Cloudup – free, cloud-based file sharing

Cloudup is a free, web-based media sharing platform. Users are allowed to upload a maximum of 1000 items, 200 MB each. Yes! That’s 200 gigabytes of free storage. There are desktop applications for Macs and Windows but the web interface is meant to be the main way to use the service.

Cloudup allows for synchronizing, sharing, password protection, downloading and streaming of files. Files are simply shared with a unique web address like cloudup.com/c6n9XSN2kTH Any type of file can be uploaded.

Cloudup is provided by the amazing people at Automattic (WordPress, Simplenote, Long Reads, more). I have not extensively used this service but can recommend it based on Automattic’s reputation.

I have previously recommended Archive.org for hosting media (and still do) but Cloudup has the advantage of not giving-up copyrights. Archive.org has no private or password options. This could be very helpful for media made by students which you don’t want on the open web.

I could not find any way to embed media from Cloudup, so only the link can be shared. This might be a problem for some.


Tool: Cloudup

Description: Free, cloud-based media hosting.

Usefulness: very

Bootstrap – a template for mobile-friendly websites

jjffjj_bootstrap_logo80% of Internet users have a smart phone, so your web sites simply must be mobile-compatible. Thanks to Twitter’s free Bootstrap template, this is now easy. Bootstrap has quickly become the most used template for mobile websites.jjffjj_bootstrap_screenshot

With Bootstrap the same web page adjusts itself to look good on full-size computers screens, laptops, tablets, phones, etc. Think of it as a “one size fits all” web page.

Bootstrap comes in all levels of complexity but it does require some basic HTML skills. There are many variants, so you can start with a simple blank page or a fully designed one. Bootstrap is also well-documented and has good tutorials.

Additionally: Google provides a very useful Mobile-Friendly Test site to see how your page looks on a phone and will give suggestions for improving. While Bootstrap is pretty amazing, it still may take some adjusting. Another good test site is here.

Bottom line: a great template if you are comfortable with a little coding.


Tool: Bootstrap
Description: Mobile-friendly template for websites.
License: MIT
Alternatives: WordPress, others.
Usefulness: very

Add to Search Bar – steer your students to the right sources

jjffjj_addtosearchbar_logoAdd To Search Bar allows you to create customized search engines for the Firefox browser.

Like every school librarian, I am constantly steering my students to reliable sources and they are constantly finding their way back to Google.  Add To Search Bar is a powerful tool to steer them back to good sources.

Add To Search Bar is a Firefox plug-in that allows you to move a website’s search feature to the Firefox’s search bar.

jjffjj_addtosearchbar_screenFor example, I am a big fan of Archive.org so I created a search bar for searching only Archive.org.  I also read the bible a lot, so I added one for BibleGateway.com.

In my library, I have a couple of dedicated library catalog computers and Add To Search Bar allows me to set the search bar for our library catalog. I also have a research computer and I have set that search bar to WorldBook online (which we subscribe to).  This is extremely useful for steering students to the appropriate resource.

jjffjj_addtosearchbar_manageOnce you have created a customized search bar engine, you’ll want to make it the default search engine.  This is easily done through the “manage search engine” menu.


Tool: Add to Search Bar
Description: Firefox plug-in that creates custom search engines
License: open ethos
Alternative: none that I know of
Rating: very useful

Open Definition – alternative licensing to Creative Commons

jjffjj OpenDocument logoOpen Knowledge is a non-profit organization in Cambridge, England founded not long after the Creative Commons organization.   While it seems to have a (somewhat) broader scope than Creative Commons, it also runs a licensing service called Open Definition.

While I have found the Creative Commons license perfectly useful for what I create,  the Open Definition tools apply more broadly to things like funding and services.

Open Definition buttonsIf you find that the Creative Commons license doesn’t fit your effort, you may take at look at the Open Definition licenses.   Like Creative Commons, they have a license guide to assist you.  Unfortunately it gets into the legal language fairly quickly but that may be unavoidable considering the broader nature of this project.


Tool: Open Definition (dot org)
Description: open licensing system
License: open (obviously!)
Alternative: Creative Commons
Rating: potentially useful

RSS & Atom – the little engines that could

rss - logo RSS and Atom are ways to distribute your information into the digital world.  They are a file format (rather than software program) and are something like a simple word processing document.

