What's the state-of-the-art in paperlessness?
September 21, 2014 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I would really like to be paperless. As soon as I receive them, I'd like non-junk mail and documents to be digitized, then shredded.

Currently, what I do is open the envelopes, decide how important the document inside is, then take pictures of the pages, then shred the documents. Later, I sort the photos into a specific album, then off-load them from my phone into iPhoto, then from there to a folder.

This is onerous enough that I can't do it under pressure, and mail piles up on our coffee table. Other flaws:

- No OCR, so these photos have to be searched visually instead of by typing in text.

- I rarely get around to labeling them, making that search even harder.

Things I'd like to avoid:

- I used to have a Fujitsu ScanSnap, but it was really finicky and, eventually, the feeder broke. If the suggested approach involves scanning, I'd prefer it to be iPhone-based.

- I don't want my documents locked up in some proprietary storage service, especially those that are subscription-based.

I see some older AskMes, but I'd like to know what's working for MeFites right now.
posted by ignignokt to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimers: I have had a ScanSnap S1300 for 2 years, no problems, so my first suggestion might be to check that out again - what I'm about to describe is my receipt handling flow. I'm also assuming from the use of iPhoto that you're on a Mac.

Check out Scan+ by Smile for the iPhone. Take the picture, clean it up a little, OCR it and save it as a PDF to Dropbox.

On the Mac, have Hazel monitor the folder you save the PDFs to. Hazel is a wonderful app for filing based on file attributes - it can recognize things like file type, file contents and other metadata. It can also rename, tag and file. I have rules in Hazel that identify what company the bill is from, tag it based on that, find the statement date, rename it in the format MM-DD-YYYY-company.pdf and (soon) send me a reminder if it's a bill I don't automagically handle through e-Bill.
posted by neilbert at 12:00 PM on September 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

OK, I don't use OCR, so I'm not sure how helpful this will be.

I have a Brother desktop scanner that sits in front of my monitor, which is on a desk next to a wall. On the wall I have a hanging three-column file holder. When I get mail in I sort it into scan-junk-other in the three compartments. Below my desk is a shredder I got from staples years ago. I scan all useful documents to PDF, I immediately shred all junk mail with identifying information, then recycle anything that doesn't (usually it doesn't even make it into the house). The PDFs go into a "scandump" directory, which I then bang down through and change the filenames. Then when I have time I move the files into their proper directories.

I usually don't have to make time to do this since I can kind of do it as I'm browsing the web and dicking around on my computer.

I tried phone scanning but it got annoying and frankly hurt my back. I've tried fancy organization software but everything I tried was a huge pile of crap. So I'm back to basics now. I have a small house and hate clutter and this just works the best. I find once the visible clutter is out of the way I can take my time sorting the PDFs. Frankly I am unlikely to look at most of it again so if there's something particularly important I make sure to label and move it immediately.

Honestly, though, the VERY BEST technique to use is to try to actually receive as few paper documents as possible. Most everyone offers paperless statements now. Plus most PDF e-statements are searchable.
posted by selfnoise at 12:10 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

We use a doxie and send the files directly to Dropbox.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can pay a mail scanning service to receive your mail and scan it for you. There are some that will email you a PDF, so you don't have to worry about accessing it through a service.

Your mail won't be piling up on your coffee table because you won't be getting it at your address.
posted by yohko at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2014

Response by poster: I do sign up for paperless statements whenever possible, however, many organizations, doctors and insurance companies among them, still don't offer that.

blue_beetle: The Doxie looks fairly robust. Which model do you use?

yohko: Is there a particular scanning service that you've had a good experience with? Do you just have all of your non-package mail forwarded there somehow?
posted by ignignokt at 1:40 PM on September 21, 2014

To answer your question, I have never used a scanning service myself but I am aware they exist.

You'd want to look at the policies for each company, some of them don't scan bound publications like magazines so you may as well just get those at home. There are also some things you might prefer to get at home if you have the option like credit cards and mailed checks.

Some of the services take packages as well, holding them for a certain number of days during which you can have it reshipped to another address.

These services are commonly marketed to people such as full time RV'ers who don't want to get mail at a fixed physical address they will have to check themselves.

Searching for "mail scanning service" or "RV mail forwarding" should find you some information on that.

Do you just have all of your non-package mail forwarded there somehow?

USPS mail forwarding will expire after a certain time, and some mail marked "do not forward" will be returned to sender, you'd want to change your address with companies sending you important mail.

If you want things like Christmas cards or handmade cards from friends and relatives to show up at your house, don't file a forwarding order.

