How your mobile phone or tablet could save your life

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Believe it or not, there are many ways your mobile smart phone could be used when you find yourself in the middle of an emergency situation,  aside from the obvious — making a phone call for emergency assistance, I mean.

The recent events in Japan and New Zealand have shown that when disaster strikes, getting the most accurate information is likely the best way to make choices that could save your life.

Browser
Provided the event hasn’t taken out the local mobile network, your mobile phone’s browser will help, linking you with many local, national, and international news services, as well as many different channels of communication (email, voice chat, twitter, etc).

Hardware
f1.jpgBut there are other ways your smart phone can help. For example, many smart phone’s display screens are bright enough to be used as a makeshift flashlight when the power goes out. Color Flashlight is a leading Android app and Flashlight 4 is one of the most popular ones in Japan right now.

As well, most phones these days know where they are in the world, either by triangulating between communications towers, wifi sources, or built-in GPS systems. Tie this in with any of the popular mapping applications and you have a good visual understanding of where you are. Helpful when you have to find an alternate route or transportation system in an unfamiliar city.

An app for that? You bet!
As you can imagine, there are many things that you could need in an emergency. And, of course, there are some apps that can help.

During the Tsunami warnings following the Japan earthquake, information like that provided by this Hawaiian-developed Disaster Alert app helped keep islanders informed about the impending waves.

And after an event, finding people and shelter is a priority.

Google launched their Google Person Finder during the Christchurch earthquake, and updated it for the Japan event.

And the American Red Cross has released their free Shelter View app.

So as you can see, with just a few bookmarks, perhaps an hour of app-store browsing, and a few dollars investment, you can have a pretty good emergency preparedness kit all tucked neatly into your mobile data phone.

I think it’s time I started on mine, what have I missed that I should add?
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Keeping your holiday photos safe

fz50.jpgThe holiday season is upon us, which means that we’ll be enjoying time spent with family and friends. Many of us will grab our handy camera-enabled data phones and snap priceless shots that we’ll want to share, and keep for posterity.

But that’s where the tech can get a bit tricky. Sure, we’ve tried sharing to our various Facebook, Flickr and Picasa accounts, but what about the ‘saving for posterity’ part.

Photos in the Cloud
Well, two of those three services mentioned above are a great start. Here’s the four that I’ve seen and used that will offer solid photo service over the holidays and into the future:

  • Flickr offers a Pro level account (about $25 per year for unlimited photo and video storage) that will keep all your photos online and available. Free gives you unlimited storage, but only your most recent 200 photos are viewable. Online image editing provided by Picnik.
  • Picasa has a free account that offers 1GB of free photo storage and basic image editing tools.
  • SmugMug is pricier, offers three levels of service, and is geared toward the more serious photographer.
  • Adobe Photoshop Express gives you access to basic online photo editing and organization tools, and 2GB of free photo storage. Additional storage space can be purchased annually.

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So, what’s so great about storing your photos online anyway?

  1. Backup — you don’t have to worry about keeping your images safe; the service you’re using does that.
  2. Sharing — easy to embed the images into blogs, email and twitter messages. Each photo usually has a public URL that’s sharable (or private, if that’s your thing).
  3. Printing — a few of the services are offering partnerships with professional printing labs which lets you produce photobooks, custom prints etc.
  4. Integration — some of the more popular services are already integrated into your iPhone camera applications (such as Instragram). Push a button and your latest shot is uploaded to the service, ready for you to edit and share.

Local storage?
Yep, you can keep your photos on your own computer, but you do run risks should your computer crash or worse. I do keep the majority of my images at home, stored on a network attached storage device that’s got two drives, one a mirror of the other. So if one should die, I’ve got a copy of my data on the other.

Also, I backup my photos weekly, and move the backup drive to an offsite location for even greater safety. Yeah, a housefire would ruin a lot of things, but I know my photos and other important data would be safe.

Your needs?
It depends. Take a solid think about what you plan to do with your photos, how you want to share them, and how important they are to you (can you afford to lose them?). I’ve likely given you some ideas to try and experiment with as we head into the holidays. I’d love to hear what you’ve tried and how it worked (or didn’t).

Fat lady sings. Winners announced soon.

Thus endith my first blog contest. And a very cool ride it was.

