Life After Google Reader

March 28, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Research, Social Networks, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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News gathering onlineI’ve used Google Reader to marshal news feeds from blogs and other web sites for a long time now.  I described my strategy in a blog post  almost 2 years ago.  Now, it seems, Google is going to kill Reader, leaving me (and a very large number of other users) to find an alternative tool.

I get that if a service is free then you have no comeback.  I also know there are other tools that could be used instead.  My beef is that a service I’d set up and which has been serving me well for a long time is now going away, without warning and without any apparent logic behind the decision.

This post on O’Reilly Radar makes a good point – certainly one I needed to think long and hard about.  Om Malik’s brief post on the demise of Google Reader raises a good point:  If we can’t trust Google to keep successful applications around, why should we bother trying them out?

So, with Reader due to cease in July, it was time to look for a replacement.  The first breakthrough was finding this post on the blog page for Feedly.  The blog explained that migrating from Reader doesn’t have to be a pain, because:

  • If you log into Feedly with your Google account, then Feedly automatically synchronises with your Google Reader feeds.
  • So, when Reader shuts down in July, Feedly just takes over – no further action required!

There’s also free apps for IOS (separate versions for iPhone and iPad) and Android, allowing me to move away from the trusty but slightly clunky Feeds app that I’ve been using to read items offline.

So far, so good.  Now, I like to be able to share items that particularly interest me with my contacts on Twitter, LinkedIn and (very occasionally) Facebook and I’ve been doing that using my favourite integration platform IFTTT.  This relies on the fact that IFTTT has connections (they call them channels) for both Google Reader (my source) and each of my targets (Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook).  The Google Reader channel lets me trigger an action any time I star an item in Reader and then lets me use elements in the post to my targets (blog name, title, URL).  Sadly there’s currently no channel on IFTTT for Feedly, though I made sure I submitted a request for one.

So the next step was to find an intermediate platform.  The Feedly equivalent to Google Reader’s star action is called “save for later”.  Investigating the settings in Feedly I found that you can configure the s”save for later” function to post items to Pocket,  which does have an IFTTT channel.  So, now I can rewrite my IFTTT publishing rules to use Pocket and anything I bookmark (save for later) in Feedly will appear on Twitter, LinkedIn and (if I choose) Facebook.  Result!

As a bonus, I found that for anywhere I can email a link (say in a tweet), I can send that email to Pocket and the page the URL points to will be added to my queue in Pocket as well.

New Direction – Exploring the Internet of Things

November 17, 2012 at 9:30 am | Posted in Internet of Things | Leave a comment
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The Internet of Things is not a new notion.  It’s been proposed in differing forms over a period of more than 10 years.  The IoT links uniquely identifiable physical objects (things) to their virtual representations online, which can contain or link to additional  information on identity, status, location or any other business, social or privately relevant information.

The intention is to provide access to accurate and appropriate information in the right quantity and condition, at the right time and place and at the right price.

IBM’s strategic Smarter Planet initiative, currently featuring in a mainstream UK TV advertising campaign, has been in place for a number of years.  During the course of 2012, ny work as an IBMer has taken me into the world of Smarter Planet and in particular, into the field of Smart Grid and Smart Meters.

Influenced by working with a team of experts, particularly Dr Andy Stanford-Clark (IBM’s UK CTO for Smarter Energy), I set out to investigate the possibilities of the IoT for myself, determined to be able to talk to the myriad devices I use daily and to have them talk back to me.

As a gauge of what can be achieved, I looked into the monitoring and automation that Andy had built into his own home on the Isle of Wight.

In this TEDX talk, Andy describes how his experimenting moved from the personal to the local to the regional and how he believes that the Internet of Things will evolve as a global system of systems, interconnecting regional smart grids.

To start with though, let’s talk about some of the attributes of the Internet of Things:

Pervasive Computing

The IoT is based on the premise of pervasive computing.  This means machine to machine communication (m2m) between potentially trillions of devices.  These don’t have to be just new “smart” devices.  The availability of small, simple and low-cost components means that legacy devices can be connected as well.  Each devices then exhibits three key characteristics:

  1. Instrumented: Sensors are provided to monitor the device operation and collect key data
  2. Interconnected: The device has a means of communicating with other devices, or through a hub to deliver its data and receive requests or commands;
  3. Intelligent:  The device has sufficient memory, storage and processing power to forward the data to an intelligent back end, where it’s analysed to form a world view.

The ready availability of low-cost compute nodes, such as arduino and nanode and more recently the  Raspberry Pi makes it simple to get started with adding these capabilities to existing devices.

Big Data

The consequence of these pervasive computing capabilities is inevitably an explosion in the amount of data available.  This explosion can be described in terms of:

  1. Volume:  The amount of data accumulated either from a single device or multiple devices of the same type (accumulation);
  2. Variety:  The types of data made available, structured and unstructured, including voice, video and other rich data types;
  3. Velocity:  The rate at which events are received by the hub or the subscriber.

