Providing Advice to the Members of the University of the Third Age

In my recent post on Life After Cetis: the Launch of the UK Web Focus Consultancy I described “I am also intending to carry out a limited amount of pro bono work, such as the talk on use of Cloud services I will be giving next month for the U3A in Bath“. Due to holidays I was unable to attend the U3A meeting, but I intend to give the talk at this month’s meeting later today.

About the U3A

Logo_of_the_University_of_the_Third_Age

Image from Wikipedia article on “University of the Third Age “

On its home page the University of the Third Age in Bath describes itself as “a lively and friendly association offering a wide range of study and leisure activities for those whose days are no longer tied to earning a living“. A Wikipedia article on “University of the Third Age” describes how “The University of the Third Age is an international organisation whose aims are the education and stimulation of mainly retired members of the community—those in their third ‘age’ of life. It is commonly referred to as U3A.

I worked in the higher education sector for over 30 years and continue to have an interest in learning. I am now in a position to complement my work for higher education with involvement with U3A in Bath.

I recently joined a new U3A group – a Mac Users Group. At a recent meeting there was discussion about ways of storing resources, such as images, videos and text documents. It seems that memory sticks are a popular means of storing such files. I suggested that Cloud storage should also be considered and was invited to share my thoughts, knowledge and experience at a forthcoming meeting. This blog post summarises my talk and demonstration. I am posting the thoughts on this blog in order to share my views more widely and to invite feedback.

It should be noted that members of the group include some experienced IT and Macintosh users and others who have less experience. As is likely to be the case for many retired U3A members, affordable – especially free – solutions to IT problems will be particularly welcomed!

Storage Systems – a Brief History

Fortran-card

Punch card. Image from Wikipedia.

If you have worked in IT since you were much younger you may have encountered storage systems such as punch cards and even paper tape punch. I personally stored my first computer programme on a tape punch and, in my final year at university, stored my data for my final year project on punch cards.

If, however, you first started using home computer in the 1980s, 1990s or later you are more likely to have used floppy disks, either 5¼-inch or, and in particular for Mac users, the 3½-inch (in which the floppy disk was protected by an external case. However floppy disks are being phased out, with the Apple SuperDrive (originally called the Apple FDHD – Floppy Disk High Density – Drive) being discontinued in 1998 (see Wikipedia article).

In brief the history of storage systems tells us that technologies evolve, with storage systems having increased capacity, being more robust and convenient and easier to use across a range of different devices. The initial alternative which helped to kill off floppy disks was the USB flash drive (also known as a memory stick, memory drive,  thumb drive, flash drive as well as a host of other names). However flash drives are themselves facing competition from Cloud storage systems.

About the Cloud

According to Wikipedia “Cloud computing refers to the practice of transitioning computer services such as computation or data storage to multiple redundant offsite locations available on the Internet“.

As described in an article in The Guardian “In the early 1940s, IBM’s president, Thomas J Watson, reputedly said: ‘I think there is a world market for about five computers.’” Arguably Cloud computing marks a return to this – mistaken – vision, with a small number of global companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, providing a range of computer services, including desktop applications (such as Google Docs and Office 365), storage systems (such as Google Drive, Microsoft’s Onedrive and Apple’s iCloud) and other services including ‘virtual’ computers (known as Platform as a Service).

In brief, the ubiquity of the Internet now provides home users with Software as a Service – we can run applications from the network (and note that this can be done not only via a web browser on any networked computer but also with devices such as Google’s Chrome PCs which are looking to complete with traditional computers on price and ease of use) as well as Storage as a Service – the main focus of this post.

Cloud Storage Services

Enough of the theory – what are the popular Cloud storage systems which can be used by typical home users with a limited budget? Recent articles published in PC magazines on  13 best cloud storage services 2015: Dropbox vs Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud & more, Cloud storage services: the big four compared and Dropbox vs OneDrive vs Google Drive: what’s the best cloud storage service of 2015? provide useful summaries.

Five of the best-known Cloud storage providers are listed in the following table, together with iCloud, which will be of particular interest to users of Macintosh  and other Apple devices.

Name Storage
Google Drive 15 Gb free.
Onedrive 15 Gb free. £1.99 for 100 Gb/month. £3.99 for 200 Gb/month. £5.99 for 1 Tb/month plus Office 365.
Dropbox 2 Gb free. £7.99 for 1Tb/month or £79/year.
Amazon Cloud Drive 5 Gb free. £6 for 20Gb/year. £16 for 50Gb/year.
 iCloud  5 Gb free. £0.79 for 20Gb/month. £6.99 for 500Gb/month. £14.99 for 1Tb/month.

