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Digitising the real-world: Transforming scanned text into digital data

(Image credit: Anyline)

Technology is not only changing the way businesses work but the way they engage with customers. From utilities to logistics and smart factories, the words ‘digital transformation’ are on everyone’s lips. Customers now expect a seamless digital experience when interacting with any service provider – be it a multinational company or their local municipality.

One of the most efficient ways for organisations to embrace digital transformation is by relying on technology to seamlessly fit into existing systems, to transform the analogue data around them into digital means.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software can do just that. Allowing businesses to simplify everyday tasks – such as registering a new bank account, hotel check-in, making an insurance claim, and activating a new SIM card, to name just a few.

So what is the real-world value of OCR technology?

In its most basic form, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a technology that scans and transforms images of typed, handwritten or printed text into plain machine-encoded text.

OCR has already been around for a few decades, but we are only now starting to see its true potential emerging in recent years as more powerful smartphones and mobile devices become a part of everyday life.

By integrating OCR into mobile devices, businesses can easily improve efficiency, reduce errors, and increase workforce motivation by removing mundane tasks such as data entry. And the technology is already driving tangible change across a variety of sectors – both private and public – and industries.

In the private sector, there is a surge of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and media companies implementing the technology in loyalty and promotional campaigns. The Sun, for example, uses OCR technology to power its Sun Savers app. These allows them to reduce the barriers to entry and increase the number of people using the app.

PepsiCo also make use of OCR technology to empower customers to quickly and easily scan promo codes under bottle lids, can ‘pop-tabs’ and inside crisp packets to win prizes. This removes a layer of friction that customers have to face when engaging with its marketing efforts, ultimately increasing effectiveness.

But the uses do not just end at promotions. Utilities companies across Europe are allowing their customers to scan analogue meters – such as the water, gas and electricity meters in their own homes – and quickly enter the reading into their system without typing a thing. Customers are able to scan directly from the website on their phone (without downloading a single-use app) thanks to existing technologies.

And outside of the private sector, the public sector also stands to benefit from mobile OCR technology, with Government’s themselves realising the value it can unlock. Again, in Europe, the Austrian Governments’ ‘Digital Council Office’ enables citizens to access many local government services on their phone by scanning their passport into the app.

With this app, they are able to register to vote, change their address during a move, or complete other tasks that in many other countries would require a physical visit. All with the added security that comes with needing to prove they are who they say they are first.

Taking the human error out of it

Let’s face it, human error takes place every day. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the leading causes of data loss or misinformation within business.

More surprisingly, however, it is not always new sophisticated security breaches, some sort of hardware failure, or data corruption that is to blame, but just simple, honest errors made by employees in the course of their work.

Take a simple logistical task such as reading and reporting back serial or bar code numbers on products. Sometimes the codes are hard to read, and sometimes people read them incorrectly in a long complex string of numbers.

Unlike people, machines do not get bored or tired, so when using OCR, this same task is a cinch – the technology removing all human error directly. Not only improving the data quality but also the speed in which it can be done.

An interesting real-world example of this is seen in Munich, Germany. The city needed a way for its parking attendants to quickly and easily input the license plates of offending vehicles into its system. Before finding a solution, these attendants were required to type license plate numbers into their mobile data terminal and then re-type the number backwards to authenticate it was correctly entered.

Not only did this previous method increase the ‘faff’ that attendants had to deal with when conducting their jobs, but also the time it took, too. These attendants required to enter the data twice just to validate it.

Enter mobile OCR… Now, with existing solutions, they can scan the licence plate instantaneously and get an accurate reading in under a second. The best part? The accuracy of OCR technology ensures that the data only needs inputting once. Gathering the details in a fast, simple and reliable way that enables attendants to better conduct their jobs.

The need for the technology and the growing market

OCR does enable businesses to be in contact with all parts of the supply chain throughout the business, but most are only just starting to figure out how processes can improve by applying it at every step of the way.

One way to quickly streamline processes in the supply chain is to track moving parts. Thanks to OCR technology, part location updates can now be provided in near real-time. By integrating scanning into their processes, organisations are seeing huge increases in accuracy and efficiency, simply by eliminating the errors of manual data entry. The technology is only benefitting businesses, and the use cases further show the growing market for the technology in all its various applications.

Looking to the future, the new use cases of OCR are only limited by our imagination. Ultimately, we are bridging the gap between the analogue and digital world. OCR offers a solution that unlocks vast amounts of previously unquantifiable data while simultaneously saving time and removing the potential for error.

In a world where we are constantly talking about digital transformation and technology bettering our lives, OCR is truly the last step to migrating to a digital future. Without it, businesses will remain just like the past: analogue.

Daniel Albertini, CTO & Founder, Anyline

Daniel Albertini founded Anyline in 2013 and serves as its Chief Technology Officer and Technical Director.