiving systems out there that let you automate this, but I dislike my data being stuck in a closed box.

Google to the rescue

Recently, I noticed that Google added PDF-support to it’s online productivity suite Google Docs. While I don’t think Google Docs is very suitable for day-to-day word processing/spreadsheet-work, the PDF-support can be of particular use when dealing with administration and the like.

This is how I do things to keep track of my administration:

  1. I keep paper copies of everything in physical folders as described above.
  2. I scan the important stuff and export it to PDF.
  3. I upload the PDFs to Google Docs, archived into a particular directory structure. Just rudimentary folders suffice, e.g. ‘Invoices’, ‘Taxes’, ‘Contracts’, etc.
  4. That’s it.

While this system works for me, it may not for you. Also, consider your privacy when uploading PDFs to Google Docs. It’s not proven that any physical persons have access to the contents of your account, it’s generally known that Google has software scanning for keywords in order for them to offer contextual text-based advertisements. I acknowledge this is a genuine concern to be taken into account, this doesn’t particularly bother me.

Harnessing Google Search

I keep paper copies of everything because it’s compulsory where I live. The real handiness of putting everything online is the Google Search functionality embedded into Google Docs. This will only work if you enabled OCR when scanning of course (but most scanners do this by default). So whenever I need a given invoice or other document, I can just start typing any string I can remember into the search box and I’ll be sure to find the appropriate document reasonably fast.

I talked about me not liking closed ecosystems, but isn’t Google just that? The short answer to that question is a clear ‘yes’. Google’s solutions are mostly proprietary and thus entirely closed. On the other hand, Google is pretty reliable and offers its services for the best price around – free. All things considered, it’s just as easy to get things into Google as it is to get stuff out of it. At any time, you can download the original PDF back to your computer. There’s no straightforward way to get all of your documents out at once, however (another thing to consider).

A nicety about Google Docs is that it allows for online sharing similar to how Google Docs handles sharing with text documents, presentations and spreadsheets. When you hit the share button associated with any given PDF you’re presented with a form on which you can enter your friends’/coworkers’ e-mail addresses. Once they accept the invite, they’ll get read-only access to the chosen document. The catch: your correspondent must have an active Google Account in order for this to work. You could just as well attach the PDF to an e-mail, while you’re at it, then.

Concluding note

Moving my administration to the cloud was one of the last steps in my digitized ‘getting things done’-effort. Incidentally or not, I ended up entrusting all of my data to Google. The future will point out whether it was a wise choice. For now, Google’s services are pretty darn reliable considering their price (free). As a testament to that, I also have my e-mail, calendars and todo-lists up in the cloud with Google.

Short note to Google: you’ve completely suckered me into your services.

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