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Blogs > Office Jotter

Some free tools for informavores
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Director, Office Futures
Published: 17th November 2011
Copyright Office Futures © 2011

If you’re like me, you receive lorryloads of information through various Internet channels — often too much to do anything useful with at the time.

Two ways of dealing with the overload are to refine the quality of what gets to you and to delay making a decision on what you do with the good stuff.

Here are some pieces of Windows software I use to help me with those actions. I hope you find them useful, too.

Distilling

Now, what I want is, Facts… Facts alone are wanted in life.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

I don’t go so far as Mr Gradgrind but I do want to keep my inbox clear of fluff, conjecture, (barely) rewritten press releases and other worthless effusions.

One aid to this is the RSS reader, GreatNews. This sucks down at least 1,000 entries a day, from over 120 feeds. That’s far too many to scan individually.

The answer here is GreatNews’s ‘news watch’ feature. (I expect other readers have similar.) This lets me set up and store a search on a term or terms within those 1000+ entries, such as “social business” or “social network”. I have 19 searches active.

I’ve set the reader to display the results in alphabetical order, making duplication easy to spot. This evening there were just 2 unique items within social business and 25 within social networks, which are the two searches I look at first.

Working this way, GreatNews does a good job of variety reduction. A distillate that small is easily dealt with. I’m bound to have missed a few things but I don’t mind. This is scanning – reconnaissance – not information recovery.

If I want to delve into a known topic or company, I’ll use Web searching as well as searches of the reams of data I’ve stored away on disc over the years. Copernic Desktop Search is among the best of the free tools for the latter. (I use a copy of the ISYS searcher I was given to test some while ago. It’s thorough and fast but not free.)

Another helpful scanning tool is Twitter, especially its hashtags. Two interest me most — #socbiz and #e20 (for social business and Enterprise 2.0 respectively).

GreatNews comes into play here, too. I’ve made news feeds from these two Twitter streams. Those inputs become raw material for news watches, just like anything from Mashable, say, or Forrester. Here are the links – #socbiz and #e20.

Twitter also helps through the work of aggregators (‘curators’). They do some filtering for you by creating lists. Eric Ziegler’s paper.li newspaper, Enterprise Social Biz 2.0, is an excellent example. That arrives in my email every morning.

Google provides a helpful and free filtration service, too, called Google Alerts. Go here and enter the details. I use that mainly for staying up to date with suppliers. Again, the results go to my email inbox.

In addition to all those sources, there’s steady trickle of other material to my in-tray from newsletters, suppliers and social networks.

Deferring

If wanted emails are repetitive, they go automatically to the relevant folder. One look at the header is usually enough to show whether it’s a “now” or “later” item.

(The best free information-sorting tool we all have is our innate ability to detect meaning. How decisive we are with the outcome is a different matter. I don’t dither.)

I tag ‘later’ posts that are nonetheless important, so I can easily detect them at times more suited to mature decision. I usually do the ‘now’ stuff within minutes, if only to add it to a collection.

You can do much the same kind of winnowing of material from the Web. I use a free add-in (to Firefox) called ScrapBook Plus. This lets you capture Web pages or part of them and put the result in a relevant folder.

When you’re ready to deal with an item, you can either read the local copy or go to the original URL. The tool also lets you highlight content and add typed notes, either before saving or later.

I formerly used a similar program called Zotero, which is mainly for academics and students. It’s particularly strong on adding citations in accordance to various conventions, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. I found it weaker than ScrapBook Plus when sorting or reorganising folders.

Before Zotero, I used Evernote but stopped when it changed to Web-based working rather than storing locally. I’m usually travelling, so can’t always get an Internet connection, let alone a fast one.

All three products would be worth your while considering.

Printing received material is another useful way of time-shifting action on information. Because I’m on the move so often, I don’t often have a printer to hand. Instead, I use the Bullzip PDF printer. It’s useful when I want to send someone a complete article or want to make it a separate record.

The final tool I’ll mention is another Firefox add-on, called QuoteURLText. It lets you copy a piece of Web text by right-clicking, as in ordinary copying, but when you paste the clippage, it adds the URL, page title and date of the source. I find this a great time-saver when drafting articles or reports that will include quoted material.

My information diet

I grew up in a pre-colour television and pre-Internet world. Perhaps that’s why I mainly take in information by reading text. (Interviews and product demos are also important, naturally.)

Graphs can be helpful, depending on what you’re trying to find out. A properly made histogram or pie chart can reveal much, and quickly. Infographics, on the other hand, are overused and often misused. I find most of them a waste of time and visual purple.

I don’t use video material much, either. It’s good for demonstrating actions and for displaying moods and behaviours, such as in interviews, but I find it a tedious way of gathering ‘hard’ information.

If a video comes with a transcript, I’m happy. I can scan that far quicker than I can absorb video playback. Webinars are equally inefficient and my attention always wanders during podcasts.

Chacun a son goût, as ever.

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