- Flickr/Steven Depolo
- Expense-tracking software maker Expensify advertises its system as “automated,” but it also relies on humans to classify receipts, a fact that became widely known last week.
- Expensify considers its use of humans to be an asset and never intended to hide it, CEO David Barrett told Business Insider.
- The company’s use of people to review receipts came to light because of a trial it was running on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.
- Critics have have charged that the company isn’t being upfront about how its system works and have raised privacy concerns about allowing Mechanical Turk workers to review receipts.
When it comes to Expensify, it turns out sometimes there really is a man – or a woman – in the machine.
The expense-tracking software company caused a stir over Thanksgiving following revelations that it uses humans to complete some tasks that it widely advertises as automated.
But David Barrett, Expensify’s CEO, wonders what the fuss is all about. The company’s human helpers were never supposed to be a secret, he said.
“We feel we’ve been very upfront and proud of the fact that we’re engaging humans, because that’s our secret for how we get such high accuracy,” Barrett told Business Insider. “I think that the biggest take away from all of this is that we need to update our documentation.”
Though Expensify has acknowledged its use of humans in the past, critics argue its use of people to complete some tasks is counter to the company’s advertising and branding, which focus on its automation. They’ve also raised privacy concerns, noting that the receipts often include sensitive information, including users’ full names and addresses.
While much of Expensify’s process is indeed automated, the company sends receipts to humans when its software can’t read them by itself, according to the company. When Expensify launched in 2009, it relied on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, which links workers from around the world with companies needing tasks completed. Since 2013, though, it’s generally used privately employed workers rather than relying on those provided by Mechanical Turk.
Expensify was testing using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – again
The company’s use of humans to review receipts was put in the spotlight recently after it changed that practice of relying just on its private workers. Earlier this month, the company started testing using Mechanical Turk again, at least with some receipts. That test came to light last week when digital labor activist Rochelle LaPlante noted on Twitter that she’d seen an Expensify customer’s Uber receipt on Mechanical Turk. The receipt, which contained personal information including the pick-up and drop-off addresses, was visible to everyone with a Mechanical Turk account, according to LaPlante.
I wonder if Expensify SmartScan users know MTurk workers enter their receipts. I’m looking at someone’s Uber receipt with their full name, pick up, and drop off addresses.
— Rochelle (@Rochelle) November 23, 2017
According to Expensify, only about 1 in 25,000 of its customers had their receipts processed by Mechanical Turk in the test. Expensify has both paying and non-paying customers. During the trial, which started on November 15 and ended on November 23, Expensify sent about 10% of its receipts from non-paying customers to Mechanical Turk to process.
Additionally, the period when Expensify receipts submitted to the system could be viewed by all Mechanical Turk workers was only for 24 hours between November 22 and 23, according to the company. For most of the trial, Expensify used Mechanical Turk simply as a routing system for its own private workers and only they had access to its receipts, not the whole universe of Mechanical Turk workers.
When using human workers is just a ‘technical detail’
While critics charge that Expensify is being disingenuous by calling its service “automated” when it frequently relies on human workers to review receipts, Barrett disagrees. What an “automated” process means for the company is that users don’t have to enter the information themselves, he said.
“How it’s implemented behind the scenes is a technical detail,” Barret said. “We don’t talk about a lot of the technical details as to how we make the magic happen across the board. We just talk about what the magic itself is.”
Though Expensify ended its trial, it’s moving forward with a new product called Private SmartScan, which also relies on Mechanical Turk. Private SmartScan is designed for companies with particular privacy requirements and allows them to use their own employees to classify receipts that Expensify’s system can’t identify. Through the service, Expensify will send those receipts to such companies’ workers to review via Mechanical Turk.