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.   



Entries in cloud computing (3)


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.



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


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...