My good friends at Clickfree, a Canadian backup technology company, agreed to provide the prizes (Clickfree Transformer SE) for a blog contest challenging folks to provide there best (or worst I guess) backup horror story.

I’ve received some rather good entries. Check out the comments in the original post for the entire list, but here’s a couple of excerpts to give you the idea:

In a multi-developer game development environment:

We updated our local SVN repos and tried to work with the new changes that we were all mak­ing (plus unknow­ingly the changes this other guy made)… only the game ended up crash­ing. It worked fine before this latest update and no one was sup­posed to have made any changes that would cause this prob­lem, and yet, here it was, the game was crash­ing. Franticly we looked at all the changes “we” had made for the prob­lem (remem­ber we did not know this guy had checked any­thing in) and argue­ments rose over who was at fault of this issue (oddly no one fingered the par­tic­u­lar pro­gram­mer in ques­tion since we didn’t know he had com­mit­ted any­thing, plus it was 4am and no one was think­ing straight).

Stolen Grad-student Thesis data:

I got a frantic call from a grad stu­dent once, say­ing that someone had broken in and stolen his com­puter with all his thesis data and his 3/4 fin­ished draft thesis — two years of data col­lec­tion research and writ­ing gone!

Winners?

In the next week or so I’ll be reviewing the entries and notifying the winners. And yes, there will be a blog post about it. Stay tuned!

How to backup files across a network easily

Before I start, a friendly reminder that you only have a day left to enter the contest for a free Click­free Trans­former backup system. Tell me a backup horror story.

It’s one thing to backup the files on your local computer and another to backup files stored on other computers on your network, or Network Attached Storage drives or servers.

In the first case, odds are you simply drag and drop files and folders that are important to you to a blank CD or DVD and burn your backup.

In the latter, well, usually a much more complex process with dedicated backup software is required.

Recently I grabbed a Clickfree Transformer SE to do some simple backup work on my desktop and laptop computers. Basically, the Clickfree Transformer plugs into a USB port. Then you plug a USB Hard Drive into the Transformer SE.

And the magic begins. The software quickly scans your local system and copies important documents, photos, media and other files to the USB drive attached to the Transformer SE.

But back to the theme of this post, ‘backing up files across a network easily’. Basically there’s two things you need to do.

Mapping your network drives

First, you have to have ‘mapped’ the network drives containing files to be backed up. Mapping the drive is a simple process that tells your local Windows operating system to treat the network drive as if it is a local drive — even assigning a drive letter to the network drive.

Microsoft has a pretty good walkthrough on mapping drives in Windows XP. The process for Vista and Windows 7 is very similar.

Configuring the Clickfree Transformer SE
And this process is pretty simple. First, you have to get to the Clickfree backup configuration screens.

If you’ve seen a backup run, then you know there’s a countdown prior to the process beginning. When you cancel that countdown, you abort the current backup. But you also now have the ability to configure your backup by selecting which drives (local or mapped network) and file types you want to back up.

This is important because it’s possible, when backing up mapped network drives, to try and backup more files than you have drive space available for…should  you try and backup your entire photo, video, and music libraries to one drive, for example. If this happens, then the backup also fails to the configuration screens, allowing you to tweak the config so you can fit the backup on the drive.

Ready to roll?
And that’s all there is to it. The next time your backup runs, either manually or automatically, files on those mapped network drives will be backed up along with the ones on your local computer drives. Of course, depending on how much you’re backing up, you may need to split the backup across a couple of drives 🙂

Monthly Backups: Have you started yours?

Before I start, a friendly reminder that you only have 2.5 days left to enter the contest for a free Clickfree Transformer backup system. Tell me a backup horror story.

One thing I like to do is, at the end of every month, verify that I’ve got a full backup of what I like to call my ‘forgotten data’, the data on my desktop or laptop —  data stored on the machines I work on day-to-day.

Once you set up a process to back up your servers or NAS devices, it’s easy to get complacent and forget that some of the things that could be important to you are actually stored on your local computer not on the network; things like game progress saves, edits to photos, videos or podcasts you’ve downloaded..etc.

So near the end of each month, I look at that stuff, determine if it’s really important to me or not, then copy it to a place on my network that will be backed up (using one of my other backup systems).

How ’bout you? Are you regularly backing up this ‘forgotten data’?

Spring’s on its way. Backup now — before you’re too busy.