You’ve probably noticed the little orange logo which sprung up all over the Internet without much fanfare.  You’ve probably never clicked on it, either. (RSS and Atom are almost the same thing and I will just call them both RSS.)

But don’t be fooled – this little tool works very well and can greatly simplify your professional communication.

The beauty of RSS is its simplicity –  it is basically a list of your documents, ready to be used by RSS readers, web browsers, embedded in web sites, read on phone apps, etc.

Just a little technical background:

RSS is commonly called “Real Simple Syndication”  and is yet another use of XML which has become the standard for most of the documents you use these days. (including what you are reading right now.) Atom is so similar to RSS that it usually makes no difference to the user.

You can think of XML as  the core content of a document to which specific styles are added later.  Because it’s the information without all the fonts, margins, colors, etc.   An XML file can be used on a wide variety of readers – from your big screen TV all the way down to your phone.

Using XML,  RSS takes your blog, podcasts, news releases, text messages, or similar and collects them into a simple list that can be used lots of different ways.

This solves the problem of everybody having a different kind of device.  RSS allows you to write in one place while allowing your audience to read it on the device of their choice.

RSS files can be inserted into many web sites and applications.

You need two tools to use RSS:  one to create the RSS fed and another to read it.   There are almost endless choices for both.    Many programs automatically create RSS feeds including WordPress, the software this blog uses.

I’ll review the two that I use most.

Blogger.com  – easy way to create an RSS feed rss - bloggerlogo

Blogger is a Google blogging site which automatically generates an Atom feed from  your blog entry.   Conveniently,  Blogger lets you create blog entries from the web,  email, your phone and dedicated programs like Windows Live Writer.

My school district makes it hassle to update the library web site, so I  inserted  an RSS feed on the main pages and now I can update the library web site from Blogger.com.   It is so much easier for me now!

rss - feed windFeedwind – add an RSS feed to your web site

Feedwind allows you to make a RSS “widget” to insert into you web page or blog.   You can customize the size and colors to match your blog.   You only need to be comfortable with pasting HTML code into your blog or web site.

Here is an RSS feed of this blog:



The above feed will update even as this page stays the same.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for what you can do with with this under-appreciated technology.

Tool: RSS and Atom
Description: a strategy for distributing information
License: effectively open source
Alternative: email, social networking
Rating: very useful

Dinky page – free web pages, no account required

  SAD TO SAY, Dinky page is no longer running.

Dinky page proDinkypage - logovides you with a place to create web pages without registration or any personal information. The pages don’t expire and have very few restrictions.  And, Dinky page is completely free.

What’s the catch?  Ads, both on the top and the bottom of your page.  Worse, their is no guarantee that your will be suitable for a younger audience.

But, if your audience can tolerate ads, Dinky page is an excellent resource.

Dinkypage - main screenDinky page is very basic —  I could not get any plug-ins or “gadgets” to work properly even though the website says it can handle Javascript/Flash. But Dinky page provides most of the “Web 1.0” features you’ll need and probably more if you had the patience to get it to work.  You can create and link multiple pages to create a whole web site.  Graphics and photos will need to be hosted on Flikr, imjur or similar.

It has a “paste Word” button which seems like a very useful feature for Word users who understand that not everybody owns Word.

I can think of a couple of uses for Dinky page, the first being a place to host any anonymous web page.  If there are times where you don’t want to associate a site with either your personal or professional life, Dinky page provides that place. In this era where students constantly Google your name, that is a valuable service.

The second is as an HTML sandbox.  If you are teaching a course in basic web page authoring, it’s a time saver to have a site where the students don’t need to register or sign-in.

So, if you can tolerate advertisements, Dinky page could be very useful for you.

Tool: Dinky page
Description: a free (but ad-driven) web site hosting service that requires on account
License: open ethos
Alternative: Google sites, many others
Rating: very useful

Storage Made Easy – one program to manage multiple “cloud” services

SME_logo Storage Made Easy (SME) makes having multiple “cloud” storage accounts a lot more easy. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux – I’m reviewing he Linux version.

Lots of free storage but too hard to use
DropBox, Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive are some of the big names in remote storage but there are many others, typically offering 2-5 gigabytes of free space with a paid option for more.

