Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Moving people away from commercial cloud services

A few days ago I posted an update on my thoughts about Eresearch support services .
One of the points I made was that no matter how desirable it was to move people off of commercially hosted services such as Dropbox, it wouldn't be easy

This ease of sharing and the fact that Dropbox is hosted 
outwith Australia is something that of course gives intellectual 
property managers the willies, but it is also a fact of life, and 
something that has to be dealt with - in other words, as Dropbox 
is already out there in the wild, and whatever is provided as a 
replacement has to be at least as good, and at least as flexible 
- which of course means it will bring the same intellectual property 

Dropbox, and the others, such as Evernote and Box, are in with the woodwork as they already have widespread adoption.

I’ve just had a real world example in which a researcher shared data with me via Dropbox that he wanted to have uploaded to our data repository, and have a Digital Object Identifier minted for that data so that it was citable.

In my conversations with him I followed the party line and suggested he use Cloudstor, AARNET’s file transfer service, which is based on FileSender to transfer the data to me.

As a service, it’s pretty easy to use. However, my client used Dropbox instead, simply because it’s what he was familiar with and he knew that it worked.

I am, of course, as bad as everyone else. I routinely share documents and notebooks stored in Evernote with colleagues, and share Google documents with colleagues, so I’m most definitely not going to complain about using Dropbox here - after all it’s exactly what I would have done, and as I’ve said before I’ve had publishers share material for review in exactly the same way.

Instead of complaining, I’m going to take this as a learning experience:
  • services like Cloudstor, are not going to succeed without a major educational campaign to raise awareness among the user community
  • competitor services like Dropbox are already well established and user have a high degree of familarity with them - any educational campaign needs to focus on cloudstor’s unique features
  • whatever value proposition is made needs to be relevant to the users - so if we want to build a unique selling proposition around keeping intellectual property onshore we’d better make it relevant and explain that as well
and the last point is something that we would need to think carefully about. My client was passing me his data as he wanted to not only to make it citable, but also open access, as he was publishing a paper in a journal that required this.

And if it were me my first question would be

If it’s open access does it matter it’s gone via Dropbox ?

And I must admit, I’d be hard pressed to find a reason why it mattered …
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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Eresearch services

About a year ago I posted my two cents worth on what an eresearch support service should look like.

A year or so on, and innumerable conversations with users, potential users and people who are interested I find my views are not much changed:

User wants can be broadly summarised as

  • storage
    • dropbox like sharing capability
    • lots of it
    • handling of diverse media types (agnostic)
    • assurance it is secure backed up and accessible
  • virtual machines
    • data analysis & manipulation
  • secure long term storage of data
    • publication of data for substantiation
    • digital object identifiers
  • advice on legacy data
    • format conversion
    • media conversion
    • digitisation
    • some bespoke programming, data wrangling etc

Dropbox is extremely popular because of its ease of use and universality, meaning people can share data from the field with colleagues, with colleagues overseas etc.

I have a second life in which I review books - it’s noticable that in the past year publishers have moved from sending you the epub or mobi version to sharing it with you via dropbox. I don’t see any reason why researchers should be any different in their habits.

This ease of sharing and the fact that Dropbox is hosted outwith Australia is something that of course gives intellectual property managers the willies, but it is also a fact of life, and something that has to be dealt with - in other words, as Dropbox is already out there in the wild, what ever is provided as a replacement has to be at least as good, and at least as flexible - which of course means it will bring the same intellectual property concerns.

And of course it’s not just Dropbox, we can say the same about Evernote, OneDrive, OneNote and Google Drive.

However in the course of my conversations one thing that comes up over and over again is the need for decent work in progress storage, and work in progress storage into which it is easy to load data, either by direct capture from instruments, or by some easy finder/file manager like process - people expect to be able to drag’n’drop and tellin them about some command line incantation with rsync doesn’t play.

