Encryption and Google docs

We’ve recently started providing staff training on using Google apps and one of the questions that always comes up is around privacy and security. Following one of our sessions, one member of staff is using Google docs to manage a large number of sensitive documents, with several other colleagues. The sharing of folders and documents with different people is proving very useful. Recently, that member of staff asked me about whether it was possible to encrypt files stored on Google docs so I had a look around to see what the situation is. I knew that transport encryption is available (i.e. https) and that there was no feature in Google docs to encrypt a file, but wanted to provide a thorough response to my colleague.

As I said, Google doesn’t provide the facility to encrypt data held in Google docs. You can however, encrypt a file and upload it to Google docs for online storage only. To read the file, it has to be downloaded and decrypted. I tested this with a .pgp file.

I searched around on the web for a few more clues and there’s the suggestion (last comment) that the data is ‘sharded’ across multiple servers and when you click on the name of a file, the data is brought together into the file for you to work on. I haven’t found any official confirmation of this technique being used.

There’s a Google docs employee on Get Satisfaction that has responded a few times to people’s questions around this area. These replies offer some clarity:

In summary, there is no encryption of data on Google’s servers, but Google are using the same systems to manage their private corporate data and they comply with international (including the UK) data privacy policies. Introducing encryption is technically feasible but would introduce many negative consequences to the features they provide (slower, no collaboration, etc.)

If you’ve got any other, officially confirmed, information on the security of Google docs, please do leave a comment. Thanks.

Two new JISC-funded projects

Just a short note to record that in the last week, I’ve been informed that both our recent bids to JISC will be funded. The projects start on February 1st, just as Total ReCal is formally closing. As you can imagine, we’re all extremely pleased to be able to undertake this work over the next few months and are grateful for the backing that the funding provides.

Here are summaries of the project bids. You can read the full bid documents by clicking on the links.

Linking You << get it? ‘Lincoln U’ :-) (Google doc) (blog)

Like most other HEIs, Lincoln’s web presence has grown ‘organically’ over the years, utilising a range of authoring and content management technologies to satisfy long-term business requirements while meeting the short-term demands of staff and students. We recognise the value of our .ac.uk domain as an integral part of our ‘Learning Landscape’ and, building on recent innovations in our Online Services Team, intend to re-evaluate the overall underlying architecture of our websites with a range of stakeholders and engage with others in the sector around the structure, persistence and use of the open data we publish on the web. Some preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and we wish to use this opportunity to consolidate what we have learned as well as inform our own work through a series of wider consultations and engagement with the JISC community.

Jerome (Google doc) (blog)

Jerome began in the summer of 2010, as an informal ‘un-project’, with the aim of radically integrating data available to the University of Lincoln’s library services and offering a uniquely personalised service to staff and students through the use of new APIs, open data and machine learning. Jerome addresses many of the challenges highlighted in the Resource Discovery Taskforce report, including the need to develop scale at the data and user levels, the use of third-party data and services and a better understanding of ‘user journeys’. Here, we propose to formalise Jerome as a project, consolidating the lessons we have learned over the last few months by developing a sustainable, institutional service for open bibliographic metadata, complemented with well documented APIs and an ‘intelligent’, personalised interface for library users.


Looking at the number of people subscribed to this blog, I thought it is worth highlighting that I actually spend more of my time clipping, note-taking and commenting on another site of mine, Things That Stick. If you’re interested, as some people have said they are, in the links I aggregate and share, then they can all be found on Elsewhere, where you can sign up to the RSS feed or a daily email digest.

I’m still blogging here, as always, but when it’s quiet, you now know why.

Working on the web

Each month, David, Paul and I offer workshops for ‘Working on the web’, aimed at introducing staff to different aspects of Web 2.0 which might be useful in their research and teaching. Our original outline for these sessions can be seen over on the Learning Lab wiki.

A couple of things have reminded me recently that it might be useful to describe how I work on the web.

First of all, I use an up-to-date browser (Firefox or Chrome) with a few extensions. I block all advertising, using AdBlock, all trackers, using Ghostery and a password management extension, so I never use the same password on any two websites. Chrome allows me to synchronise all my preferences, bookmarks, passwords and other bits and pieces across different computers, so my experience on my desktop, laptop or home computer is the same. When using Firefox, I have the Sync extension installed, for the same reason.

Next, in terms of my basic set up, I have four useful ‘bookmarklets’: One for j.mp, which allows me to create a short URL for the current site, another for Readability, that makes reading long articles somewhat easier, one for delicious, to bookmark or ‘favourite’ sites, and a Posterous bookmarklet that allows me to quickly take clippings from web pages and post them to my Posterous site.

My Posterous site ‘things that stick’, is one of a few ways that I organise information on the web. I use Posterous almost exclusively for posting selected text (‘clippings’) from websites or PDF articles that make an impression on me. I use delicious for straightforward social bookmarking of a website, usually copying a piece of text from the site that best describes what it’s about. I use Google Reader to ‘Share’ whatever crops up in my feed reader that interest me. Whether I clip, bookmark or share, none of these actions is any kind of endorsement of the content but simply means the information is, in some way, of interest to me and I might want to come back to.

