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 PIM (18)


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.


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.


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.


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. 



On the costs of tooling up

The next phase in my plan to build out my personal information managememt (PIM) system is on hold. My plan is to buy a ScanSnap scanner from Fujitsu to allow me to scan and OCR all my printed documents and thus make my personal document archives more searchable, saveable, and portable.  I even freed some cash specifically for this task, by allocating the proceeds of my recently sold comic book collection. Yet some months later it still hasn't happened. 

There are predictable reasons for this: procrastination and other stuff needed to be done, and the fading of that initial enthusiam that comes with being seduced by a new possibility.  The key reason, though, is that I didn't have an immediate project I was going to use it for.  And my recent experience has shown me that it is easier to buy a new tool or technology than it is to effectively integrate it into your life.  Kevin Kelly speaks nicely to these issues in a recent post titled Techno Life Skills

"Anything you buy, you must maintain. Each tool you use requires time to learn how to use, to install, to upgrade, or to fix. A purchase is just the beginning. You can expect to devote as much energy/money/time in maintaining a technology as you did in acquiring it."

"What do you give up? This one has taken me a long time to learn. The only way to take up a new technology is to reduce an old one in my life already. Twitter must come at the expense of something else I was doing -- even if it is just daydreaming."

"Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything until 5 minutes before you need it. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete. Therefore acquire at the last possible moment."

 I think it will eventually happen, just not today.





Getting the password management problem under control and then some

For 10 years my password management system has been a piece of paper in my desk drawer where I wrote down all the passwords to my different accounts.  Well, almost.  It seemed I never had them all in one place and was always having to reset one or another password because I had forgotten it.  Or I was at work or someplace else and didn't have access to my piece of paper.

Not anymore.  A couple of weeks ago I installed a software package called 1Password that allows me to keep all my passwords and related identity and account information in one file, protected with a single master password.  Forget or lose this password and the system fails, but in every other respect it seems a good solution. Not only does it let me store all my passwords and login information, but it lets me store all my account numbers, frequent flier numbers, software license keys, and even secure notes, so that I can remember what my "secret questions" and answers are that some sites require.  It is integrated with my browser so that I can capture and store logins whenever I access a system, and then it provides an easy way to generate strong passwords so that I can start using different passwords and strong passwords for every system I have access to, something that wasn't the case before.  

I had been thinking of getting such a tool for a while and was finally spurred on by a fascinating article about how a security firm was brutally hacked because the CEO was careless in the way he managed his passwords (among other things).  Like me he used the same password for multiple systems and in some cases used passwords that were weak and easily cracked.  With a tool like 1Password, there is no excuse for doing such a thing.  

The encrypted file sits in my Dropbox folder, which means it is synchronized across all my devices.  There is also an iPhone app that has access to this information.  So whether I need to remember the password to my wireless router or whether I need to get my frequent flier number, it's available from any of my devices.  I just need to remember the one password.  To me this is a key piece of my personal information management (PIM) puzzle and I'm glad I've got it under control.


   One password to rule them all


In search of the right notebook and notetaking system

In my last post, I wondered about whether the commonplace book is a good model for personal knowledge management or,  to put it more plainly, whether it is a good tool for capturing and remembering key ideas and concepts.  This has increased my interest in good examples of notebooks in use. This past week the VizThink blog posted an interesting 7 minute video of a designer discussing his notebooks, mostly filled with sketches and how they figure in his creative process.  I have also come across the blog Taking Note, "a blog on the nature of note-taking" which discusses notetaking tools and systems.  The most recent post discusses the diary entries of an Austrian writer concerning his system of notetaking:

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted.

I doubt my system needs to be terribly complex but it does need to be electronic. When I used a Windows machine I used Microsoft OneNote  and liked it, but now that I am using a Mac I am looking at tools like Devonnote, Scrivener, and OmniOutliner.  The solution has to have the ability to quickly organize and reorganize my notes and to create links between them which show the relationship of one idea or note to the other.  Thus, outlining capabilities are important as are linking capabilities. Otherwise I would like to keep it simple. One possibility: Mindmanager has the ability to switch between mindmap and outline view modes.  If each topic in a mindmap linked to a file containing a document or note that might work.

 Charles Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)


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...