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Information Management

All the time we get information thrown at us and managing that information so that you are in control of it and not the other way round can be a real challenge.

As you should know, I have recently started university. If there’s anything you can do that suddenly causes loads of information to be thrown at you, then that is it.

And it all adds up. A brand new email account with lots of stuff coming in, timetable information from multiple places, tasks to add to to-do lists and so on.

So I thought I’d take a moment to share how I’m dealing with some of this information and how I am using the technology available to me to have access to that information (hopefully) wherever I need it.

Calendaring and Timetabling

iCal logo

Timetable information is disseminated in several different ways. Most of it is delivered through an absolutely terribly designed, if functional, web application. Once you’ve deciphered how you’re actually meant to use the thing, you can see what events you have timetabled.

Unfortunately, it is not capable of exporting this information to anything useful. Something like an iCalendar export would ease my calendar workflow significantly. But no, that’s far too clever.

Enough about that. My system for knowing when I need to be where works like this:

  • Manually copy down the information from that web application and other sources.
  • Use Apple iCal on my MacBook to create events that correspond to those commitments.
  • iCal syncs the information with Google Calendar (through its CalDAV support).
  • iTunes syncs the calendar information with my iPod Touch next time I dock it, so I have my calendar in my pocket.
  • I also manually sync with my phone (Samsung D900) using Bluetooth and iSync. All the events and reminders then work on both devices.

The consequences of this Google Calendar and iCal hybrid approach mean that I have very good data redundancy. My information is on my laptop, my mobile devices, the web and can be accessed in Linux with Sunbird. It is also kept up-to-date very regularly, if not automatically.

There are a number of drawbacks to this approach. The major one is that for some reason, you can’t add events to a CalDAV calendar from the iPod Touch Calendar app, or my phone.

The iPod and my phone only allow me to add events to a locally stored calendar, so when I get back to my Mac, I have to sync it to a local calendar, then manually drag the event to the correct calendar.

This problem is more annoying than that, however, as I can’t edit events on the iPod if they are on the CalDAV calendar either.

I am aware that third party Mac-based Google Calendar synchronisation solutions would solve this problem, but I’m cheap and in debt.


Address icon

My contact syncing solution is also very similar. My primary contact store is the Mac OS X Address Book, which of course is synced with my iPod Touch every time I dock.

I also use the iSync + Bluetooth method to sync this same contact list with my phone as well, so that I don’t have a separate store of phone numbers and names that I have to worry about keeping up to date and backed up.

Finally, I also use the iTunes+iPod sync of contacts to synchronise this contact list to my personal Gmail account.

Again, this approach means that I have synchronised contacts on my MacBook, my two mobile devices and the web.

The missing link here at the moment is synchronising this contact list with Thunderbird on my Linux machine. Right now, I haven’t found a better, free solution to this than manually exporting my Address Book contacts from time to time, converting that file to an LDIF and manually importing that into Thunderbird over on Linux. Which isn’t very elegant at all.

Email icon

I have lots of email accounts, but the ones I actually use are several Gmail accounts (including Google Apps for this domain). Gmail is inherently cross-platform and available everywhere, but I actually use its IMAP support as I still can’t break the habit of having a local client.

I run on my MacBook and Thunderbird on Linux for accessing these accounts. Running a local client isn’t just because I’m strange and can’t hack using the Gmail interface full time, it has a real purpose too. I use to keep a complete local copy of all my email.

In the unlikely event that Gmail breaks or dies completely, I don’t lose my messages. Equally, if all my data explodes on my local machines and all their backups, having the messages in Gmail means I don’t lose any messages.

Of course, I now have a separate University address too. Thankfully, it’s just a standard IMAP/SMTP account, so I can continue to use my combination and enjoy the same benefits.

I also like’s ability to combine multiple IMAP inboxes into a single global inbox. All my messages, regardless of account, arrive in one place. I have an overview of all my information from one location.

Another upside of IMAP is that I can use the Mail client on my iPod Touch to access all of these accounts as well. Again, it’s a win – web access, desktop access and mobile access.

So, what was the point of this post again?

So, what I’m demonstrating here is that all my important day-to-day info – calendaring, mail and contacts is available:

  • On my desktop in a native client
  • On the web, from any machine
  • In my pocket, on my iPod Touch

It is also backed up, as the local copy serves as a backup for the online copy and vice versa.

I realise that there is a heavy reliance on Google’s web services here. The point I want to make here, though, is that (other than Google controlling my incoming email which I can’t do much about), I don’t explicitly rely on both Google and Apple.

  • If the Mac side of the equation stops working, my data is intact.
  • If Google stops working, my data is intact. Other than new email coming in.
  • All my data is available in open formats at some point, even if that means periodically exporting things.
  • At the same time, I get the benefits of both using Mac native applications and Google’s web services.

If you think of any way I could improve this workflow, I’d love to hear it.

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