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  • Matt Balogh

Personal Electronic Records Management

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Sapiens scriptum et notitia personalis procuratio

The inception of a PhD in computer Science at the University of New England

Recently, one of my power tools stopped working. Despite that it was a few years old, I browsed through my receipts and warranties and found that it had a five-year warranty. Bunnings refunded me the purchase price against a replacement that cost less than the original. I walked out with the newest model of the same tool, plus some cash on top. This instance was just one momentary example of the benefit of keeping and being able to find a receipt. There are many more examples of how effectively managing personal information and documents is beneficial – if only to avoid fines and costs. For example, the end of registration stickers on cars in NSW takes away the visual reminder of when car registrations are due. There are many stories of people that only realise their car registration has expired when they see the blue flashing lights of a police car in their rear mirror. Police NSW police cars in NSW carry hi-tech cameras that scan up to six licence plates per second.

Telecommunications service providers automatically charge a flat overdue fee of $15 for late payment of bills with no reminders. Large service providers have a record of charging, pursuing and sometimes selling poorly substantiated consumer debts.

In 2018 and 2019 the Australian Government operated a ‘robo debt’ scheme that compared their customer records to the same person’s income records at the Australian Taxation Office - and automatically issued debt recovery proceedings if the information appeared to indicate an over-claim on Centrelink benefits. One problem with the scheme was that Centrelink benefits were often paid based on the recipients’ financial status at a given time during the year – such as when they were unemployed. The tax records relied on a full-year summary, so that if the recipient got a job later in the year, the figures could make them appear to have been ineligible for the Centrelink benefit based on income averaging through the year. The burden was placed on the recipient to disprove the debt. This required that the recipient had week-by-week income records from up to six years prior. This debt collection process was later curtailed by the Australian Federal court – but highlighted significant record-keeping issues for people – including the need to keep pay slips and bank statements. Banks are only required to keep records for five years (Tonkin, 2019). Online transaction histories often only provide a couple of years of back-data.

Businesses use sophisticated systems to ensure that the length of a warranty, and particularly extended warranties, are a profitable venture (Díaz, Gómez, López, Crespo, & de León, 2009; Ladany & Shore, 2007, p. 292; Wu, 2011; Wu & Akbarov, 2012), and that the sale of gift cards profit from peoples failure to fully redeem their gift vouchers (N. Jones, 2009). Businesses and retailers have a range of software to manage their businesses – the website, Software Advice ("Retail POS Systems," 2020) lists 383 retail software packages, and the Capterra website ("Business Management Software," 2020) lists hundreds of business management software options. A similar computer-based search approach for personal information management software brings up no results applicable to individuals.

There are countless stories of travellers failing to examine the detail of an itinerary, only to find they missed a flight connection, perhaps because the inbound and outbound flights were from different airports, or due to some similar over-looked detail. Travel agent software does not pick up these kinds of issues, nor do travel itinerary apps. If a flight can be filled, it will be slightly overbooked – airlines count on a small number of passengers missing every flight (March, 2019). Personal calendars and itinerary managers and calendars do not come close to providing the consistency and helpfulness that comparable businesses software provides.

The end of the financial year brings many people news of unexpected debts, or the delight of an unexpected tax refund – while a business or organisation is typically furnished with constant forecasts.

There are business management systems for nearly every industry and many accounting packages for enterprises. But are there personal management tools that assist people in the same way? Are there accounting packages designed for people rather than bookkeepers? There are bill managers that keep account of spending and remind the user to pay a bill – so long as they received it. But are there applications that notice if a bill, car registration or insurance renewal doesn’t arrive in the first place?

One challenge might be that we may not anticipate what information or documents we need to retain until it is too late to retrieve. Should people keep a copy of every document that passes through their hands? And what does ‘every document’ mean? Where would so much digital paperwork be kept? Could a digital storage system do this effectively – and if so, how could it be made to be effortless to store and retrieve information and documents?

As we consider this challenge, we realise it does not just relate to documents – but snippets of information – the question arises as to the role of documents at all. Most of the documents in my desk files were print outs of pdfs representing purchases and transactions. The same document could be associated with many different transactions. For instance, the receipt for a new computer may need to be associated with business expenses in personal accounting, expense management for budgeting, and kept in the shoe box of manuals and warranties. Using folders on a computer or a cloud-based storage could have this same document stored many times. The documents themselves are highly inconsistent in their size and format.

Many documents are just wrapping paper for a transaction number, time and date – and perhaps some other fields of information. Yet these documents are filling shoe boxes under beds, cardboard boxes in attics and bigger and bigger USB drives. When the document owner passes away, they leave a digital heritage for beneficiaries to sort out. There is increasing evidence that people may need a digital estate and strategy to deal with their digital possessions.

I had been thinking about this problem and experimenting with a solution application for a year before it occurred to me to do a PhD. How can people manage their information and documents in a way that protects them from not having (or being reminded about) information or documents when they are needed – without having to actively work at filing and indexing information, and without having a clutter of information and documents – albeit in a digital format? I was soon to discover a plethora of research on personal information management, of which even the most recent concludes that people are not satisfied with how they do this.

Perhaps an application that manages personal information and associated documents would be just part of a broader network, a spider’s web of information transactions. Could one build a working open platform prototype of such a system, that would manage people’s information and documents conveniently and easily used on a mobile device? And if such an application contained information, and more importantly, information usage patterns, for lots of people, could those patterns be used to predicatively assist people in their information and document management?

Many questions come to mind: What is already known about how (and what) information and documents people keep – or need to keep? And how do people keep (or not keep) and find (or not find) those information and documents? What solutions are already available? It is not hard to imaginean application that could manage our information and documents – but what does that application do, and how would it work? What models and analogies can we draw on?

There are questions about technical efficiency. Where and how should digital documents be stored efficiently – in the cloud? On a home server? Would the documents be stored within the application, or could an application just manage the documents stored – wherever the user wants?

It has been illustrated that businesses and organisations use their efficient electronic systems as a tool to exploit people who do not manage their personal information and documentary records well. Surely the scales could be more balanced by smart personal information and document management system for people?

This leads to this question:

What are the requirements for a smart personal information and document management system?

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