Big data can be as much a hindrance as a help, unless we keep in mind a couple of key design principles:

  1. Device data needs to be filtered to make it relevant – a change in inside temperature of 0.1deg isn’t significant, a drop of outside temperature to < 4degC is.
  2. Just like any well designed metric, the event the device generates must be actionable by the person viewing it.
  3. The utility of data (big or otherwise) increases exponentially, as it is enriched through aggregation with data from other devices or sensors.
  4. The collection, filtering, aggregation and analysis of data needs to be focussed on supporting a specific human decision.

Communications

  1. From devices and sensors into local networks, using a simple, small footprint subscribe and publish messaging protocol such as MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT)
  2. Allow the network to communicate with the outside world through a microblogging service, such as Twitter

Over a series of posts, I will describe my adventures on the IoT, experimenting at the personal level with these components, to:

  • Monitor power usage within my own house
  • Connect devices within the house, through the MQTT messaging protocol
  • Contribute data to community sensor projects

London Riots – The Aftermath

August 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Not my normal security-related subject matter, but I had to pull together some highlights (wrong word?) of the appalling events in London over the past few days.The sequence below, taken from Twitter and Flickr and assembled in Storify (http://www.storify.com), show clearly that the vast majority of people in the UK are sickened by the mindless violence and sheer greed of the criminals who did this. The story also shows (to me at least) that when it comes down to it, the people of the UK, and particularly Londoners, will always rise above attempts to terrorise them and just get on with sorting things out.

Something we can all do to help.  Publish the banner on your website or your blog or retweet the post.  Let people know, so they can turn out to help with getting things back to normal.

For me, this picture sums up the violence of the whole thing.  This morning’s television news showed footage of a 150 year old family run furniture store ablaze.  Why?  What did that achieve?

But, as bad as things get, people act with kindness and show their appreciation to the police..

And then this morning, I can only echo Professor Brian Cox on Twitter (above).  it really does restore your faith in human nature.

People turned out in droves, responding to a spontaneous campaign to clean up the devastation left by the rioters.

#riotcleanup pictures on PicFog

riotcleanup pictures

Check out this site for more pictures of the clean up operation around London.

Now something else we can all do to help.  Look at the pictures from the Met Police.  If you know any of these clowns, tell the police.  They need to be stopped before someone gets seriously hurt.

Managing Credentials on the Web

January 19, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Cyber Security, Identity Management | 1 Comment
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I enjoyed reading a good natured rant about the vagaries of managing your identity online on the Des Res blog the other week.  If, like me, you work for a large organisation, you’ll probably be obliged to follow strict rules on selecting a password for access to corporate systems.  If, again like me, you use a lot of websites that require you to select credentials for logging in, you may struggle to manage a large (and constantly growing) set of strong passwords without writing them down.  In these circumstances, it’s very tempting to re-use the strong password for your work systems for other purposes.

Identity 2.0

Identity 2.0 or digital identity has long promised to solve these problems in a world where a user can potentially have one online identity, with a pre-certified proof which is submitted when required for authentication.  This model is represented by Microsoft’s Cardspace and the open source Higgins project, but has been slow to gain momentum.  However, in recent years, a number of the larger IAM vendors, starting with CA Technologies, have added support for these technologies to their Web Access Management products.

Multiple Identities Online

Of course, being able to use a single identity and set of credentials for all your online activities is a real “good news/bad news” story.  The convenience of managing a single set of credentials comes at a price:  it’s quite conceivable that your visits to different websites could be aggregated and correlated, to build a far more comprehensive (and revealing) picture of your online activity than you might feel comfortable with.  It’s also true to say that not all web sites we visit (and register for) justify the same level of strength in authenticating our identity.  For example:

  • Online Banking: There’s so much at stake if your banking credentials become compromised that it’s obvious to all but the hard of thinking that those credentials should never be used elsewhere.  In a previous post, I described how my bank allows me to be warned if I try to re-use internet banking credentials on another site, by providing me with a free copy of Trusteer Rapport.  This protection can be easily extended to other high risk sites.
  • Social Media: As I’ve described on these pages before, I use a wide range of social media applications (in the widest sense of the term) to maintain my contact list, collect and collate information and publicise this blog.  Each site requires a separate set of credentials, but increasingly I’m offered the chance to sign in to one application using the credentials from another (very often, either Twitter or Facebook).  This makes use of the Open Authentication (OAuth) protocol.  OAuth allows the user to authenticate with their chosen service to generate a token.  The token can then be used to allow another application to access resources for a given period of time.  So, for example, when configuring Tweetdeck, I authenticate in turn to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Buzz and authorise Tweetdeck to use the OAuth tokens to retrieve data from those applications until I revoke that access.

