By Grace Phua
To most of us, a receipt is simply a record of a purchase, to be filed away or thrown into the waste bin. Businesses, however, see great potential in aggregating the data from receipts. Like a nuanced conversation between a company and its clientele, receipts represent a treasure trove of insights into consumer demand.
“A piece of receipt reflects what you buy in the supermarket. But a bunch of receipts will provide a pattern of your consumer’s behaviour,” said Mr Don Tan, Co-founder of smart shopping platform BrandCode.
In 2016, he and his Co-founder Mr Shawn Ng sought to unlock the value of grocery receipts via a mobile app. They envisioned a system where shoppers are rewarded for uploading receipts onto the app, and over time, these receipts would serve as the foundation of data mining for the fast-moving consumer goods market, an industry where there is “significant brand loyalty and behavioural consistency”.
BrandCode therefore needed their app to not only be able to scan barcodes and receipts, but also automatically pick out and categorise specific information on those receipts. Without the expertise to develop this app function in house, they raised an innovation challenge on the Info-comm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) Open Innovation Platform (OIP).
A shared vision
Launched in July 2018, OIP aims to accelerate digital innovation through collaboration, matching problem owners to problem solvers. On the OIP website, problem solvers can find a list of problem statements along with prize money valuation, which varies based on the complexity of the challenge and the estimated business value if a solution were to be found.
BrandCode’s problem statement on OIP caught the eye of Mr Jorge Bisteni in Auckland, New Zealand. As the marketing manager of Xtracta, a technology firm specializing in artificial intelligence-powered data entry software, Mr Bisteni was convinced that he had a viable solution for Mr Tan.
“BrandCode needed to extract data from receipts in order to create specific and targeted promotions for their clients. Xtracta has been offering this technology through APIs (application programming interfaces) for the past four years, and it has proven very successful,” Mr Bisteni said. He connected with Mr Tan on OIP, and what ensued was a customisation of Xtracta’s technology for BrandCode.
In essence, Xtracta’s solution involves optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP) that allows computers to read and interpret text from images. Mr Tan remarked that Xtracta’s technology was very robust and outperformed other similar technologies he had seen on the market. Because Xtracta’s solution was market-ready, the two companies breezed through the initial phases of the OIP—a prototype was available almost from the get-go.
Finding unexpected synergies
Refining the prototype, however, was a tricky process. New blind spots surfaced—for example, in addition to extracting specific data from receipts, the data also had to be “validated against a number of databases with relevant information on specific promotions,” explained Mr Bisteni.
This meant that the data extraction process had far more variations and implications than was initially anticipated. Since the partnering companies were based in different countries, time zone differences also made communication a hurdle, especially when dealing with tasks that needed quick turnaround times.
Nonetheless, Mr Tan thinks that the collaboration has paid off. “When we first started out with the app, we were walking. Then Xtracta stepped in, and suddenly, we’re on a high-speed train. Our goal is to go from a train to an airplane, and hopefully ride on a space rocket one day.”
Mr Bisteni agreed that Xtracta has grown as a result of the partnership. “While Xtracta had the capability to capture data from receipts, BrandCode’s problem made us think outside of the ‘expense management’ use case,” he quipped.
“Their requirements involve connecting to different data sources, and using the data in ways we hadn’t thought of before. This helps us understand better how source data that would normally stay on paper can now connect different data streams and provide a much bigger picture of what is happening in the market—hard facts which will help in designing promotions suited to laser target audiences and bring better results,” Mr Bisteni noted.
He added that Xtracta may apply the approach developed for BrandCode’s receipts to other document types like financial reports and legal documents.
This is how a solution can evolve, said Mr Tan. “Everyone wants the perfect solution. But no solution is perfect, and through OIP, you can reach out to a group of experts who are keen on your project, and from there, learn from them. You adapt, and your solutions also evolve in an unexpected, better way,” Mr Tan shared candidly.