There is an interest in data publication, but at the moment it’s basically driven by journals requiring that data has to be made available, but I expect that this will build as more and more journals require this. I also expect to see more interest in publishing source code and things like R scripts as part of the whole substantiation and open review thing.

There’s also an undercurrent of people wanting to return to research they did earlier and finding themselves locked out of their data because it’s been stored on media no longer in common use - such as zip drives, or in older data formats that made sense at the time. We could rehearse the open formats argument here, but that doesn’t fix the problem, which needs to be addressed. Allied to this is the need for a little bespoke programming or data wrangling to get data into a usable format, or to clean data.

So, one year on I’d say change hasn’t happened, but there’s nothing to say that it won’t …

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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Munich to ditch Linux ?

The internet has been all a-twitter today with the news that Munich was considering dumping Linux and going back to Microsoft.

I’m not surprised. Saddened perhaps, but not surprised. Much as Apple through the iPad owns the tablet space, Microsoft still owns the office desktop, and this means that if you want to do something different you have to not only do it as well as Microsoft, you have to do it better.

So let’s look at the Linux software environment and compare it with Microsoft. And of course when we’re talking about local government we’re largely taking about administrative and management tasks, which means word processing, spreadsheets, email and workflows - in other words office applications.

Libre Office and Open Office basically do everything Microsoft Office does, but slightly more clunkily and clever formatting in Office documents sometimes comes out a little wierd, especially if the original document has been edited with two or three different versions of Office, but in the main it’s perfectly usable. You’d be being snippy to say it wasn’t.

Ditto for evolution as a mail and calendar client. Not as polished as outlook but perfectly usable. And if you were a private individual or running a little home business there’s no reason why Linux wouldn’t work for you. The same argument applies to Macs and OS X. Or running anything with Google Docs.

And then there’s collaboration, workflows, business automation, call it what you will. Sharepoint does that pretty well. And in the Linux world?

Sure there are solutions but they usually involve keeping squads of wild eyed sandal wearing geeks in the basement - ie you can’t just license it, get some nice consultants in at inflated prices to configure it for you and leave it running the way you want.

And there’s lots of things out there to integrate. Useful things like invoicing and payment management solutions. Move to something definitely not mainstream and you have to re-engineer every damn thing …

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014


I recently happened across an application called Multcloud.

To be honest, the manufacturers asked me if I was interested in reviewing it.

I declined, because, as a matter of policy I don’t write reviews on things I havn’t tested on myself by using them for real work, or for which payment (or some other inducement) is offered. I’ve always believed in eating my own dogfood, and I find that way I sleep better at night.

However, I was sufficiently curious to take a look.

The idea is quite simple - we all have multiple cloud based accounts, OneDrive, GoogleDrive, Box, and the rest and we all end up with files scattered across all of them, and if you’re like me have different machines that mount different subsets of these drives.

The idea is to provide you with a browser window into which you connect all your accounts, and then which allows you to search across them just as you would search the disks attached to your pc, and to copy files between them.

No a stupid idea - in fact quite a good idea. Obviously there’s a raft of security concerns but the vendors claim on their website that all authentication is by OAauth, and that no data is cached on their servers.

Now as I said, I havn’t tested this tool, and have no idea how well it performs. It’s also not the only such application out there - a little googling comes up with a list of alternatives. However this is a product that might well fill a need for some people. Remember that your mileage may vary …

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Zotero, RefMan and Jabref

Zotero is a rather nice bibliography manager which can export references in a number of formats, including BibTex.

I was playing with reference managers last week trying to work out a set of workflows to get the information exported for reloading into a different solution - it’s the old problem of tracking people’s publication history and loading it into a research management system.

There’s a good little BibTex exporter for Zotero known as autozotbib that works as a plugin for both the desktop client and firefox that pushes the records out in BibTex as they are updated.

If you use dropbox for filesharing you can of course output the export file directly to Dropbox, which makes it readily accessible to a number of other reference management products, including JabRef.

In the course of playing about with this I also tried installing RefMan on my Android tablet, and telling it to read the Zotero output file - which it did.