You probably understand the advantages of storing files remotely, especially back-ups of files you can’t easily re-create after a crash (passwords, photos and original documents) or stolen computer. There is the advantage of having access to files from your phone or work computer.

Free storage is great but it is a hassle to run the software for each service. SME solves tis by allowing you to run one program for multiple services. While SME is proprietary. The free version limits you to only three services but is otherwise open-ethos.

Runs almost transparently
SME_mapped_driveAfter an initial set-up on the SME website it runs as a desktop application. In Linux, all your “cloud” files mount as sub-folders at any place you designate. You can also access your files from SME’s website.

It has run flawlessly on my Linux laptop. SME is built around the open-source FUSE program which may explain why it works so well I set SME to run on start-up and I can almost forget that some of my folders are on other services. Of course, one needs to be connected to the Internet.  I love having access to my files without all the multiple sign-ins and ads.

Security:
SME and the individual storage providers all claim to be highly secure but I would still be cautious. Of course, use a long and unique passphrase. You may consider first encrypting your highly sensitive files (passwords, credit card numbers, student records) with PGP or similar.

You can also include your school’s FTP server in SME which may be convenient. (I didn’t test this feature since I’m happy with Filezilla.)

Bottom line: SME actually does makes remote file storage easy.


Tool: Storage Made Easy
Description: a web and software combination that brings multiple remote file servers to your desktop.
License: proprietary, based on open source software.
Alternatives: Filezilla
Rating: very useful

Addendum:

Since I made this entry — I received this email from Storage Made Easy:

PRISM and Data Snooping
Since our last newsletter the PRISM storm has erupted with companies and individuals becoming worried about who has access to their cloud stored data.

For SaaS users The SME public / private key encryption for remote files is an ideal way to protect and secure sensitive data. You keep the private key to encrypted data. It is not stored on SME Servers. You need to remember it to access the data. Without it the file cannot be accessed. This means SME or anyone else cannot access the data.

While I am glad they are taking privacy seriously, I’m not sure this really addresses the issue.    As I understand it, if you have your data on a commercial hosting service, then your documents and communication can be secretly copied and stored by the NSA.  Not just can be  but probably is.

So,  secure data transfer doesn’t really protect you from the NSA.   It would, however, help you with hackers, identity thieves, etc.

Probably, a better privacy strategy is hosting your own private server – where the computer is actually in your building.  Then use encrypted data transfer like a Virtual Private Network and/or  FTP over SSL.    I have to say — it’s a shame we have to go to this effort and expense to protect our own privacy when we’ve done nothing wrong.

IBM Lotus Symphony – integrated office suite with some unique features

I normally wouldn’t review software on the verge of being orphaned but IBM Lotus Symphony is still worth considering. It is free and works on Linux, Windows and Mac. And, as you would expect with IBM, it is polished and stable.

Notably, Symphony is one integrated, multi-function program as opposed to a bunch of programs thrown together. Symphony has never crashed on me (great!) but if it did , all the documents would presumably go down at once (bad!). It’s strictly a personal preference  but I like the one-program approach.

Symphony back from the dead…

I used Lotus Symphony in the DOS days and was delighted when IBM brought it back about five years ago. It’s based on OpenOffice with a couple of innovations that make it worth considering. It is free software and I think IBM hoped to make their money off of support.   I suspect that IBM rightly perceived that companies are suspicious of open-source software and wanted the security of a big-name brand.

… only to be orphaned?
IBM quit development with version 3 in January 2012 and they released a service update at the end of last year. So, it’s still a fresh piece of software.

According to Wikipedia, IBM has given the project to Apache who will incorporate it in the long-overdue new version of OpenOffice. I hope they keep the main two features that make this product unique from LibreOffice – an integrated web browser and widgets.
This is a consideration if you chose to adopt Symphony. If the rocks stars at  Apache are smart (and they are!), you might be an early-adopter rather than an orphan.

The standard three modules integrated one tabbed interface.
As opposed to most suites, Symphony keeps you in one tabbed interface, whether you are doing word processing, presentations or spreadsheets. Unfortunately, thats all the productivity modules it offers. I wish it included the Draw module and I’m sure some business users would like a calendar/planner module.

The formatting controls are on the right side of the screen which takes advantage of the newer, wider desktop screens. On a laptop, it can be a little cramped. The formatting controls are smartly contextual and well organized – a problem with MS Office, in my opinion.

