Atlas of Living Australia

The Atlas of Living Australia is a user-friendly visualisation of data related to Australian ecosystems, species and conservation programs. Simple to use and well thought-out, the website exemplifies the massive power of the web in displaying a range of information and making it accessible and understandable. Users can check biodiversity in their own area, browse for species of interest or add their own records. So if you've just spotted the elusive Night Parrot, this is the place to let the world know.

Mind Blowing Bookshelf from Google

Google seems to have more projects than employees. A crew of hard core geeks at Google Data Arts have been experimenting with new ways to display data in your browser (works for both Chrome and Firefox). This animated globe shows Google searches by language, and a fascinating picture of global language dispersion it presents. English scattered widely over the globe, German confined entirely to Germany, Spanish dominating South America and French surprisingly rare in West Africa. Another animation displays 10,000 books in an ascending column -- a novel way to visually search a large number of works. 

More File Sharing Madness

File sharing/transfer services are thick on the vine at present. A recent contender (still in beta) is GE.TT. Just click one button, tell it where your files are and who you want to receive them, and it is off and running. Cleverly, the service allows the receiver to begin downloading the file even before it is done sending it from your machine -- potentially a big time saver when sending large files. Of course, DropBox does essentially the same thing, but GE.TT doesn't require you to set aside a designated folder on the sending and receiving ends.

Cloud Based Bookkeeping

Once a dominant force in small business accounting, MYOB is facing competitive pressure from two online bookkeeping solutions: Saasu and Xero. The advantages of a browser based window into your finances are many, especially in freeing you from one record-keeping location. MYOB is also offering an online solution, but it is lacking some of the features of their desktop product. Saasu allows users to import MYOB data, whereas the MYOB offering ironically lacks much of an import facility.

Office finally comes to the Cloud

After conceding much ground to their competitors, especially Google with its cloud-based docs suite, Microsoft is finally coming to the party. It seems that the Office suite software will be available online later this year, which is about a thousand years in cloud development time. As is the new norm, a stripped down version will be available for free, and a fully featured priced model also offered. Whether that will be enough to staunch the bleeding of users to Open Office, Google Docs and other services such as Zoho remains to be seen.

Some Tasks with Gmail, Madam?

If you spend a lot of your working life managing emails, then a task manager that lives inside Gmail is going to sound attractive. Taskforce have come up with a very functional and minimalist task manager that is right at home within the uber email service. Users can run multiple lists for different users, link emails to tasks, add comments, deadlines and reorder tasks easily. Installation is extremely simple. Taskforce is free at the moment, but will eventually morph into one of the many excellent cloud-based services that (shock, horror) charge a little for their wares.

Museum of Me Me Me

You choose: this site embodies/showcases all that is good about social media, all that is creepy and intrusive. Intel logs in to your Facebook account, siphons up your name and all of your images and some of your friends' images as well, then displays them in a virtual museum, accompanied by soft, uplifting music. The whole exercise is technically impressive and emotionally manipulative. You are supposed to feel moved as the faces of friends and family float past and memories are triggered and massaged. In privacy terms, this site performs a useful service: reminding you how much of your personal life you have fed into a commercial service, and how much that service knows about you and your preferences. 

Take DropBox to the Next Level

If you are a cloud power user and you have hit the 100Gb DropBox storage ceiling, then you might be looking elsewhere (such as Rackspace) for online storage/synching options. But wait — DropBox will allow you to break right through that ceiling! Unfortunately, their 350Gb Teams option seems to be oriented more towards small/medium sized businesses than individual users. At $795 per year (5 user license), $2.20 per Gb seems quite steep. Rackspace clocks in at around $1.80 per Gb per year, and their rates are calculated on the amount actually stored, not on the maximum storage amount. That said, DropBox still has the best and simplest synching and interface (and has just passed 100,000,000 users).

Online File Conversions

Sometimes a client might give you a file saved in an exotic format. You don't have the program required to open it, nor are you inclined to install it for this one instance. Now you don't have to — Zamzar allows you to upload your file and save it as something openable. In my case, I tested the service by uploading a Microsoft Publisher file and saving it as a Word Doc. Seconds later, the converted file was in my inbox. The basic service is currently free, with a paid service allowing online file storage and faster processing. The name of the service derives from the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

Getting the Gist

Installed within Gmail, Gist attempts to leverage your contacts list by searching through your contacts and listing their online social presence: Twitter, Facebook and so on. Theoretically this might  allow you to identify commercial opportunities. Following installation on my Google Apps dashboard, Gist ran through my 2,000 + contacts and uncovered a surprisingly small number of clients/suppliers with Facebook and Twitter accounts. Perhaps commercial Australian users are not yet quite so gaga about social media as their American counterparts.
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Visualising Data

We live in a world ruled by information. Our surfing habits, entertainment preferences, travel destinations and social media behaviour all add to the raw data. There is an interesting new breed of blog that explores and interprets some of that information.  Information is Beautiful has posts ranging from the frivolous (peak break-up times on Facebook), to the political (the correlation of spikes in terror alerts with impending elections), to the simply jaw-dropping (a breakdown of global oil consumption). Flowing Data has recently discussed an animated record of US elections since 1920, mapped the worldwide distribution of tweeters and linked to relationships between various Mexican drug cartels. Both sites offer copious links to other lovers of order out of chaos.
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Backup to the Cloud

The price of memory has been falling for decades. One terabyte USB drives now retail for less than $100. Backing up one's data has never been easier. But if your backup drive is in the same place as the primary data, is it really safe? A secondary backup to the cloud (ie. onto a server, far, far away) could be a failsafe solution. Carbonite offers unlimited, fully encrypted backup. The service streams your data up to servers, looking for any altered files. The only potential fly in the ointment is bandwidth -- if your broadband plan isn't generous enough, the initial backup of your files might max out your upload allowance and end up costing you extra. Ongoing backups wouldn't be as problematic, assuming you are not working with video or large image files.  Backblaze also features unlimited backup, and promises to automatically find all of your personal files. There are many other services -- see the list here.
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Invoices on the Cloud

