How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   




Textgrabber as a light-weight step towards getting OCR capabilities

Today I made an impulse purchase ($4.99) at the iTunes app store for a product called "TextGrabber" which extracts text from photos taken with my iPhone camera. I tested it on a snippet of text from a book I am reading: Charles Burchfield's Journals.  One or two letters didn't come out right but it was pretty good.  Once copied I can e-mail it to myself or cut and paste it to another iPhone application.  It should be quite handy for grabbing useful snippets to add to my online files.   Here is the passage I captured:

Salem August 13, 1914 I can imagine no more miserable person than he who has attained his ideal. Observe the vines. We have in our yard a hopvine which climbs a pole before it attains the top; it is fresh big & strong. Having come to the top the "shoots" wander aimlessly about & finally fall down, climb the pole again & so continue until nipped by the frost. The top is stunted and I imagine the fruit is smaller than if the vine had been able to go on up. So it is with the morning-glories. We should then climb a pole whose top, if it has any, is so high in the blue that we will never reach it, lest we like the vine become stunted at last.

Grabbed with TextGrabber


Au revoir, Delicious

Recently, I abandoned the Delicious social bookmarking service. Although it had served me well, its recent change of ownership had me concerned for its future. The new owners were trying to make the service into something else and I didn't feel like going along for the ride. I was concerned about the future of all the links that I had been adding to the service since 2006. These concerns turned to alarm when the export function that allowed me to download my links failed to work.

Repeated attempts to get customer support to help me failed. Eventually I figured out on my own that their export interface was pointing to the wrong URL and that the feature wasn't broken at all; they simply hadn't bothered to notice (or care) that their users couldn't download their own links. That shattered my faith in Delicious. For me this highlights a danger of using cloud-based services: once you've invested a lot of time and energy in creating content on a service, how easily can you get it out if the service goes south? How much control, really, do you have over your own data? 

The service I am using now, Diigo, won my allegiance by providing the correct URL for exporting Delicious links. Diigo is a more advanced service that goes beyond bookmarking and annotation to include screen capture and document capture.  The more advanced features require a paying subscription and I'm not sure I'm ready to spring for that.  I'm still pondering whether I should be using a cloud-based service for this type of information capture. I like their marketing graphic, however, which positions Diigo as an "evolved" information management tool.    

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.



The Revenge of the File System

Once upon a time—back in the days of Windows 95—a young reference librarian organized his electronic files in folders on the file system. Well labelled, well organized folders. Then one day, full-text desktop search tools came along and made this unncecessary. With a simple keyword search, he could find his files, regardless of where they were located. He was, after all, a search professional. Then better search became available with e-mail. First with Outlook and then with GMail, where Google encouraged him to use search, not folders, to find that e-mail he was looking for.  And so it was that he stopped putting his files in neat little folders.  And the files accumulated, year after year, job after job, and computer after computer.   

Fast forward to 2011. Multiple moves, including a change of operating system (hello Macintosh!) have left me with a disorganized mess of duplicate files and scattered folders. My files have become so numerous and some of them so big (work files) that keyword searches have started failing me.  One consequence of ignoring my file system is that I had forgotten about old files and their contents.

This became clear to me when I started to tackle my file duplication problem.  As I waded through old directories to remove duplicates and restore some semblance of order, I noticed files I had long forgotten about: letters and plans, reports and articles, funny stuff and packing lists from old trips. In the process of creating new folders and collapsing old ones I got reacquainted with my digital archives, what I have and how it is (and should be) organized.  While some of this stuff will never serve me again, some of it will and my awareness of what I can put to use has greatly improved.  

At the same time, I have become aware of how my photos and music files have been absorbed wholesale by the iPhoto and iTunes applications on my Macintosh, both of which encourage me to forget about the file system and manage everything from within the applications. The problem with this is that all of the organization and labelling and captioning work that I lavish on these files lives solely within these applications and will be lost if I decide to stop using these tools. Or, in the best case, extractable at great effort.

Thus, I have concluded I must pay more attention to how my files and file folders are organized.  This organization scheme, while primitive, is durable and lives independently of any software application that makes use of the files within. This makes it portable. I can switch computers or operating systems or tools without ever losing it. And the very time that I spend managing my folder scheme makes me better aware of the information that lies within. This ensures that I am more likely to use information I might otherwise ignore. 

 This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


Note-taking continues to be a conundrum

The simple task of note-taking has turned out to to be harder to master than I would have thought. It is my primary information capture activity, central in how I remember and learn and communicate.  

