In a very short time, researchers have gone from storing all their information – books, articles, notes, data, and documents – on paper, and often in a single, vulnerable copy, to digital storage on computers. Many of us found that even this wasn’t foolproof and we could still lose large amounts of useful information and important research files if our computers failed (hard drive dies, we get a computer virus, or our computer was stolen). Many of us took to keeping an additional digital ‘backup’ on an external hard drive, floppy disc, CD or datastick. This gave peace of mind against the risks of losing information, but required a complicated process for managing files and making sure we had the right, up-to-date ones, and that external drives, datasticks etc themselves aren’t lost, stolen or corrupted. The most recent development is cloud storage – the ability to store data in ‘the cloud’, hosted by a service which synchs versions of files automatically and allows you to access and work with them from any internet-enabled device and give others access to collaborate on files easily too.
We’re looking at two tools this week, Google Drive and Dropbox. You may be familiar with these tools already or yet to explore them, but even if you already use them, there are a number of issues to consider with cloud storage tools of this sort (and last week’s Evernote is another such). Both tools allow you to upload files of various types and organise them into folders, and to synch these folders so that they are the same, on each of your devices or wherever you access them from online. They both allow you to access your account from the Web or to download the software to your computer so you don’t have to log in from the website each time. They also allow you to share selected files or folders with others by sending them an invitation, so you can collaborate on files without needing to email attachments any more.
Once you set up a Dropbox account and, if you wish, install it onto your computer and other devices, you can upload documents, images and video files and share them with others if you want. There’s more information on what Dropbox does here.
If you have a Google account already, then you’ll have access to Google Drive (used to be Google Docs), which you’ll find as one of the tools listed along the top of the screen. If you don’t yet have a Google account, then you can sign up for one here. Google drive allows you to upload your files, but also to create and edit files within the platform, from word processed documents to presentations, drawings, spreadsheets and forms (the registration form for this programme was created using a Google Drive form, which dropped responses into a spreadsheet). Have a look at the instructions and a tutorial for using Google Drive here.
The main difference between the two is the amount of storage space you get for free (Dropbox’s 2GB vs Google Drive’s 5GB) and that Google Drive allows you to create and edit Google files within the platform, so that you don’t have to download and then re-upload them when you (or others) make changes, but you can only do this in the web browser, rather than offline. There are other points of comparison.
If you’re using one or neither of these services already, you could explore both of them and see which one you prefer. They work in very similar ways, so think about the criteria you are using to decide between them.
Key Skills: Although both these tools make backing-up files easier through synching to the version in the cloud, you’ll still need to consider other back-up strategies so you’re not entrusting all your work to a remote service provider. What elements of your hardware back-up strategy will you retain, including managing different versions of files, files you’re actively working with or just need to store, long- and short-term storage? What problems of storage will cloud services solve, and which will they not solve? Are there any circumstances where you might not be able to access your information if it is stored online?
Discipline-specific: are there any sorts of information which it would be unprofessional, inappropriate or possibly illegal to store using these services? Unlike every-day users, you may have professional codes of ethics to comply with around the storage of sensitive data. How will you integrate this into your file management? What uses do you see for the ability to share files with others?
Evaluation: Which of these tools do you prefer, and what criteria matter most to you? Do you trust cloud storage? Evernote recently required users to change their passwords as they had been hacked. If data is stored by services based in other countries, it becomes subject to their legislation. Services may also be withdrawn if the company goes bust. Does this affect your willingness to use these tools?
Integration: How does automatic synching, sharing and the ability to access files from any web-enabled device change your file management? Will you use cloud storage as your main storage site and use hard drives and datasticks as back-up, or will you see cloud storage itself as the backup? Or might cloud storage work best for you for sharing and collaborating, or files you’re actively working with in the short term? Cloud services synch automatically, and its easy to get out of the habit of backing up manually using hardware – how often will you do this, and which parts or stages of your workflow?
There’s more guidance and information about data management from Cambridge University’s DSpace@Cambridge