Integrated web browser

This is such a great feature that one wonders why every suite does not offer it. Many of us constantly use the web while we write, so it makes sense to bring the web into the word processor. Sadly, Symphony doesn’t support dragging content from the web tab into the word processor. This would be a great feature, if it did. You can still cut-and-paste.

Widgets – an easy way to customize Symphony

IBM offers only a few widgets but you can import Google Gadgets. This is huge since it gives Symphony many of the features of Google.

The most useful feature, for me, is that you can create a widget from an RSS feed. If a blog, calendar, newsletter, shared docs, etc generates an RSS feed (many do) you can create a widget from that feed and monitor it within Symphony while you write or work on your spreadsheet.

(Click here for my little rant on how how RSS could make your life simpler.)

This is a very useful feature that I hope the people at Apache keep in the next version of OpenOffice. This has potential to be a killer app.

The bottom line: a solid implementation of OpenOffice with a couple of innovative and useful features. But, you risk being orphaned.


Tool: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0.1
Summary: customizable office suite with web integration.
Rating: very useful
License: open ethos (proprietary but free)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Google Docs.

Open search engines – non-tracking alternatives to Google

Nontrackingsearchengines

I’ve long been queasy about marketing to students.  But, I’ve long been a fan of Google and have required it for student projects.

Recent news reports that the government is archiving our students’ Google searches makes me even more concerned.  I strongly believe that a student should be able to research sensitive personal issues without concern that his/her curiosity will be tracked and saved.

But can we run a library without Google?  Is there a viable alternative?

Non-tracking search engines.

I’ve found two: DuckDuckGo and StartPage which don’t collect information about you or your students.

I can only trust that these search engines don’t track usage but I don’t have reason to doubt them.   Here is part of StartPage’s privacy statement:

StartPage does not store any user data. We make this perfectly clear to everyone, including any governmental agencies. We do not record the IP addresses of our users and we don’t use tracking cookies, so there is literally no data about you on our servers to access. Since we don’t even know who our customers are, we can’t share anything with Big Brother. In fact, we’ve never gotten even a single request from a governmental authority to supply user data in the fourteen years we’ve been in business.

StartPage uses encryption (HTTPS) by default. Encryption prevents snooping. Your searches are encrypted, so others can’t “tap” the Internet connection to snoop what you’re searching for. This combination of not storing data together with using strong encryption for the connections is key in protecting your Privacy.

From my understanding of how the government gathers our personal data, I think StartPage‘s strategy should work.  If StartPage doesn’t collect search histories, there is nothing to subpoena. Using HTTPS makes it much harder for the NSA to see what you are searching

(Click here for a short rant on open tools, students and privacy.)

Which alternative search engine is best?

I’ve done a lot of personal searches on both and SyartPage seems to yield the best results for me. It has been so good that I intend to make it my personal default search engine.

However, StartPage has paid search results which doesn’t solve my concerns about marketing to students.  Paid results are labelled as such but it might be too subtle for younger children to notice.

DuckDuckGo doesn’t have paid search results but sometimes I have had to work harder to get my information.

I encourage you to give both services an extended test since my “testing” is hardly scientific. DuckDuckGo might be fine for your students. And, besides, “DuckDuckGo” seems like the perfect name for a school library search engine!

Making the switch.

Steering students towards a non-logging search engine is easy — in Firefox, change the home page to a non-tracking search engine and change the browser’s default search engine to the same.  (If you haven’t done so already, set Firefox to automatically load on start-up.)

Manage Search EnginesYou will need to add DuckDuckGo and StartPage using the “manage search engines” link.  It’s not difficult but a nuisance if you have lots of library computers. (It’s an oversight that an open program like Firefox wouldn’t default to an open search engine.)  Your district’s IT department could probably do this for all the computers but I have never known an IT department who cared about privacy or open tools.

The hardest part is our own mind-change.  For example, we teachers need to stop telling students to “Google® it.”  We would not say “Kleenex® your nose,” “Bic® a note.” or “iPod® some music.”   These are all brands and I don’t believe our job, as educators, is to create brand loyalty. They get enough of that outside of school.

 


Tools:  StartPage and DuckDuckGo
Description:  non-tracking search engines
Alternatives: TOR
License: open-ethos
Rating: highly useful.