Yet my system for taking notes is far from settled. For many years I took notes on a paper pad and then transcribed them into an e-mail message or an MS-Word document. Here, the process of transcribing notes from paper to screen helped to organize them, refine them, and improve my recall of what had happened.  

More recently, I have attempted to capture my notes electronically in the hopes of saving time and being "more electronic."   As a windows user, I tried Microsoft OneNote - a nice tool that let me take notes and capture other kinds of information (and perhaps the only Microsoft tool that has a cult following).  Its organizational system of tabs and notebooks intrigued me, but I succeeded in making a mess of them.  With more time, I suspect I could have made it work for me.  But when I switched to a Macintosh, OneNote was no longer an option. So what are my criteria for a good electronic note-taking solution?  


cc image courtesy of Brady Withers

It must be instantly available when I need it.  I must be able to pull up the writing space quickly and save my information quickly.  When something comes up in a meeting, or when a thought occurs to me, I don't want to wait to type it in. This is a problem with cloud-based services like Google Docs and Mindmeister, because in both cases I've run into network delays that have interrupted my notetaking. Likewise, Microsoft Word is a large, bloated program that takes time to load.  For this reason I prefer a more lightweight program, like a text editor.  

The notes must be portable and easy to pull into other tools.  My notes must be easily converted into an e-mail or a formal document; or posted into a mindmap or a blog post or a personal knowledge-base.  This argues for basic text with minimal formatting.  This too, points towards a simple text editor

My notes must be searchable and organized. A quick keyword search should pull up any notes I want to put my hands on.  Ideally my notes are filed, tagged, or linked in such a way that related information can be reviewed and worked on together.  

For most of the past year, I took my notes with the web-based mindmapping tool, Mindmeister.  The notes were stored in simple text. They were well organized within the framework of various mindmaps, and I could access them from any computer, including my iPhone. Then I started running into network hiccups that meant the tool was not available when I needed it.  This, and my concerns over my excessive reliance on a cloud-based service have me looking at alternatives. 

Today I am using a free product for the Mac called Notational Velocity.  I like it because it is lightning fast, easy to search across all my notes, and easy to synchronize across multiple machines through the use of the free Dropbox service.  It is streamlined and has no extraneous functionality.  According to its maker:

It is an attempt to loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval. The solution is by nature nonconformist.

So far it is working well, though I haven't worked out all the details about how I will use this tool in conjunction with the rest of my information management tools. 

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


A new password management system gives me some peace, sort of

Last year I wrote about getting my password management problem under control using a Mac-based password management product called 1Password.  Now that I've used it for a while, this is what I've found.

The Pros

This software has delivered on its key promise: all my passwords are in one secure location and accessible to me via a single master password. I have used it to store all kinds of account information, from financial accounts to reward programs to the access keys for my wireless router. It has allowed me to create long, difficult to crack passwords for my sensitive accounts, because I am freed from having to remember them.  When it comes time to retrieve a password for an infrequently used account, I can get it quickly.

The Cons

The problem with the software is that the web browser extensions, which allow you to easily save and submit passwords on the web, haven't always worked. They don't always "remember" enough to ensure that I can automatically sign-in to a password protected site later. At times it works beautifully. At times it falls on its face, whereupon I have to open up the 1Password software, retrieve the user information and login manually to the site in question. Not fatal, but enough to diminish the sense of smug, self-satisfaction that accompanied my possession of such an awesome tool (when I thought it would work seamlessly).

The mobile iPhone companion app has also been problematic.  Entering my long master password (with numbers and letters) proved so difficult on the iPhone that I had to switch the master password to a long compound word with no numbers in it so that I could actually type it in without botching it. The built in dropbox sync to my iPhone is not working for some reason, so the new passwords I'm saving on my other machines are not propagating to the iPhone. When I have some time I'll see if I can get it working again.  The basic iPhone app that I paid extra for lacks the ability for me to copy and paste passwords on the iPhone.  This capability is only available if I buy a more expensive version of the app, something which really annoys me.  I wasn't aware of how important this would be when I bought the cheaper version of the app.  Now I'm just angry because they withheld essential functionality from the mobile app that I did buy. Last, I am prompted to update the base 1Password software with annoying regularity, which interrupts whatever I am doing at the time. 

On balance, this has been a useful tool that hasn't delivered on all of its promises.  The peace of mind that accompanies better and more secure control of my passwords is mine, but at the cost of aggravations that make me, well, less peaceful.

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


Cloud-based information travel runs into some turbulence

My love affair with cloud-based information services is now in the post-honeymoon period. I know the many benefits of these services and use them heavily:  Google Apps,  Mindmeister, Flickr, and Delicious among them. Yet as my dependence on them grows, I am starting to see what this dependence costs me.