Now I’m by no means a power Zotero user, but one thing I do sometimes need to do is check references and information, and something that increasingly I find myself going to a tablet to do so because of their extreme portability rather than using either a Chromebook or one of my aging netbooks. While I’ve only got one way synchronization - ie all the changes have to be made to the Zotero end of things, this little trick makes it comparatively easy to search reference lists with a native (and free) android app …

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Thursday, 31 July 2014

So what do you use?

I've been a bit remiss posting on this topic - it's actually quite difficult given that I flit between platforms and devices, but I've managed to come up with the following table based on my principle activities:

Windows OS X Linux (Ubuntu) ChromeOS Android
WordProcessing LibreOffice LibreOffice LibreOffice GoogleDocs n/a

LibreOffice via Roll.app
Lightweight document creation (MarkDown) Texts.io Texts.io Retext StackEdit MarkDrop

Retext via Roll.app
Spreadsheets Libre Office Libre Office Libre Office GoogleDocs n/a

Excel via OneDrive
Email Web client Web client Web client Web Client Application
Twitter Web client Web client Web client Web Client Application
RSS Reader Web client Web client Web client Web Client n/a
Document Management Evernote Evernote Web client Web Client Evernote
PDF Viewer Acrobat Preview Evince Google viewer Acrobat
Epub Reader Calibre Calibre Calibre n/a n/a

This of course doesn't cover the devices used - for example I'me still using my old Cool-er ereader to read epubs offline, while my Kindle is used for recreational reading, and I still use my old noname 7inch tablet for notetaking.

I also find I use my full size windows laptop at weekends for more serious writing but prefer my Chromebook during the week for email, web and rss reading, plus writing the odd snippet. My newer Samsung tablet is used for email, online newspaper reading and online banking, but strangely I still like my original 10" Zpad for viewing images, even if it's a little slow these days ...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Travelling with a 3G router

As I’ve written elsewhere, we’ve been on holidays, riding the train up to Cairns and driving back south through the edge of the western emptiness. During that trip we of course faced the great question of the twenty first century - how to get internet access.

Some of the places we stayed at provided complimentary internet, some did not, and some were simply out of range where there’s no coverage.

We couldn’t do a lot about a lack of coverge, but to combat the problem of small motels and rental cabins without the internet, we took our own, in the form of a little D-link 3G router I bought off of ebay for $18, an unlocked Huawei USB modem and one of these cheap data sim packages.

In the small towns of the bush it worked reasonably well allowing us to surf the web from an android tablet, check our email, and use internet banking and newspaper apps. In bigger, coastal places, such as Port Douglas, which was swamped with tourists, it didn’t do so well, probably because the 3G network was overloaded, meaning we suffered from dropped connections and timeouts.

Where we had good connection we even managed to have two tablets running at once - which was pretty neat.

It was fortunate though we’d taken tablets with us at the last moment, I’d originally planned to simply take the Chromebook and rely on phones for the rest.

Previously at home I’d successfully used applications on Roll.app over a 3G link from my chromebook so I reckoned we’d get good enough performance.

In practice I didn’t. The Chromebook was tempremental - I’m guessing just too much back and fro to big G and time outs. Where we had a fast connection it was usable, where we didn’t it wasn’t, even though our tablets were. We’d have probably done better with the Windows netbook I took to Sri Lanka last year, and using postbox for email despite my various whinges about the netbook’s overall performance.

Spending blocks of time - four or five days off the net at a time also just revealed how dependent we’d become on the net for news and weather information - in the old days we’d have taken an AM/FM radio with us and listened religiously to the news and weather forecast on Radio National - well we still have the radio we used to take with us, but didn’t think to take it.

We also became extremely adept at spotting where there was working internet in a restuarant or a stop on the highway - where the internet worked people, starved of electronic interaction, sat and looked at their phones or tablets - where it didn’t they talked to each other, and there were payphones and people using them …

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