Single Sign On
This still leaves a wide range on different sites that require a login.  I use a wide range of Cloud Services, including Drop Box (of which, more in a moment), Windows Live Mesh, Mind Meister (for collaborating on mind maps), MobileNoter (for sharing and synchronising Microsoft OneNote) and of course, Google Docs.  These (or at least the data I entrust to them) are important enough to me to warrant good quality credentials and together they make a good case for Single Sign On.  With more than 10 years’ experience in Identity Management projects, I’ve always viewed SSO as primarily a user productivity tool, with some incidental security benefits.  However, I came across a story on Mashable, describing tools for managing web passwords and quickly realised that I could:

  • Store all my credentials in a single location;
  • Secure them with a single strong password, which never leaves my machine;
  • Synchronise that credential store across multiple computers by locating the credential store on Drop Box;
  • Use the same, synchronised solution on my iPhone.

So, armed with these requirements and the Mashable product reviews, I eventually settled on 1Password.  As well as a management app, which sits in the system tray, 1Password installs a plug-in for all the modern browsers (I’m using it with IE and Firefox) which detects when you’re completing a registration or login form and prompts you to save the credentials.  Next time you visit the site, just press the 1Password button to login.  Incidentally, the Mashable article mentions that 1Password is primarily a Mac product, with a Windows version in beta.  The Windows version is now in fact available as a paid-for GA product.

Summing Up

So, in conclusion, it’s possible to figure out a strategy to at least simplify sign on and credential management to a wide range of web sites and applications, each with differing needs for strength and protection.  By and large, the tools to do this a available for free and even the commercial components I chose are available for a very modest fee.  All in all, the benefits far outweigh the modest outlay of time and cash.

Social Media and Me – Protecting your Reputation

July 10, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Posted in Social Networks | Leave a comment
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A Cautionary Tale

Imagine yourself in the final interview for your dream job and the interviewer says “We googled you …”.  If you heard those words, how would you feel?  What might they have found?  In recent posts, I’ve looked at how I use a WordPress blog to pass on information around my speciality (and show case my expertise into the bargain I hope) and how to build a network of contacts across a number of social networks and then use that to cultivate communities of interest and spark discussions.  In this post, I want to take a look at the potential for self-inflicted damage to your reputation, as a result of what you say on those social networks.

Anyway, back to the story.  In a famous case study, published in Harvard Business Review in June 2007, the CEO of a luxury clothes manufacturer is encouraged to interview the daughter of an old school friend for a prestige and high-profile post heading the company’s new store in Shanghai.  The interview goes exceptionally well, but then a routine search on Google by the company’s HR department turns up stories of the girl’s involvement in anti-Chinese demonstrations during her youth.  So, the CEO faces a dilemma – does he recruit the rising star and hope that her past doesn’t come to light or does he act to avoid damage to the company’s reputation in an important (and easily offended) lucrative new market.  To read the case study, you’ll have to buy it but you can read a sample of the debate that raged after the story was published.  The debate highlights how easily online users, especially the young, give up information about themselves.  But, do they understand that, once you click “Submit” something that seemed funny after an alcoholic night out can be read in the cold light of day for ever.

Giving Away Personal Information

As we navigate our way through the new world of social media, the information we reveal can be classified under a number of headings:

  • Service information – the minimum amount of information you have to disclose to a site or service owner to create an account and/or profile
  • Disclosed Information – the information you reveal about yourself by posting on your own pages
  • Entrusted information – the information you reveal about yourself by posting on someone else’s pages
  • Incidental information – the information about yourself (accurate or not) posted by someone else
  • Behavioural information – the information about your habits and preferences, collected by site or service owners and (potentially) sold to others.

Update 14/08/10: This classification of social media data was presented by Bruce Schneier at the Internet Governance Forum in November 2009.

    Controlling Your Privacy

    When you look at it like that, it’s easy to see why you need to take care over who sees and has access to your profile information, but do you really know?  When we talk about privacy, most of us really mean secrecy.  Actually, we should mean control – control over who sees what.  I don’t intend to single out Facebook, but there’s been much discussion over recent months on the site’s privacy policy and associated user settings.  The site has made a number of changes, but hasn’t always communicated clearly to users what those changes are and what the default (ie. “do nothing”) settings are.  However, you can get help on this for free, courtesy of Reputation Defender.  They have provided a simple, but effective solution to visualising your current security settings and changing them to what you feel is right for you.  You can read more about PrivacyDefender, the Facebook app that implements this in their FAQs and you can install the app by visiting the PrivacyDefender Facebook page.  The graphical representation is very helpful.  Consider this:

    • My contacts are on my list because I know them, I’ve met them or I’ve had dealings with them.  If this isn’t true for you, then you really need to rethink your strategy around these social networks.
    • I trust my contacts to exercise good judgement in choosing their contacts.  Beyond this second degree of my network, I have no basis on which to judge people.

    Is Anyone Listening?