I’ve written a lot about backing up your data over the years. But even though backups are important, somehow they’re always 2nd or 3rd on the priority list. ‘Something to do when I get time’. And as Spring approaches, time is one thing that there’s going to be less of as priorities shift from inside activities to outside – yard cleanup, rediscovering local parks with the dogs, etc.

But back to backups. The key to keeping your data safely backed up is to make your data backup process so simple you can forget about it, until you need it, of course.

In the past I’ve written about online backup as a solution, but recently I’ve started to use that as a secondary backup system. My primary backup system is currently local hardware based, works flawlessly so far, and is simple.

The Hardware
In my case, it starts with the hardware. These days, USB drives are quite inexpensive for their size, so I have three (500GB) units that I cycle through my backup routine. Each drive is naked — no fancy case — I use a Thermaltake BlacX docking station to handle the SATA to USB connection, which then lets me connect it to my computer. The drive simply rest in the unit and is then recognized by your computer as a USB storage device.

Which would be enough if I was to manually drag and drop my files to the drive each time I wanted to back up, but remember, I wanted it to be uber easy. Which brings me to the next piece of hardware; the Clickfree Transformer SE USB interface.

This little hardware device sits between your USB drive (or dock, in my case) and one of  your computer’s USB ports. Once it’s plugged in and mounted by your system, it asks to install the Clickfree backup software, and then launches a backup session (which you can abort and configure) automagically. Remember I said I like simple and reliable.

The Process
So, now that I’m set up hardware wise, how does my backup routine work, you may ask. It works like this:

  1. Configure, or reconfigure the Clickfree backup software to include new drives or folders (both on system and mapped to my system but mounted on my network)
  2. Verify or reset the backup time and frequency if needed
  3. Ensure one of my 3 SATA drives are mounted in the drive dock
  4. Carry on about my regular work – the backup will launch at the predetermined time and execute in background
  5. Now it gets a bit tricky with 3 backup drives, but here’s how I do it:
  • When complete, remove the SATA drive ( I’ll call it Drive A) and take it to a safe offsite storage location.
  • Pickup the drive (Drive B) currently at the offsite storage and bring it back to be used later.
  • Insert the third drive (Drive C) that I had on site, but not in use into the SATA drive dock. It’s now ready to be the backup drive at the next backup session.

That’s probably the most complex part of this process. I like to keep two drives on site and one drive offsite. The most recent backup is always offsite and safe. The next-to-most-recent backup is onsite and available if I need to recover a file or two I know have not changed since my last backup. And the oldest backup drive is ready to be used for the next backup session.

And that’s all there is to it. The Clickfree backup process doesn’t encrypt or compress the data, so should you need to recover a file or drive, it’s a very simple matter to get at the files.

Want one?
Now here’s the cool part – your backup process can get back on track thanks to the fine folks at Clickfree; they’ve given me a few of the Clickfree Transformer SE units to use as prizes in a contest.

If you want to get your backup process setup before Spring has sprung (and soaked up all your free time), either enter the contest (tell me your data backup horror story), or you can simply order a Transformer SE direct from Clickfree — and yes, I have a discount code so you can even get a deal on part of your backup hardware. Use Grier10 when checking out to get a 15% discount on your order.

So what are you waiting for…Spring is on its way and you know it will eat up all your free time. Save your data now, whatever backup system you use.

Friday the 13th: Refuge in the backup

Ok, it’s a lousy title for a movie, but it is a great reminder to review and execute your data backup strategies, both at home and online.

Why Friday the 13th?
Simply, it’s a day-date combination that happens infrequently, almost ad-hoc. When it does occur, you can easily plan to take time out to perform your maintenance chores.

It’s also a very memorable day. In fiction, bad things happen on Friday the 13th — so the best way to prevent those bad things from happening to you, is to take proactive measures…and what better day to remember to do that than Friday the 13th!

Some things to do

  • Backup your home computer systems
  • Backup your blog(s)
  • Backup your other content stored in the cloud (flickr, Google Docs, iTunes video & music)
  • Remove and delete programs you’ve not used for a while
  • Review and backup your password & account information
  • Purge your online email accounts of old mail
  • Defrag your hard drives

More reading
I’ve written a few posts about backups and maintenance before, so if you want to dig into the detail, here’s a handy list, sorted by backup tag.

Lifehacker posted this great overview of a personal backup system worth checking out.