First, there is the matter of network connectivity.  In the past month I ran into situations where the lack of instant on, immediate access to these services has cost me.  Flickr uploads that take forever; Mindmeister mindmaps not available for me to jot down that quick thought or those meeting notes; A google e-mail or document not immediately available to me.  The explanation for why this happens is rarely clear, I only know that at those moments I wish the files were on my own machine.  I'm starting to think that my assumption that I will always have a fat pipe, and that this pipe will only get fatter and more reliable with time may not be correct.  Given the net neutrality controversy and what I see to be the increasing fragility of our economic, financial, and energy infrastructures, I am less sanguine than I was a year ago about relying on the "cloud" to store my data.

Then there is the question of data fragmentation.  Each cloud-based information service is its own data silo. I want to be able to search across all my information with a single search, and these services don't let me do that. Then there is the question of vendor lock-in. The more data you put in a service and the more time you spend with it, the greater the disruption should you ever need to get your data out. Mindmeister requires me to export one mindmap file at a time. Flickr only lets me download one photo at at time. If I want to download the thousands of photos I have in that service, then I need to buy additional third party software.  Google docs is better, but it too only lets me export 2GB of files at a time--and it's not clear to me how smooth this process will be. My use of the Delicious bookmarking service is another case in point.  I will discuss this in a follow-up post.

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


CC image, courtesy of Yuan2003 on Flickr


Web-based mindmaps become my primary PIM and PKM tool

I have written about Mindmeister before, a web-based mindmapping service that I am fond of.  During this past year I have used a single mindmap to manage my day-to-day to-dos as well as my longer term goals.  I use this mindmap as an all-purpose dashboard, linking to other documents as needed--such as a google docs spreadsheet I use to track my project work hours and my personal journal, also a google document.  I also use it to store and manage what I refer to as my "directional" information, including my mission, my goals, my key research questions. My daily routine involves consulting this mindmap first. During the day I check tasks off as I do them, and add notes and new to-dos as they come up. 


I also use Mindmeister to capture book notes and thoughts on certain topics, in some cases attempting to capture and outline my current thinking on a topic.  Sometimes I return to these mindmaps and review them so I can increase my retention and memory of the topic.  Sometimes I add to them.  In this fashion, I use this tool for personal knowledge management (PKM).

Although this service is powerful and continues to be improved I have run into two issues.  As a cloud-based service I am dependent on my network connection to use it.  Occasionally this connection falters and the tool is not available when I need it.  Second, I am concerned about the lack of portability of these mindmaps.  So long as I stick with this service, I am OK.  But should it go out of business or change its terms so as to make it unattractive,  I will be forced to save/migrate each file one at a time to get the information out of the service.   Bulk backups are available, but only to large scale business users with a much more expensive subscription.  I will speak more about this in a follow-up post about cloud-based services

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.


Personal Information Management: 2012 Update

My personal information management activities in the past year can be characterized by the following headlines:

In the days that follow, I will write the brief stories behind these headlines.


Keep a list of important problems handy

The blog Taking Note just took note of a kind of information that deserves to be kept handy:

Richard Feynman seems to have given younger scientists the advice that they should keep a list of a dozen or so of their favorite problems. They should have this list constantly present in their mind. In this way they could relate everything they read or heard to one of the problems on the list and then determine whether the new information could help them in solving the problem. The claim was: "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work."

Although my notion of an "important problem" might be different than Feynman's I like the notion of carrying a list of important problems around with me.  I can see myself including this in my category of important information to keep in touch with and in some fashion "manage."  This includes the directional information that gives meaning to my personal research activities: my goals, my personal mission, and my guiding principles.

A new student perk: personal digital archive for life

Incoming students at UNC's School of Information and Library Science are being given a personal digital archive for life. The LifeTime Library, as it is called, provides a personal storage area and back-up service. Support for file versioning and other enhancements are envisaged, such as "drop box" type synchronization across devices and support for archiving content from social networks.

This experimental program seems to have two goals: 1) Get the students thinking about what it means to "manage their digital life" over the long haul and 2) Give them an alumni service that connects them to the school.

It makes sense that students of information science should grapple with issues of personal information management and that such a service could help them do that.  And with any luck, the service would evolve and become better as the result of the attention that students and faculty give to it.

The question of personal archiving is important.  I have written before on the need for cloud-based services to support this  (Yes, Virginia, you can take it with you).  It will be interesting to see if this service will keep pace with developments in commercial services and whether it can serve as a model for similar offerings elsewhere.