Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Digital Resolutions

Well it's January again; time to plan for the New Year... time to commit to doing all those things left undone in the old one. New Year's resolutions, for most however, conjure up visions of treadmill inflicted collapse, dreary, tea-totalling, domestic evenings with the cat, or attempts to maintain a jittery grasp on the coffee cup in the absence of the usual stabilizing fumes wafting about one's head. When the term resolution is utilised in the world of technology, it's usually followed by a set of numeric values. This column will endeavour to provide an alternative perspective.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do.

I suppose the genesis of this article lies in the fact that I am becoming increasingly aware of my own bad habits in the digital realm, and am attempting to direct my energies in support of their correction. This realisation hit me particularly hard when I recently undertook to convert all my past articles into HTML format for archival publication on my personal website. Well, almost 14 years of inconsistent backup strategies, computer upgrades, and hardware failures over the course of my career as a columnist left me with a fraction of the content I've actually had published; and while I'm certain it's no great loss to the world of journalism, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't upset. Resolution one: reliable backup.

Backup Is Boring!

Nobody wants to take time out of their day to make backups; after all, what are the chances your hard drive is going to fail before you finally get around to it? Nobody likes buying insurance either.

The thing is, hardware failure is only part of the problem. Far more frequently, disorganisation leads to data loss. People store their files all over the place: MyDocuments, the Desktop, in email attachments, random directories on their hard drives, thumb drives, optical media, network drives, and so on. If you don't know where your data is, or more often, forget that it's there in the first place, you're well on the road to its loss.

Consistency in storage location is key to data retention – create a coherent strategy and stick with it.

Ok, so now that you've got a folder structure that makes sense, all your important files are appropriately sorted into their respective directories, and you're determined to keep them that way, it's time to think  about hardware failure. True, hard drives typically last several years, but often give no warning in advance of complete breakdown. So, if expensive data recovery services aren't an attractive option, RAID is not in your vocabulary, and you don't want to be tinkering with hardware and software all day, then a simple backup strategy would be the way to go.

So, do you have to go out and purchase expensive hardware and software to accomplish this? Happily, no.  There are a variety of products which accomplish the task admirably; however, for my money, you can't beat free. This is exactly the price of a great product called Cobian Backup, an open source Windows application that will take care of all your needs in this regard. It's dead easy to use, comes with a comprehensive tutorial, and in my experience, works flawlessly. Just hook up an inexpensive external USB hard drive, select the files you want to backup and on what schedule you want that to happen, and it'll  take care of the rest. Cobian even supports FTP, so you can perform concurrent backups to an online server as well as your external hard drive for belt and suspenders security. After all, your external  drive isn't going to help you much in the event of a fire.

For a purely online backup, why not give iDrive.com a try? They provide 2GB of free, encrypted storage, super user-friendly software, and of course, the option to upgrade to more space for a monthly fee. If you do require more online storage however; carbonite.com might be the better option as they provide completely automated backup of any amount of data, for one low annual fee.

Where's That Photo?

In a similar vein, as digital cameras have become increasingly common, everyone seems to have thousands of photos littering their hard drives... and very few prints. When you ask to see them, they'll enthusiastically request you crowd around their PC in order that they might present a slideshow of their latest. If you were to ask them to find a particular photo from some time ago however, or photos with a set of specific attributes, say, all pictures of my niece at grandma's birthday 2 years ago, that enthusiasm may very likely turn to frustration.

As an avid photographer, with nearly 200GB of photos, I needed to get organised in a big way. Resolution number two: maintain my metadata.

What's metadata? Well, simply, it's data about data. Confused? Don't be. When applied to a particular photo for instance, it's details about date of capture, camera model, lens used, aperture, shutter speed, user supplied keywords, and even spatial coordinates etc., all either embedded in the photo itself or included in what's known as a ‘sidecar' file which is associated with the original.

With the right tools, and proper attention to metadata entry, I could instantly find for example, all the photos I shot between January and March of last year, featuring cousin Jerry wearing his ridiculous hat, shot using a shallow depth of field, in Palenque, Mexico. Or, more likely, I could simply conduct a broad search for ‘all photos of my sister taken this year'.

To this end, I purchased Adobe Lightroom, which has some of the most powerful and easy to use metadata features available to the professional photographer. By far, this software has created the most positive change in my photographic workflow of any product I have ever used, shaving at least 25% off time expended in my digital developing and cataloguing process. Unfortunately, at $299 USD, it's also out of reach for many amateurs. 

There are, however, free tools available featuring similar metadata capabilities. Microsoft is offering its Pro Photo Tools 2 package, which includes some outstanding metadata editing features. Another excellent, and even more fully featured option would be Picasa from Google – also free. Either way, it's a fantastic start on the road to organisational nirvana.

For me, further digital resolutions include, regular defragging of my hard drives, scanning my old photo albums, eliminating all my dated disks from yesteryear, and playing less Everquest! Here's hoping you achieve your resolutions and that the New Year be filled with prosperity, peace, and no digital disasters.

Originally published in HUB: The Computer Paper, January, 2009, by columnist, Ray Richards.

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