    It seems to be an accepted fact that most blogs are destined to be abandoned after a short period of time.   I was saddened to see that this fate has befallen at least two of the blogs on my blog roll.  The same is probably true of Twitter accounts and many other social network profiles.  I read somewhere (if you’re the author of this quote, my apologies – let me know and I’ll update the post) that success on Twitter can be defined as having at least 100 followers.  There’s plenty of publicity about how the most popular denizens of the Twitterverse have tens of thousands of   followers, so I find that suggestion quite hard to believe.  At least with Twitter though, you can get some sort of objective measure of the influence you have through your tweets.  Twitalyzer collects details of your Twitter activity and uses it to give an indication of engagement (users you mention and users that mention you), impact (combination of followers, number of posts, retweets and retweeting others and more) and many others.  It’s free – all you need to do is sign in with your Twitter credentials and take a look.

    Mixing Business with Pleasure

    I mentioned in my previous post on how I built my network of contacts that, with a few exceptions, there’s no overlap between my business contacts (largely in LinkedIn) and my family and friends (in Facebook).  This is quite deliberate.  For a start, my family and friends have little or no interest in the arcane details of my specialisation.  Similarly, my business contacts don’t want or need to know about my activities outside work.  Conversations between family members and friends (on Facebook and in the real world) can get heated, boisterous, detached from reality amongst other things.  Look back through your friend feed on Facebook and make a note of the comments you wouldn’t want your work colleagues (or more particularly, a new business contact) to read.  So, keep the two groups separate on the separate networks and think carefully before you post updates to both.  That way, your reputation will be safe, right?  Well, maybe not quite as safe as you’d think.

    Microsoft have been running a beta programme for the Outlook Social Connector.  This new component (available for Outlook 2007 and 2010) adds a “People Pane”, which adds a communications  history for each person, not just within Outlook but also through the Social Connector and its plug-ins, on other networks.  Thus far, plug-ins are available for LinkedIn and MySpace.  Facebook and Twitter are planned for the near future.

    Update 13/07/10

    Microsoft announced today new plug-ins for the Outlook Social Connector to support both Facebook and Microsoft Live Messenger.  I’ve downloaded and installed the Facebook provider (it needs the latest version of OSC, but it’ll download and install it for you) and it works fine.  You can find a review of Microsoft’s announcement on Mashable and you can download the new provider from Microsoft.

    But, you don’t even have to wait.  You can download XOBNI (that’s “Inbox” spelt backwards in case you were wondering) for free right now.  This add-in for Outlook has connectors for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Xing.  It can find information on your contact’s employer through Hoovers and even connect to sales information in Salesforce.com!  It proactively uses your account on these networks to go off and search for your contact, trying to match all available email addresses and telephone numbers to offer possible matches.

    To See Ourselves as Others See Us

    (with apologies to Robert Burns)  So, to summarise, whatever you post, in anger, in haste or after a few beers, stays out there for ever.  You can be sure that in our business lives, as we meet people for the first time, as prospective employers, employees, customers or suppliers, increasingly, they’re going to say…

    “We googled you”

    … and if they do, will they find the carefully crafted profile on LinkedIn, with a photo in a sober business suit – or will they find a Facebook update of a drunken stag weekend in Amsterdam, complete with a picture in a clown costume and a pink wig!  Think before you click <Submit>.

    Social Media and Me – It’s Good to Talk

    July 7, 2010 at 12:17 am | Posted in Social Networks | 4 Comments
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    It’s now just about a month since I started my new job. It’s been 10 years since the last time I was the newbie and I’d forgotten quite how hard it can be. It’s like joining a school part way through the term. Everyone else already has their friends, so you hop around on the edge of the group, desperately hoping to get noticed. Actually, a contact on Twitter introduced me to a current employee at the new company. They then passed my name (and Twitter account) on to others. So, on Day 1, I had at least a few people to turn to for advice.

    Actually, my new employer is very supportive of social media. The corporate guidelines on use of these technologiess are often cited as an excellent model for others to follow. In my last blog post, I looked back on how I’ve used blogging as the heart of my marketing effort during my foray into the world of independent consulting. This time, I want to look at what I’ve learned about the art of creating and maintaining a network of contacts. After all, it’s of limited use creating interesting and thought-provoking content, if you can’t reach a pool of like-minded individuals who might like to read it.

    Beating Dunbar’s Number

    Dunbar’s Number is a well-known concept in anthropology, which states that an individual can only maintain strong stable relationships with around 150 people.  The number is held to be a function of the size of the neocortex, a theory tested by comparing the social groupings of other primates.  Some people claim that any group loses cohesion and eventually its identity when its size exceeds Dunbar’s number.   Others suggest that the rise of social networks allows us to comfortably exceed this limit.  Maybe it’s because the software tools to hand act as a “force multiplier”.  An alternative view, which I described in an earlier blog post, holds that social networks bring benefit through weak associations.  This view is eloquently described in “Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom” by Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta.  So, how does this apply to me?  I’ve been slowly building my online network of contacts since 2005.  Let’s start by taking a look at each of the social networks I subscribe to and how they fit into my overall plan:

    LinkedIn: Joined February 2005

    This was my first foray into social networking, prompted by an invitation from a colleague.  I now have a network of around 250 contacts and for each of them I can claim that they’re people I’ve worked with (colleagues, business partners) or worked for (clients) over the years.  LinkedIn is by far the most valuable source of contacts.  In fact, my current job and another senior role that I declined at around the same time, both arose from LinkedIn.  I find the groups very helpful as a way of finding and contributing to “communities of interest”, keeping me in touch with what people are thinking in my particular specialisation.