The Invoice Machine has the kind of interface that will appeal to style-conscious Mac Users, but the product is aimed at freelancers everywhere. Sign in to the service, and users can generate slick looking emailable invoices straight into client inboxes. As per usual with the new breed of Internet based services, the site offers a free version (3 invoices per month) and the paid options kick in after that, to a current maximum of $48 per month for 3000 invoices.  Needless to say, if one uses an accounting package, the invoice totals will need to be double-entered there as well.
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Good Form from Google

googleformsAs part of their broad push for world domination, Google have invaded the land of online forms. The software maker Adobe offers a form solution -- constructed in Acrobat, emailed out, then the data gathered via an Adobe server. The Google alternative is much simpler. Users log in to Google Documents, select 'Create New Form', choose an appropriate template, then start creating the questions, multiple choices, lists, etc that make up your desired form. Forms also offers logic branching, where the form recipient can jump sections of the form -- eg. "if you have completed course A already, go to page 2". The finalised form can then be emailed directly to your target audience. They fill out the form and the resultant data is sent to a spreadsheet setup in Google Docs. All very simple and very effective. So if you need to gather information from clients, wish to use a form as a sales tool or want to poll your own staff, Google Forms is a compelling offering -- oh, and it is free.
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Update on DropBox functionality

After four months of using DropBox as our primary data storage channel, its viability is no longer in any doubt. 100Gb of storage space is beginning to seem a little restrictive, but with that caveat, the service works as advertised, and in an unobtrusive, reliable fashion. If Australian bandwidth was better, the whole concept would be pretty much perfect. We have DropBox linked to four desktop PCs in two locations. The need to keep track of file synchronisation and make multiple backups in both locations has vanished. At the end of each day, we save the working file folder to a backup USB powered hard drive. That, plus four identical copies of the data (one on each workstation) and the copy on the DropBox server (plus  DVD burn backups) makes the data seem quite secure. A skim of the DropBox forums hint at unmet demand for storage solutions larger than 100Gb, so hopefully additional packages will be rolled out soon.
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New Google File Saving Functionality

Users of Google documents (or those seeking an alternative to Microsoft packages) will be interested to note the popular Google service now allows for any file type at all to be uploaded. This transforms Google docs into a de facto online hard drive.  Google Viewer will be able to open many, though not all of the common file types people might wish to upload. Users get 1Gb of space for free, then purchase additional memory at 25c per Gigabyte.  Google is working hard to encourage third party software developers to come up with services that add value to the basic Docs product.
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Preserving your online data

As people move more of their information onto the cloud and rely on servers in faraway lands, backups have become an issue. You may elect to occasionally download your online records to your own computer, but if you use a large number of cloud services, the process of backing them all up will soon become time consuming. As usual in such cases of Internet need, geeks have figured out a way to monetise this new service niche. Backupify (a rather unlovely business name) offers a one-stop backup service for all of your cloud services, including GMail, Twitter, Basecamp, Flickr and more. If you are comfortable with their pricing, then your only worry is handing all that potentially personal information on to a third party, whatever their strict privacy policies.
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Carbonite: Backup to the Cloud

Massive, extremely cheap online storage capacity and increased bandwidth are currently enabling a whole slew of new Internet businesses to carve out fresh niches. It's like the Cambrian evolutionary 'explosion', this time with silicon-germanium rather than carbon. On the subject of carbon, Carbonite is one of those interesting new cloud-based businesses. Users install a small program, indicate which folders they want backed up and then sit back while their data wafts into the ether, settling in the (apparently) secure servers of said company. The program only runs while your machine is idle and only updates changed files. If something at your end eventually goes wrong, the data retrieval process is very simple. Possible worries include the security of private data, and the rights of those from non-US jurisdictions if something did go awry. Users might also want to limit the amount they back up if their up/down data limits are fairly small. A graphic designer, for example, might balk at tagging folders with multi-hundred megabyte image files. Assuming Carbonite is stable and here for the long term, approximately AUD$65 per year for unlimited backup seems very reasonable.
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Viva Data Liberation!

dataliberationIf, like me, you spend a lot of time in the cloud, you may occasionally worry about your (over?) reliance on Google's many cloud products. You may have bookmarks set in Chrome, appointments recorded in Calendar, emails stored at Gmail, documents saved at Documents, blog posts at Blogger and so on. With the exception of fairly rare gmail outages, Google's service provision and data security performance has been pretty reasonable, But still, but still... A Google engineering team has set up a site called Data Liberation, aimed at providing users with clear and easy information on how to 'escape' from each of the Google services, taking their precious data with them. The stated (and admirable) principle behind this site is: "users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google's products". Google may be about to take over the world, but in this instance at least, they are doing so with a modicum of politeness.
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Folders go global

dropboxThere are plenty of ways of storing files online and accessing them remotely. Some come via email services, or image sharing sites. Other users configure their own server, use space on their isp's server, or access their work server remotely. For sheer simplicity and ease of use, however, DropBox stands out.  After a very straightforward installation process (for Mac or PC) a DropBox folder appears in your drive tree (you get to choose where). The folder can be managed like any other folder on your computer: dragging files in, creating new folders, opening files and so on. The folder can be a little sluggish with larger files, which is not surprising -- it is online. The folder can be shared with others, or opened by yourself from any other location. No more mucking around with ftp or servers, or signing up with another service just to use their online storage. Storage up to 2Gb is free, with paid accounts kicking in after that.
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