Note that the storage costs should not be regarded as the only – or indeed, most important – factor to be considered when choosing a Cloud storage.  As described in a post which, on 14 March 2014, described how Google slashes Drive prices in cloud storage price war, Cloud storage costs are still volatile. In addition various types of deals can bring down the costs (e.g. Microsoft’s Onedrive is bundled with a licence for the Office 365 software suite; Dropbox provides ways of getting additional storage space for free; etc.). There are also many other Cloud storage providers including Mega (50 Gb for free); Copy (15 Gb for free);  Tresorit (only 3Gb free storage but focus  on security); Box (10 Gb free storage, but focus on business sector); Mediafire (10 Gb free storage); Mozy (2gb for free but focus on security) and Spideroak (2gb for free but focus on security).

Cloud storage services may also be bundled in with a broadband package provided by your Internet Service Provider. For example BT Cloud provides 5Gb or 40 Gb (depending on your package) for free with 50 Gb available for £3/month or 500 Gb for £9/month.

It should also be noted that there are also Cloud storage services which are format-specific such as Amazon’s  Unlimited Photo Storage (which is free for users who have signed up to Amazon Prime), Flickr (1 TB of free storage), Google Photos (unlimited free storage for standard-resolution images) and, for storage of one’s music Amazon Cloud Player (250 songs for free or 250,000 songs for £22/year) or Google Play Music (50,000 songs for free).

There are also Cloud hosting services which are more relevant to my professional activities.  I’m a longer-standing user of Slideshare for hosting my slides. I also uploaded my research publications to the University of Bath repository when I worked there. However I can no longer add new papers to the repository or update the papers, so the repository is now a read-only resource for me. Because of these limitations before leaving the University of Bath I uploaded my papers to Researchgate and also, as a backup, to Academia.edu.

As well as the storage costs and the normal factors which affect purchasing decisions (functionality, ease-of-use, etc.) additional factors to consider which are of particular importance when evaluating Cloud services include the sustainability of the service provider and ethical and privacy issues.

Provide Your Own Cloud

You may chose to buy additional disk storage for your computer, such as an internal drive (which requires you opening up your computer) or an external drive which can be connected to your computer’s USB port. However you could also but a NAS (Network Area Storage) device which you could attach to your router so that it can be accessed by other computers and mobile devices on your home network. With some NAS devices you can also make the storage available via the Internet to your devices or other computers when you are away from home. Yes, you can manage your own Cloud storage system, with prices typically costing from about £100.

What Of The Risks

Sustainability

The IT industry has always been very volatile. Hardware companies which, at the time, were well-known (e.g. DEC as provider on mini-computer and Acorn and Commodore as early PC manufacturers) are no longer around and even IBM stopped manufacturing computers and moved into the services sector.

The sustainability of a company which makes hardware and peripherals need not necessarily be of significance if the company goes out of business or changes its business practices – after all you still have the physical devices. However if your Cloud storage provides goes out-of-business you could lose your data overnight. And even if the company is still in business it could close to close down particular services – and as David Harrison has pointed out, even successful companies such as Google have closed down popular services they have hosted, such as Google Reader.

Ethical and Privacy Issues

If you don’t pay, you’re the product, not the user” is a well-known soundbite which forms the basis of criticisms of free Internet services – you are effectively paying for the services by giving access to your content or your personal information to the service provider.

Another concern is that the companies are not acting in an ethical manner – for example the concerns raised last year regarding Amazon’s tax avoidance techniques which led to an “Amazon UK boycott [being] urged after retailer pays just £4.2m in tax“.

A Risk and Opportunities Framework

About the Framework

The risks and opportunities frameworkBack in 2009 I wrote a paper on “Empowering users and their institutions : A risks and opportunities framework for exploiting the potential of the social web” which described a framework which could help institutions considering making use of social media services. This framework, which is illustrated, can also be applied to individuals who are thinking about selecting a Cloud (or local) storage service. The need to be able to assess and evaluate risk is needed when we are looking to make use of innovation. Indeed, as Douglas Adams pointed out, if we weren’t risk takers homo sapiens might never have evolved:

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans

In brief to use this framework it may be useful to document (or discuss with friends and colleagues):

The intended purpose of the service: Is it to share with a small number of close friends? Is it to make available to anyone (which might include potential friends!)

The benefits of the service: What do you hope to gain from using the new service?

The risks of the service: What do you think are the risks of using the new service?

The missed opportunities of not using the service: If you decide to not use the service because of the risks, what will you lose?

The costs of using the service: What are the costs (including non-financial costs, of using the service.

What approaches can you take to minimising the risks: It should be noted that you may chose to accept some risks, especially if the probably is low or the consequences are not significant.

What evidence is there for your choices, preferences and concerns: There are dangers that an ‘echo chamber’ will simply reflect your personal concerns or preferences which are not based on evidence.

money-under-mattressIn use of the framework to assist in personal rather than institutional decision-making there are  likely to be personal and subjective factors including “it’s too complicated for me” or “I can’t be bothered”. But the importance of risk assessment is likely to be understood by U3A members who have evaluated their personal assessment to financial risks when considering what on to do with one’s life-saving – invest in a speculative high-risk fund; a fund which reflects personal preferences and beliefs such as an eco-friendly fund; a low-risk saving account which has a low rate of interest or putting the savings under one’s mattress, because you can’t trust banks (which, sadly, may be a valid reason if you live in Greece!)

