Information in the Personal Cloud (Part 4)

Continuing on in this series of posts, I’ve now been considering the option of securely sharing content from any of your computers to any other. In addition you can share content to other people. This gets away from the idea of mounting the content on additional NAS; though you might want to use the two approaches in conjunction.

For this I’ve been looking at GBridge (PC only). GBridge uses GTalk, so you must have signed up for a Google Account. With GBridge you can access all your own computers using ‘SecureShare’. You can also use this to share with friends or colleagues. You can use the ‘AutoSync’ function to transfer large files and synchronize folders; ‘EasyBackup’ to auto backup important folders. In addition you can use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to allow you to access your desktop remotely or, when given consent and both using GBridge, access someone elses desktop (perhaps to remotely resolve a problem).

Importantly GBridge has Google Apps support, so it can be installed as an additional App to a Google Apps setup and all your users instantly have a free VPN and access to all this additional functionality. For a university some of this functionality might be being provided using other, expensive software. In this setting, GBridge could allow for easier on and off campus working, greater collaborative working, easier (and cheaper) remote help, and secure ‘video chat’ functionality.

See GBridge in action thanks to this Britec09 YouTube video:

Information in the Personal Cloud (Part 2)

There are a number of plug computing devices on the market, some specifically do this kind of function commercially. These small form factor devices are Linux server computers running on ARM processor architecture, and consequently only draw between 4W and 13W of power. They have an Ethernet socket and from 1 to 4 USB sockets. Once you couple an external USB HDD and plug into an Ethernet socket you have a Network-attached storage (NAS). This can then provide secure cloud backup, remote access and collaboration services, and allow sharing and synchronize of files on your local network.

The options include:

  • Pogoplug v2 Pink
  • Tonido Plug
  • Seagate Dockstar (based on Pogoplug software)
  • Iomega iConnect WDS
  • CTERA CloudPlug

I’ve gone out and got a Pogoplug v2 cos it was the easiest and cheapest route for me at the time. I coupled a Western Digital 1TB HDD to it and plugged it into an ethernet socket. The setup was relatively straight forward, and didn’t take very long at all.

There are three options for access with the Pogoplug:

  1. Web access via the security login
  2. Download a small desktop client for Windows, Mac OS or Linux
  3. Install a mobile app for iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Palm.

You can manage, access, upload and download content from anywhere. You can view your images, even as a slideshow, and stream video (you need to have the videos transcoded first or you’ll only see the first 10 sec by default).

Here’s a video of me streaming a video from the external HDD via Pogoplug simultaneously to a laptop and an Android mobile:

You can backup and synch folder.

You can share your content with other people by allowing access to specific folders and inviting them using the email invite option. Alternatively you can open the content of a folder completely and have a URL allocated. From your logged in access side it might look something like:

Setting up sharing folder on Pogoplug Then from the open web side using the supplied URL you’d see:

Open web side view of folder via Pogoplug(This folder isn’t open any longer, so the URL doesn’t work.)

By default security isn’t set, but you can optionally enable SSL, though this will slow down access.

I must admit that for about the first three days following setup I did experience some difficulties. Uploading files wasn’t working successfully; they would hang or bomb out. I resorted to plugging the HDD directly into my PCs to transfer files across. Then accessing these files was a little slow via the Pogoplug interface. However, following this initial period, things have gone much more smoothly.

Interestingly, the Seagate Dockstar also uses the Pogoplug service.

If you have any worries about the longevity of Pogoplug, they have said that if the company does dissolve then the code will be made available via SourceForge so you’d be able to continue using your Pogoplug.

I think the Tonido Plug runs all open source so that might be an area to consider further.

I intent to write another part in this Personal Cloud series of posts soon.

Additional information:

  1. Tonido – Run your own personal cloud –
  2. Tonidoplug – TonidoPlug is a tiny, low-power, low-cost personal home server and NAS device powered by Tonido software that allows you to access your files, music and media from anywhere for just $99 –
  3. Pogoplug –
  4. Seagate Dockstar –
  5. Comparison of hardware specs

Information in the Personal Cloud (Part 1)

I’ve been considering the area of information storage for a while now. As we go about our ordinary lives (both personal and work lives) we accumulate lots and lots of files; photos, videos, documents, etc. There are plenty of online cloud solutions available that could be used to store these: photo hosting sites, video hosting sites, or just plain file storage solutions. I have a track record of producing and hosting content directly online; and being willing to combine multiple different free services, keeping track of them all. However, whilst investigating some of the more comprehensive functions of such services, I was surprised at the rapid ramping up of costs beyond the initial level. To some extent it is the ease of access and backup facilities that you’d be paying for, but these costs would soon mount up. I wondered whether the majority of people I’m looking at solutions for would be willing to go down this paid for route, even though I am seeing an increasing number of them becoming mindful of backup, loss, retrieval and sharing of data and information.