I share what is of interest to me by creating a ‘bundle’ from the RSS feeds of these three services in Google Reader. That bundle has a public web page and atom feed. However, all the items are presented in full text and therefore a hassle to get a quick overview of what’s been recently shared. So, I also aggregate the three sources to my own blog, ‘Elsewhere‘, where anyone can get a quick summary of the information I gather each day (and you can grab an RSS feed, too). I do this using the lifestream plugin for WordPress. This also means that through this process, the links I’m collecting ultimately come back to a site that I own and I have some kind of control over the retention of that data.

Google Reader is central to how I work on the web. I subscribe to news feeds from anywhere between 200 and 400 sites at any one time. Currently, it’s at a comfortable 230 subscriptions, which I read on my walk to and from work and occasionally during the day. I scan a couple of hundred headlines a day and click on about 10% of those headlines to read the article. This is my main method of reading the web.

I also use Google Reader to subscribe to every service I use on the web, so it’s a way of aggregating my own footprint on the web and keeping track of services I have used. The other reason for doing this is that Google Reader is searchable, so I can search over any of my activity on the web if I want to go back to something I read, create, shared or wrote.

Next, I have this work blog, which I use as a notebook more than anything else. I regularly refer back to it and search through it to remind me of the work I’ve done, ideas I’ve had and events I’ve been involved in. Whenever I have to report on my work, I refer back to this blog.

I use an Amazon ‘wishlist’ to maintain a list of books that look interesting and I might buy in the future. It’s a shame that there’s no RSS feed from wishlists. If there was, I’d add it to my daily bookmarks and clippings on my Elsewhere blog.

I use Mendeley to organise research papers in PDF format. Currently, I have over 500 PDF files synchronised across my work desktop and laptop (about 1.3GB). I moved to Mendeley, not for its social features, but simply because it renames and organises the files nicely on my hard drive and synchronises across computers. Before using it, I was in a mess.

I visit Wikipedia more than any other single website. It’s not perfect but its imperfections merely reflect our own imperfections and it is more perfect than any other collected source of information on the web.

I use Google docs for most of my non-blog writing these days. Funding applications, conference papers and articles I’m working on, all start off on Google docs and only move to Open Office if formatting requires.

I use slideshare to publish any presentations I give. I used to use Scribd until they starting charging people to download content from their site. When slideshare start charging, as I suspect they will, I’ll delete my account there, too.

On the subject of deleting accounts, I stopped using Twitter at the weekend. I’ve been trying to wean myself away from Twitter for months, having moved to using it largely for sharing links and as a news aggregator, picking up links from other people. I’ve never really liked it for conversation, finding the 140 character limit, well, limiting, in a demeaning sort of way. More recently, I’d created a private list of 20 or so people out of the 400 or so that I followed, who regularly pick up on sources of information I value, and this had become the extent of my experience using Twitter as I intentionally tried to wind down my use of it. Last weekend, I felt particularly overwhelmed with work and the intrusion that it can become at home, and so I deleted my account altogether. I know from past experience that not using it, rather than deleting it, wasn’t an option for me. I’d have simply ‘done a Stephen Fry’ and returned to it before too long, sorry addict that I’d become.

I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years and had over 1000 followers, a few of whom are now real friends, though about half looked like people simply looking for re-follows, another large percentage were people who subscribed on mass to lists of people (usually EdTech lists) and quite a few more were people I’ve never had any contact with whatsoever. I’ve also found that my ability to concentrate has severely diminished over the last couple of years, with the constant distraction of having email/SMS/Twitter present in the back of my mind. Even turning off all notifications on my phone and computers hasn’t helped. Now I just use Google Reader to follow the RSS feeds of about 10 people on Twitter. It’s a bloody relief, to be honest. Here’s to being able to concentrate a little better from now on.

As with Twitter, I stopped using Facebook at the end of last year. The web is my social network and the above tools, my personal working learning environment.

Falling in love (with libraries)

I’ve just come from the Library, having been invited to join colleagues in a day long strategy workshop, led by a nice bloke called Ken Chad. Throughout the day, we discussed library users’ needs, took a pragmatic view in assessing the work to be done, looked at the barriers we face and some potential solutions. One of the contributions I made was around the benefits of getting to know the users of our Library better and using that knowledge to further improve our library services. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What got me thinking throughout the day was a brief discussion about the role of surveys in soliciting feedback on the services we provide. It got me thinking about some reading I’ve been doing recently around ‘resilience theory’ and a key component of resilience theory is learning from feedback so as to adapt and survive. Resilience theory is a branch of the ecological sciences that “emphasizes non-linear dynamics, thresholds, uncertainty and surprise, how periods of gradual change interplay with periods of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial scales” (Folke 2006). Folke lists the attributes of a resilient social-ecological system as:

  1. the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction,
  2. the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization (versus lack of organization, or organization forced by external factors), and
  3. the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

It’s the last point that interests me here. That is, the degree to which something has the capacity to learn and adapt. So, resilience theory is a theory of learning, adaptation and change. It’s not a theory of preservation but rather one of sustainability. Hopkins (2008) has likewise summarised the ‘ingredients’ of resilient systems as:

  1. Diversity
  2. Modularity
  3. Tightness of feedbacks

I think resilience theory is a theory which can be usefully applied to eco-systems, single organisms, individuals, even library systems. Anything that has an interest in longevity or sustainability in the face of inevitable change. So it seems to me that the use of surveys is an implicit admittance of failure in terms of knowing the people who you are surveying.