    Twitter: Joined March 2009

    My original idea in joining Twitter was to see if it could be a useful way of staying in touch.  At the time I was a member of a small team all based in different countries and it was difficult to know where others were and what they were doing.  Our employer didn’t allow instant messaging on the corporate Blackberry (those were the days before I discovered iPhone).  Nowadays, I use Twitter far more to listen to others, all experts in fields peripheral to mine and occasionally to chip in with my ideas.  I also of course make use of its reach to notify new blog posts, articles and so on.


    Plaxo: Joined April 2009

    I was invited to join Plaxo by one of my LinkedIn colleagues.  I’ve never really explored it very much and only have a handful of contacts.  I don’t see any unique capabilities, so this would be a good candidate for culling.


    XING: Joined April 2009

    This is the same story as with Plaxo.  Xing is very popular in Germany and I was invited to join by a German colleague.  Again, I can’t find any unique proposition and I haven’t put much effort into building a contact base.


    Naymz: Joined October 2009

    Naymz is a a network for which I had high hopes.  While offering the same sort of capabilities as similar business-oriented social networks, it introduced two significant concepts.  The first is an effort to verify identity when you enrol.  Sadly, the main means of doing this is only available in the US.  The second is encouraging your contacts to rate their relationship with you against a number of simple questions.  From these responses, the site calculates a “reputation score”.  The responss you receive are weighted by the reputation scores of those you connect to.  This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable objective, when you’re trying to locate someone to help with your business.  Naymz trawls your other contact lists and sends out invites.  After an initial flurry of interest, the site seems to have lost impetus.  In fact, a number of my contacts have left the site altogether.


    Facebook: Joined April 2010

    I always said that I wouldn’t join Facebook – it’s an age thing I suppose, being firmly placed in the middle of that thundering herd, labelled the Baby Boomers.  Eventually, I created an account and profile, in order to help someone out in connecting to Facebook from (I think) Tweetdeck.  Again, I’ve made not too much effort to add contacts, but I do find it helpful for keeping in touch with family and also friends from my running club.  There’s a little overlap with my business contacts, but largely I keep the two groups separated.


    Google Buzz: Joined May 2010

    This was my most recent foray.  Again, my curiosity was piqued when both Tweetdeck and ping.fm announced support.  However, having signed up, again it showed very little in the way of interesting functionality and – given that I’m not a GMail user – I found few people to follow.  I read the other day that Google are about to start again, building a new social network.  I can’t in all conscience blame them.

    Across all these networks, I have a total network of something like 300 unique contacts, but frankly, most of the benefit comes from LinkedIn and (more recently) Twitter.  Do I really need to maintain so many networks?  There’s a significant amount of work involved in maintaining a consistent profile across all the platforms and in applying status updates to them all.  This latter can be to a degree automated, as I described earlier, using combinations of Twitterfeed (or Hootsuite) and ping.fm.  However, I’ve noticed a trend amongst my contacts to decrease the number of networks they frequent  as well as the number of contacts they retain on each:

    • Social media expert Joanne Jacobs announced on Twitter that she intended blocking followers who make no significant contribution to the discussion;
    • One of my Facebook contacts announced that he would be “culling” contacts from his friends list – again the reason he cited was a failure to engage;
    • I have noticed regular emails from the Naymz network, informing me that contacts have left my reputation network.  Investigation reveals that these contacts have in fact left the Naymz site altogether.
    • Social media wizard and fellow IBMer Andy Piper commented on Twitter that, while he supports the BCS plans for modernisation, he’s bitterly disappointed in the Society’s attempts to build a members’ network, without much of the functionality we expect in social networks and with no provision to integrate with other widely used platforms.

    Protecting your Investment
    It’s taken me 5 years and a lot of effort to build and refine my social network. As I’ve said above it has real, proven value to me, so why would I risk that investment? All that data is stored on other people’s servers, somewhere in the cloud. Since I don’t generally pay for this service, I’m surely not entitled to expect a service level beyond “best efforts” in the event of a disaster.

    So how should I go about protecting this valuable asset? There are a number of services available, both paid and free, to backup one or more of your social network accounts. I’m currently trialling a free service from Backupify.  This allows me to schedule daily backups of (thus far) Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. I’d love to use this service for LinkedIn as well, but the site tells me that the authors have been refused access to the LinkedIn APIs. Why on earth do that? I raised a support ticket on LinkedIn asking them to co-operate with Backupify and received an answer that it would be considered of other users ask for the same thing. If you try Backupify and like it, then you know what to do.