So are there any other possible solutions? It occurred to me that if I was starting out to provide a file store solution now, would I come up with what I’ve been using previously? Well possibly not. So when I’m considering the topic  I need to think radically with a clean sheet of paper what would be the combined ‘best’ and ‘cheapest’ solution available.

It appears from a quick ‘straw-poll’ of a broad cross-section colleagues that their requirements seem to include:

  • easy access from work and home (and probably anywhere else)
  • large enough disk space for their needs & this can be quite large
  • ability to share files
  • 2-way file synching
  • ‘Dropbox’ type functionality
  • store a range of different file types
  • fast access
  • easy to use
  • potentially stream media files

There seems to be a big use of internal HDD for storing work, external HDD for backing up, pen drives for transporting and sharing work (particularly presentations), and services like ‘Dropbox’ for multi-location access and sharing files. There is less use of centrally provided file storage for a number of reasons. Also there’s a need to reduce the CO2 impact of services. Can this be built into the solution?

It’s true that some of the online file drop/store/share services fulfil some of these requirements and could well meet the needs of several people. However, from my perspective, there are limitations.  The biggest of these is the space limitation. Generally, you get a limited initial free file store of perhaps a couple of GB; equivalent to a pen drive for transferring files between work, home and other locations. After that, monthly costs quickly being to accrue with for example 50GB of space costing of the order of $10/month and 100GB costing say $20/month. Even that seems to be a limited amount of space for my needs.

If there was a more de-centralized model with individuals taking more control and responsibility, would it lead to greater support requirements? Or could it mean putting fewer resources into maintaining standard services and innovating more elsewhere?

Well thinking along these line I’ve come up with some solutions that might do just be the answer. But this post is already too long, so I’ll leave the details until next time.

What I’m thinking about is using a plug computer server solution with a (or multiple) connected external HDD and an Ethernet connection to their home Internet connection to host their own file store (NAS – Networked Attached Storage), backup and synching service, that they can use to access content over a browser with an Internet connection from anywhere and any device. 1TB of USB external HDD storage costs about £50 currently.

This would meet many of the requirements expressed by colleagues. Of course advice has to be given about using these services, and retaining integrity of data, hard disk failure, etc.

British Library Sound Map – Sheffield

The British Library has a project just started where the general public can record short soundscapes to be kept and archived for posterity. The pilot phase is happening right in the gorgeous city of Sheffield.

There was an article about it on BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight yesterday (listen via iPlayer from 39min42sec to 44mins) plus an article in the Sheffield Telegraph.

I spent my lunchtime recording some soundscapes in town, geo tagging and uploading them. By the time I got back to my desk they had already made it onto the British Library Sound Map.

Here’s my tweet about it. Follow the #uksm on Twitter.

Application of this concept has some great potential for education. It also shows what a multi-tool the smart phone has become.

So if you want to be a little part of history, get recording sounds to Audioboo. More details are on my previous blog post about Audioboo.

Socialwok via Google Apps

I’m currently looking into the Apps available from the Marketplace for a Google Apps for Education installation. One area of particular interest is social collaboration. If, for example, you are running a dedicated social collaboration enterprise solution that is good but expensive, is there a viable cheaper alternative through Google Apps?

Well, I think there is a serious contender and it’s called Socialwok.

Some people call Socialwok – Facebook for business on Google Apps

If you think about it, Google Apps is a loose collection of Apps. Socialwok does an amazing job of tying this collection together and enables you to see all the activity across the Apps, be that Calendar, Google Docs, Activities, etc. Content can be kept private to a company/university/school, with restricted access to specific groups via the ‘feeds’ arrangement within Socialwok. However, it’s also possible to publish to Socialwok while simultaneously publishing out to Google Buzz, Twitter, and Facebook; a time saver and potentially great publicity mechanism. Also external collaborators can be granted access to a specific Socialwok feed, something that I know is required.

The personnel at Socialwok are technically very impressive and rather astute business-wise, which is always a plus point when considering longevity in today’s world of technological winners and those that fall along the wayside. I think this video by Robert Scobles (Scobleizer) from Google I/O 2010 Conference in which he asks Is Socialwok the best of the collaborative enterprise social services? demonstrates both these aspects.