Application of the Framework

Subjective Factors

It should be noted that the risks and opportunities framework recognises that there will be biases and subjective factors (experiences, beliefs, prejudices, etc.) which will influence decision making. In order to illustrate how the frame work might be used I will begin by outlining some of my experiences, beliefs and other subjective factors which have influenced my selection of Cloud storage services.

I feel that the slogan “If you don’t pay, you’re the product, not the user” has some validity – and could also be applied to ITV (for which the core business are adverts which generate most of the profits and are needed to fund the programmes which are wrapped around the adverts!)

I accept that such services need to make money to fund the service and, for those provided by commercial companies, to make profits. I recognise that there are different business models, but I personally tend to be willing to make use of free services, knowing that companies may commercially exploit my content and metadata (judging from adverts on my Facebook page they will have evidence that people in their 50s are likely be interested in pensions schemes and in dating women in their 40s and 50s!).

I also tend to make resources I create, including this blog post, available under a Creative Commons licence which permits commercial exploitation provided only that acknowledgement is given. I am willing for others to make use of my ideas. Similarly I am willing to accept licences to use services I feel useful which allow the licence holder to commercial exploit my content and metadata.

I am aware of subscription services which do not commercial exploit my content or metadata. I have signed up for such services including Diaspora, identi.ca and, more recently, Mind but none of these services gained momentum. I am therefore happy to make use of popular alternatives which are available for free.

I am also aware that commercial companies may have business practices which I do not agree with, from Barclays links with apartheid in the 1970s through to examples such as Amazon’s tax avoidance schemes and concerns about Apple’s commitments to sustainability. But although I am aware of such issues they have not caused me to stop using the services.

Services Used

I will initially  summarise some of the functional areas for which I use Cloud (and non-Cloud) storage areas.

Music: I have digitized my large CD collection. The MP3 files are stored on the hard disk on my desktop PC. In addition a copy is held on my NAS drive. I have also uploaded my music to Google Play Music which, as well as providing a backup, enables me to access my music when I am away from home. I am aware of the risks associated with a disk crash of my desktop PC and the, much more unlikely, loss of both this drive and my NAS drive (theft, fire in my home, virus which deletes all files on my home network), but Google Play Music will provide an additional backup. My original CDs are also still available so I could redigitise the music if necessary.

Documents: I tend to use both MS Word and Google Docs when writing documents – MS Word for documents in which the final format is important and Google Docs for collaborative writing. I also use Evernote for general note-taking. In these cases I tend to use the Cloud storage provided by the application or by the company – Microsoft’s Onedrive for MS Word (and MS PowerPoint) files, Google Drive for Google Docs (and Google Spreadsheets) and Evernote’s Cloud storage for Evernote documents. These are all well-established companies and I do not think that they will disappear overnight. I am also confident that if, in the event they chose to cease providing their services or significant change the terms and conditions I will be given sufficient notice for me to be able to migrate my content.

Photos: I have used a number of Cloud storage services over the years, so I should probably rethink the services I use and the way I use them.  Currently I use Google Photos, with photos taken on mobile devices automatically being synched with the service. I acknowledge that I am not storing the high resolution images, but am happy to accept that.

Facebook: Whilst primarily a social media service for hosting discussions and sharing resources it should be recognised that Facebook is also a significant Cloud hosting service for photos – back in 2013 it was reported that “Facebook users have uploaded a quarter-trillion photos since the site’s launch” with “every day, Facebook’s 1.15 billion user base uploads an average of 350 million photos“. I tend to upload photos to Facebook when I am go to somewhere new and wish to share this with my network. I also find it interesting when I receive a anniversary message from the Facebook On this day service which brings back memories which otherwise I may have forgotten. I know that I can export resources I have uploaded to Facebook, but in reality I suspect I’ll not do this. I am happy to use Facebook as a Cloud service for sharing thoughts, ideas and images as they are posted and am happy with the serendipitous reminders I receive.

Risk Minimisation and Evidence Base

My general approach to risk minimisation is to use mainstream services which appear to have a sustainable business model to help ensure the continuity of the service (typically through making use of my personal profile information and potentially my content).

As I mentioned back on April 2012 in a post which asked Have You Got Your Free Google Drive, Skydrive & Dropbox Accounts? comments such as “Google owns everything on google drive.” are, quite simply, wrong. The Google terms and conditions state that:

You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

and goes on to add:

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

Missed Opportunities

If I did not make use of services such as Google Drive, Onedrive, Dropbox I would miss the convenience these provide. I would have to make use of either alternative Cloud services, which will have their own risks or costs associated with them or make use of non-Cloud services, which will have other types of risks or complexities (do I really want the hassle of managing my own IT infrastructure?).

Conclusions

Writing this post has been useful as it has helped clarify my own thoughts on making personal use of Cloud services and identified areas in which I should modify how I use the services. I’d welcome feedback on the post and if the approach described would be helpful for others wishing to make personal use of Cloud services.