    One question that comes to mind is “what if I need to restore my data?”. It seems to me that this is always going to be a manual process. In the case of Twitter, there’s no way of re-inserting tweets into the public feed. So, Backupify collects all your Twitter data into a PDF report. If needed, you could then re-follow those you followed before and perhaps notify your followers of your new user name.

    In my last post on this topic (for now, at least), I’ll look at reputation management and how to avoid to avoid a sense of doom when an interviewer says those awful words …

    “We googled you.”

    Postscript

    While writing this post, I decided to preview what I’d done to check the layout. What I actually managed to do was to hit “publish”. No problem, I just trashed the post and started again. Unfortunately, WordPress had already sent the URL to Twitter. As a result, some people will have been rewarded with the notorious “Error 404” when they clicked on the link. This is because of the automatic “publicise to Twitter” widget. As a precaution, I’ve disabled the widget, so that Twitter and the other social networks will be updated through Twitterfeed and ping.fm after a short delay-enough to allow a change of mind. Once again, apologies for the annoying error. No excuses, it was all my fault!

    Social Media and Me – Pause for Thought

    June 18, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Posted in Social Networks | 4 Comments
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    It seems scarcely possible that it’s a year since I made the decision to strike out on my own as an independent consultant. One of the first things that struck me was that I would need to find a way to replace all the information resources I’d become used to after nearly 10 years with a major software vendor. The next thing that struck me was that I’d better learn a bit about marketing – quickly! I remember asking my friend and colleague Simon Perry of Thinking String whose blogs I should be reading. His answer surprised me more than a little “You shouldn’t be reading blogs, you should be writing one.” It’s nearly a year ago that I took the first tentative step on this site, devoting my very first blog post to a description of how I would bend social media to meeting these two needs in my fledgling business.

    So, one year on, as I pass another milestone in my career, it seems appropriate to look back on that strategy and to consider what I’ve learned – what worked and what didn’t; what’s coming along that might help and what I’d still like to see.

    Clearly, a blog needed to be at the heart of my strategy, giving me a platform to showcase my skills and experience and to engage in discussions with experts in the field. After seeking advice from established bloggers, I settled on WordPress. I decide to have my blog hosted on wordpress.com, to give me the simplest possible start. Does it damage my “brand” because it’s not hosted within my domain? I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

    One thing that doesn’t seem to have worked for me has been social bookmarking.  Watching the statistics on my WordPress blog, I noticed eventually, that I was getting traffic via sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.  This prompted me to look at whether I could encourage readers to tag a blog post they found interesting, by providing the buttons on the page, through AddThis .  This is where I started to run into the limitations of hosting my blog on wordpress.com.  Unlike the hosted version of WordPress, which has a plug-in to implement the AddThis menu, in the wordpress.com layout, I have to place it in the sidebar and I’m not convinced it works properly anyway.  In any event, since I added the button bar, I’ve seen no clicks to bookmark posts.  Is it because of the position of the toolbar or is it because no-one thinks the material worth bookmarking?  I don’t know.

    The biggest problem I face with blogging – and I’m sure this is true for many bloggers – is actually writing the posts!  It’s not a matter of thinking of topics or deciding what to say, although that’s what I thought would be the limitation when I started.  Rather, it’s the time it takes to actually write the article, polish it into satisfactory style and grammar and assemble suitable graphics and links.  I tend to make my blog posts moderately long, compared to what seems to be the norm.   Writing 1,000 words to a standard that I’m happy with can take me 4-5 hours, even when I have a very clear idea of what I want to say.  Finding the time to do that is always a problem – especially recently, since I switched from self-employment back to a permanent role – and it’s fatal if I interrupt the writing before it’s finished.  This post sat untouched as a half-written draft for 2 weeks before I came back to finish it off.  I’m not sure what I can do about that, although one approach that looks promising is using the iPhone app for WordPress.  I wouldn’t want to mess around with formatting using an on-screen keyboard – my HTML’s just not that good.  However, if I can do the basic layout, add the graphics and some text, it’s certainly feasible to add body text offline through the iPhone and sync the changes back to WordPress.  That will make use of dead time while I’m travelling, which is one of the major pressures on my time recently.

    I’ve also been trying to reuse the material I do write.  I started by publishing some posts at Ezine Articles (you’ll also find an index of them on my blog here).  Not very post is suited to this platform though.  There are automated mechanisms to allow blog posts to be sent direct to Ezine Articles, but the site only accepts articles subject to strict rules.  You’re only allowed 2 links in the article body and there’s no graphics, so any of my posts requires modification first.  However, it’s worth the effort, generating a significant number of views.  It was here that I learned another valuable lesson about content:  by splitting long posts into smaller, linked articles, you get more chances to attract readers and they’re more likely to stay, following through the set of articles.