Another innovation with Socialwok is the integration with Seesmic to create a desktop facility (read the Seesmic blog post) to monitor and contribute to your ‘corporate business activities’, or ‘course studies’ in an educational setting, alongside maintaining your PLN of contacts via Twitter and Facebook. This is bringing Google Apps to the Desktop in a full featured client, with real-time social search and relevance ranking functionality. This integration is a point of pure business genius, and is highly significant, which I have to applaud.

My interest is in educational uses. When it comes to appealing to students and encouraging them to work with social collaboration media, the fact that the environment has a ‘look & feel’ of something they are already used to has distinct advantages.

Of course you might need to hammer home the differences in the philosophy underlying each. Something I wrote previously on the subject:

[Facebook/MySpace/etc] is out there, it’s open, just do what you do in there. The [university/college/school] collaboration environment is something different; it’s not trying to be [Facebook/MySpace/etc], and it’s certainly not trying to compete with [Facebook/MySpace/etc]. Our collaboration environment is more akin to a professional environment you might see within companies when you’ve graduated [uni/college/school], or a social network relating to a particular area of professional interest (an international science social network for example).

The [uni/college/school] has provided our environment as a secure place, where you can work through your ideas, collaborate with others, develop an understanding of how to participate in a professional manner, with the assurance that your work is secure and that your ideas remain just that belonging to you and the [uni/college/school]. The loss of your Intellectual Property is a consideration if you use openly available tools and environments hosted elsewhere. Put more simply, if you put your work or your ideas somewhere on the web, you might just have given those ideas away (the chances are you won’t have checked the small print).

By developing the additional skills that using such a tool can enable, you can demonstrate to future employers your ability to work professionally within a collaborative environment.

There are probably particular benefits to using the environment for researchers, with respect to Intellectual Property and the ability to work and share with external colleagues, partners and collaborators from anywhere in the world.

I’m rather interested by Socialwok and I need to investigate more fully its potential for educational use with colleagues.

Data Visualization

For a long time I’ve been interested in infographics. More recently I’m finding myself increasingly interested in data visualization. I don’t currently have the time to study any programming necessary for manipulating data, so I turned my attention to something I do know about – identifying and using freely available online services. So for the last couple of days I’ve been looking at what’s available, and here are some of my findings.

I’ll start with Tableau Public. On the site there’s free software to download, and the video provides an excellent introduction to the capabilities of the software and service. It’s simply a case of importing your data set and using the intuitive and straightforward operations of the software to quickly create visual representations of the data for easy interpretation. But that’s not all. You can now upload the graph, or map, or dashboard to the web onto the Tableau Software server. From there you can access it and embed it into a blog or elsewhere. But the information is served live, so it’s interactive, therefore the readers and other users of the information can manipulate the representation to narrow an area of the data, to target specific information of interest; heck, they can even embed it into their own blog and distribute the information more widely. The fact that the Wall Street Journal and UNESCO have used it to illustrate points from raw data has to speak volumes. I’ll certainly be using it in earnest from now on.

Another service to consider is Widgenie. This is a completely online service that allows you to create five types of graphical output. There is a very useful realtime representation of the graph alongside the creation ‘wizard’. Once you’ve finished creating your ‘widget’ you can then link to the graph for example to give co-workers access, you can publish to your iGoogle desktop, or you can embed it using the supplied code into a blog or webpage. There are some useful instructional video screencasts to help you get started.

Finally, if you are wanting to study some existing data sets, relating to the UK ecomomy for example, I’d suggest having a look at Timetric. Here you can view graphs, and manipulate the data, adding in additional elements from a series to compare the data graphically. Here’s the Retail Price Index, UK: average prices of the basket of goods used as an example.

Digital Storytelling – Bubblr

I’ve started to become interested in digital storytelling. So when I found Bubblr by Pimpampum recently I was very interested at the possibilities. Bubblr is a comic strip based services that uses the Flickr API to allow you to search for and pull in Creative Commons licensed images to tell a story. The interface is pretty intuitive; do a search via the text box, choose images you like from the returned results and drag them onto the strip. Add an additional image by simply dragging another and dropping it to the right of the last image, and so on. (You can also add them before the last image by clicking the appropriate option.)

Once your strip is in place, you can add comic strip like speech bubbles, thought bubbles and narrative bubbles. When you’re happy, you can publish your strip to the archive. You just then need to put a title to your composition and add your name. (There’s an interesting warning – your boss might see your composition so be careful.)

screenshot of Title and Name input box for Bubblr

Writing this post, I have realised some similarities between Bubblr and Vuvox Collage. So Bubblr not only has a digital storytelling use, but could be a presentation tool as well.

I’ve quickly created a Bubblr strip, Shots of Sheffield UK by Markuos.

Bubblr digital storytelling in action

There’s an archive to look through other people’s creations using a useful search facility.