Personally I would not file a forwarding order for just using a scanning service while I still lived at my "old" address, it would be really inconvenient to have mail returned to senders who did not know my new address after the forwarding order switched to returning things to sender. It could also cause problems with certain types of address verification.
posted by yohko at 1:56 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like Scanbot for this. It will do OCR with an in-app purchase and will also upload the PDF to your cloud service of choice.
posted by shihchiun at 2:01 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to "mail scanning service" or "RV mail forwarding," you might try searching for "virtual mailing address" or "virtual mail service."
posted by Michele in California at 2:34 PM on September 21, 2014

I use EarthClassMail because I travel and don't want to deal with paper at all. First, I had as much stuff as possible switched to paperless delivery. Then I changed my address for everything else to the EarthClassMail box that has been assigned to me. You can have a PO box (no packages accepted, if I remember correctly) or a street address with a "suite," which can accept packages.

They scan the outside envelope, and I decide whether to scan its innards, recycle it unopened, or have it physically sent to me. The scan is a normal graphical scan though you might be able to run OCR software on it.

If someone sends me a check, the ECM folks will deposit it for me by regular mail for a fee.

It's not the cheapest of the providers out there but when I signed up it had the best reviews and seemed the most reliable and secure.

For the stray bits of paper that end up in my hands, I use my smartphone and a scanning app.

For signing and faxing documents that were emailed to me, I don't print them out. I use PDFPen on my Mac to fill out the form and add a scan of my signature that's stored as a graphic file on my Mac. Then I use Maxemail to "fax" the edited PDF to the recipient's fax machine.
posted by ceiba at 5:17 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:55 AM on September 22, 2014

If you are excited about using the iPhone, I might consider Evernote. When you upload a picture or pdf, it does basic OCR. Tagging and the like is pretty easy too.
posted by advicepig at 6:51 AM on September 22, 2014

I use Evernote for this kind of stuff, but it is a proprietary cloud service and high volumes require a subscription. I don't know anything about liberating your data from Evernote. I would love to have a tool that does all of the same things, but under my own control -- but I haven't found it.

But my workflow is like what you describe: point iPhone camera at document, it gets saved, file and label it then or later.

As advicepig notes, documents are automatically OCR'd. You don't get usable text, but words found in the documents are searchable.

In general, Evernote is easy to search, which might be a big advantage over photo albums.
posted by grobstein at 9:50 AM on September 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have the Doxie One and I like it. The software is easy to use and it OCRs, and you can batch scan and batch process later, which is nice. You can add NiMH batteries so it scans where there's not a plug available.

Be aware that it's a single sheet feeder, scans slowly (5-6 seconds per page?) and doesn't duplex. The page width slider doesn't have marks or stops for common page widths. I also worry about the scan mechanism breaking. I would rather have a ScanSnap or a Canon that has at least a small tray and duplexes, but the Doxie was cheaper and it works fine.

I've also tried cell phone camera scanners. They work fine, but generally don't OCR and the process is slow for more than a page. I don't recommend this.
posted by cnc at 10:07 AM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answers, everyone! There appear to be a wealth of options. I'm starting with low commitment/cost options, then I'll work my way up to the heavier stuff as I go.

I'm trying with the Scanbot app right now. It is very polished. (Although, they should be more honest in their intro tutorial about the high contrast needed for edge detection. I tried just hovering over the document as suggested, but nothing happened. They should also prompt you to save documents somewhere, as I also took pictures before setting up storage settings and was mystified as to why I still had no documents).

OCR is slow as cnc mentioned (about 1.5 minutes per page), and the quality is rough. I get text like:
Plan Year: The dates your plan benefit maxrmums are applicable
STD'EOBUse this EOB statement as a reference or retain as neededPage 4 0' ‘
00000063900050:Y' méfmmlsTERED av . ;.“_—___meflw‘m,m..m“k , ..~wmwm
P O.AA (ii-E‘!"17"I\i"flfli Mo urea octet Arm 129
Egg LAKEOglng UT.. .L'rutr-dliealthwe wmfg-w.
However, as grobstein mentioned in regard to Evernote, it is good enough to provide PDFs with search value.

I'll try it for a bit and see if I can live with it. I'm not experienced with OCR. Given the same document (clearly printed black-and-white letters and numbers in tables), could I expect better from hardware OCR? Or is that just how it is right now?

cnc, what is it about the Doxie scan mechanism that seems fragile? The ScanSnap had a finicky mechanical feeder. I prefer stuff that has less complex parts. Think the simple Super NES cartridge slot vs. the spring loaded NES cartridge bay that would inevitably break.
posted by ignignokt at 12:25 AM on September 23, 2014

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