    The next thing I’d like to try builds on this, by offering the same content in multiple different formats:

    • Write a blog post and publish it here
    • Simplify and publish as one or more articles on Ezine Articles
    • Produce a slide show to summarise  the topic, add the article text as speaker notes and publish it to Slideshare
    • Add an audio narration of the speaker notes, convert to a video at authorSTREAM

    I have a topic already – a slide deck I prepared for a job interview some months back. All I need to do is find the time to produce the additional formats and publish them.

    Earlier this year, I wrote about how a comment by my friend and small business marketing coach Greg Spence led me to investigate how to use Google Alerts to search for news stories around your main key word phrases. Since I posted that article, I’ve gradually migrated all the RSS feeds for blogs that I follow and added Twitter searches for those keywords as well. I’ve already described how I rely on the “Feeds” iPhone app

    to synchronise with Google Reader, allowing me to browse all those items offline and mark the few that are sufficiently interesting to follow-up on. It did eventually occur to me that other people might find the same things interesting – after all, if you follow me on Twitter or read my blog, we’ve got something in common, haven’t we? While investigating a problem between Twitterfeed and ping.fm, I discovered that I can use ping.fm to monitor for new additions to the “shared items” list in Google Reader and then post the link to my contacts on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

    In my next post, I’ll look at the social networks I use to maintain my circle of contacts and how I notify those contacts of new content.

    Lost Connection

    April 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Home Office | 3 Comments
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    If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you have regular access to an Internet connection, either at home, or at work , or both.  So, let me start by asking you some questions:

    • How important is your Internet connection to your every day life?
    • How long can you afford to be without the connection?
    • Have you made any plans to cope with the loss of your connection?

    It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we’re all becoming dependent upon Internet-based communications.  10 years ago, dial-up modems were the norm and home access to the Internet was only for the technically savvy.   Over the last decade, I’ve moved through unlimited evening and weekend access, to unlimited anytime access and onto broadband, first at 512Kbps and by increments up to 8Mbps (as luck should have it, the local BT exchange is around 150 yards from V1951 Towers, so we do actually get a reasonable speed).  We use that connection for 3 different PCs, an internet radio, my iPhone, my home office phone, our Nintendo Wii (for BBC iPlayer), MrsV1951’s Nintendo DS and anything else we can think of.  And the trend is bound to continue.  More and more devices are now internet-enabled.  Did you know that you can even buy TVs with built-in Skype?  No?  Well, take a look at this

    We use our internet connection as the platform of choice for banking, managing insurances, researching new purchases (and often making those purchases), booking holidays and countless other day-to-day activities.  We’re currently looking forward to being able to make and change appointments at the local doctors’ surgery online.  Plus of course, as a self-employed consultant, I mostly work from home! 

    So, a few weeks ago, I was running seriously late (for a variety of reasons) on the promised delivery of a draft report to a customer.  At around 7pm that evening, my broadband connection failed.  Disaster!  MrsV1951 and I were due to leave at 5am the following morning for the airport, en route to a few days holiday.  A quick investigation showed that while all my devices were connecting to the wi-fi element of the Home Hub, none could reach the outside world.  The hub however seemed to be synchronised with the ADSL service.  Having first got an apology off to my customer (thank heavens for iPhone and 3G – the customer kindly agreed to a generous extension to the deadline), I phoned BT’s help desk (inevitably, it’s in India).  I explained the situation – I have identical symptoms from multiple PCs, so it looks like the hub – but the help desk agent was clearly following a script and insisted that we slowly and painfully check configuration settings and Internet Explorer settings on the PC, and then repeat it all on a second PC and then change the connection from wireless to wired and do it all again.  After 2 hours, during which I’d been told to click the reset button in Internet Explorer (“Don’t worry, it won’t change your configuration.”  Yes it did! For a start, it disabled all my add-ins), I was close to hysteria.  My comments about single point failures were totally ignored, but finally, I got the answer (“We can see the sync signal from your ADSL hub, so it must be a problem on the hub.  We’ll try a hard reset and, if that doesn’t work we’ll need to replace the hub.”) that I’d been hoping for at the start of the call.  Fortunately, that restored the connectivity, just leaving me another couple of hours, resetting all the configurations I’d lost during the troubleshooting.  The following morning, tired after only a couple of hours sleep and a long drive to the airport, I vented my frustration on Twitter.   I was quite surprised to get the following reply:

    Useful to have a fairly direct line of communication to people who can help.  If you’re a BT Total Broadband customer, it’s well worth following this account on Twitter (@BTCare) for service updates.  Interestingly, I’d not seen this publicised anywhere until they contacted me.  Incidentally, a little detective work revealed that the fault coincided with BT pushing a firmware update to the hub and also that I wasn’t the only person to lose their service as a result.

