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.   

 

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Tuesday
Nov302010

Yes, Virginia, you can take your data with you 

As more and more of my digital life takes place in the cloud I have much to be happy about.  I can access my information through services like Google Docs, Flickr, and Facebook from any computer and even from my iPhone.  I can easily share this information and collaborate with others secure in the knowledge that my information is backed up in professionally managed data centers.  Yet I wonder—will all this information be around in 5, 10, or 20 years?  Will Google and Flickr still exist?  Or will they pursue new business models that don't leave room for my data?  As new data formats come on the scene, will my stuff make the leap?  Or will it fall into the chasm of rotting data, and lie withering alongside the 8-track tapes and Betamax videocassettes.  In yet another scenario, what if I run afoul of Google's "terms of use" agreement and they delete my Gmail account?  You know, those pages of tiny print that we agree to and rarely read and which can change at any time?  If I didn't have a local copy of my emails, I would be out of luck.

These questions have prompted me to consider the question: can I take my data with me?  If not into the next life, at least into the next decade.  Thus I have looked at how the popular cloud-based services let me do this. Those of you who are Facebook users may be aware that they have recently announced a bulk download capability that lets you save your Facebook data offline.  I have tried it and it works quite well, providing a directory containing all the posts, messages, and photos that I had uploaded to Facebook as of that day. There is an HTML index file that lets me browse this content using my web browser.  So now, regardless of what Facebook does in the future—whether they go out of business or shutoff my account—I have a copy of this data. 

Google Docs has also done a good job with this, providing you the option of bulk downloading your documents (up to 2 GB at a time) and even giving you the opportunity of converting your files to a different format.  If you are using the Google Docs formats you have the option of converting your files to MS-Office, Open Office, Adobe PDF, plain text, and RTF formats.  Bravo Google!

Google Docs Export Screen

My chosen photo-sharing service, Flickr, on the other hand, is not as helpful.  I have a "Pro" account and have uploaded thousands of pictures, yet Flickr provides no bulk download option. I can download one photo at a time and even then, I won't get the captions, tags, or other metadata that I have added to my pictures.  Luckily, there are third party applications that have been created to do this. The most promising one is called Bulkr.  

I never thought about this issue when I signed up for these services but now see that the question of data portability is an important one.  Is the vendor locking up your data?  Do they let you easily export your files in industry standard formats that increase its likelihood of surviving into the next decade? But the responsibility isn't just theirs.  If the services offer these features you should use them, and periodically export your data and back it up using your own back-up system.  That is if you want to take it with you...

 

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