    So, given that I work from home, I should have had the sense to make provision for this sort of failure, right?  Well, maybe, but it seems to me that we’ve already come to regard our broadband connection as just another utility.  We assume that it’s going to be available and working, whenever we choose to use it.  Product assurance engineers will explain that component failure rates mean there will always be a degree of unreliability.  However, that can often be unacceptable.  In the military, some systems are classed as militarily essential.  Thus, they are designed with multiple levels of redundancy and spares are carried, even for components that are never expected to fail.  David Hart Dyke was Captain of HMS Coventry during the Falklands War.  He once commented that “To me, reliability means that, when I push the button, it works.” 

    So,  when I returned from holiday, I bought a 3G dongle and tested it from my desktop PC and my laptop.  I’m not going to get caught out again.

    Looking to the future, my neighbour and his neighbour are both consultants, also working from home offices.  We’re discussing the possibility of introducing routers and CAT 5 cables between our 3 houses, to provide a fallback capability if any one of us loses broadband connection.  We might even look into broadband aggregation services, to permanently combine our bandwidth.  Peter Cochrane describes how aggregation services work in his blog.

    Finally, I found a series of short videos by journalists, scientists and technologists, speculating on what the World be will be like in 10 years’ time.  You can find these thought-provoking pieces on  the Huffington Post.  The last video, is by Johan Bergendahl, VP of Marketing at Ericsson and discusses the importance of broadband.  Take a look at it below.

    New Blog, Old Friend

    March 18, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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    I’m always on the lookout for interesting new blogs, especially in my main subject area of Identity and Access management.  Of course, I try to follow the blogs of the best known gurus in my field.  However, I reserve space on my blog roll (over to the right =>) for people that I know and trust.

    In this spirit, I just added a link to the “Joined Up Thinking” blog, maintained by Stephen Swann.  Stephen is Belfast based and we met around 8 years ago on opposite sides of an IAM project for a retail bank.  I stumbled upon Stephen through Twitter – he showed up in a search, fed through to Google Reader – and we took the advantage to reconnect through LinkedIn. 

    Stephen is an experienced and thoughtful professional and I’ll follow his blogging with great interest.  I strongly recommend that you do too.

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    Have I Got News for You

    February 15, 2010 at 11:32 pm | Posted in Research, Social Networks | 5 Comments
    Tags: , , ,

    (with apologies to the wickedly funny BBC panel game of the same name)

    Meet Greg Spence.  Greg and I first met more than 25 years ago, when we worked together for a small, specialist engineering consultancy.  We worked on some early distributed database projects, using Oracle’s SQL*Link and SQL*Connect components and Greg went on to become the first Chairman of the Oracle UK Users Group.

    We lost touch when Greg left the consultancy and it was only recently that I received a message through LinkedIn from him.  By this time, he had moved from technology into sales and marketing.  Currently, he helps small business owner to improve their sales and marketing results through the innovative and effective use of internet marketing.   If, like me, you’re intrigued by the use of social networking and blogs for marketing, I strongly recommend subscribing to Greg’s blog.

    If you’ve been following my posts over the last few months, you’ll remember how my very first post described how I use RSS feeds into Microsoft Outlook to keep track of what’s happening and to populate Microsoft OneNote, ready for drafting new blog posts.  So, newly connected to Greg, I was interested to see a comment he posted, explaining how to use Google Alerts to search for news stories around your main key word phrases and how to forward that to Google Reader.  A little research showed that Google Reader is in fact a very easy way of aggregating these searches with RSS and Atom feeds from blogs and other static web pages.  All I needed to do was to create an account on Google.  Incidentally, this gives another opportunity to create a profile, linked to your blog, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on.  You can check out my Google profile here.

    So far, so good – but you know me.  I have to find a way to integrate my iPhone into everything.  So, a little more research led me to the Unofficial Apple Website and an excellent review by Jason Clarke, comparing Byline and Feeds, both of which sync with Google Reader.  I settled quickly on Feeds:

    With this new set-up, it’s simple to sync Feeds with my Google Reader account before leaving home, or whenever I find myself within free wi-fi coverage.  That leaves me with an offline copy of the latest news on my topics, for me to read on the iPhone while travelling.  The options menu allows me to very simply tweet anything that catches my eye or to email a page to a friend.

    So, back to Greg.  This very useful tweak to my notification set-up encouraged me to investigate Greg’s blog and web site.  There, I found a very useful (and free!) 28 page report on Automated Marketing, which describes how to use content to drive your internet marketing efforts.  You can get an idea of how it all works from this pictorial overview:

    I’d managed to work out a lot of this by trial and error over the last few months, but I found a number of things that are worthy of immediate attention, including:

    • Publishing slightly longer, factual articles at (for example) Ezine Articles;
    • Using Hootsuite and ping.fmto publish a snippet of comments on other blogs, together with a (shortened) url to those blogs.

    I hope to persuade Greg to write a guest post for me in the near future, but for now, I thoroughly recommend that you download his report.

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