In our relationships we don’t issue quarterly or annual surveys to find out what people think about us. As I said in the workshop, I’ve never surveyed my wife. I listen to her, I get to know her as she changes and I change, adapt and respond to her needs. This is what it’s like to fall in love. In my experience, you meet someone and the first few months are a concentrated effort to get to know that person. Long days and late nights, talking to each other, discovering connections, sharing ideas and ideals, each person looking for a sense of surprise and delight as we unfold our lived experience in front of each other. In other words, we get to know that person and at the point or the period of falling in love, we commit ourselves to continually learning more about that person, listening to them, taking their feedback and adapting ourselves, growing old together. A relationship where neither or only one person takes on this commitment to listen, learn and adapt is, frankly, living hell.

And in a way, that’s what the most successful online services are engaging in. I’ve never been issued a survey from Google or Amazon. They don’t need to survey me, because they’ve been learning about me, with every click, every purchase, every email, every movement and decision they can track. ((I completely neglect to discuss privacy issues here. Needless to say, falling in love is quite different to being stalked.)) And using that feedback, that learning, they’ve adapted their services to respond to what they think are my needs. ((Sometimes they impose features on users and the technology can drive our actions and create artificial needs, and many of us recognise this manipulation or domination of the technology and begin to reject it, calling off the relationship. Sometimes people can become subservient in the relationship, too.)) The ‘tightness of feedbacks’, as Hopkins puts it, is essential to long-term friendships, marriages and, yes, the sustainability of library services. We need to get to the point where the feedback we receive from surveys is not necessarily perfect (what relationship is?), but is no longer of any use to us, because we already know what library users need, enjoy and are interested in. By creating a library system that learns from every person who uses it and adapts over time to the environment it is part of, we create a resilient and therefore a sustainable library system that its users fall in love with.

Web 2.0 and endless growth

I’ve just read The Digital Given: 10 Web 2.0 Theses (2009) and found it to be one of those rare pieces of writing that makes me feel like I’m not alone. Here is thesis 9:

Soon the Web 2.0 business model will be obsolete. It is based on the endless growth principle, pushed by the endless growth of consumerism. The business model still echoes the silly 90s dotcom model: if growth stagnates, it means the venture has failed and needs to be closed down. Seamless growth of customised advertising is the fuel of this form of capitalism, decentralized by the user-prosumer. Mental environment pollution is parallel to natural environment pollution. But our world is finished (limited). We have to start elaborating appropriate technologies for a finite world. There is no exteriority, no other worlds (second, third, fourth worlds) where we can dump the collateral effects of insane development. We know that Progress is a bloodthirsty god that extracts a heavy human sacrifice. A good end cannot justify a bad means. On the contrary, technologies are means that have to justify the end of collective freedom. No sacrifice will be tolerated: martyrs are not welcome. Neither are heroes.

We know that the advertising-based consumerist model of the web is as fragile as the pursuit of growth but what alternatives to growth are there? Over the last year, looking at energy, the economy and its impact on the environment, it’s become clear to me that the pursuit of economic growth is deeply flawed and limited. This was the subject of a conference in Leeds in June, on Steady State or no-growth economics. Yesterday, the conference organisers produced a report, Enough is Enough, which is an attempt to outline an alternative to a growth-based economy. You might remember that the new economics foundation also produced a report in January called Growth isn’t possible. The publication that first drew my attention to this subject was the government commissioned report, Prosperity Without Growth.

Thanks to Richard Hall for pointing ’10 Web 2.0 Theses’ out to me. It was first published on nettime, which is a mailing list I can recommend.

RSS in, RSS out. Experimenting with WordPress for scholarly publishing

My presentation for the RSP event: Doing it differently. No slides, just a live demo using the outline below.

1. WordPress is an excellent feed generator:


2. It's also an excellent, personal, scholarly CMS


3. If you have an RSS feed, you can create other document types, too


4. We conceived a WordPress site as a document (and a WordPress
Multisite install as a personal/team/dept/institutional multi-document
authoring environment)


5. Here's my MA Dissertation as a WordPress site using digress.it


6. WordPress allows you to perform certain actions on feeds, such as
reversing the post/section order


7. EPrints allows you to 'capture' data from a URI


8. Suck it into your feed reader, for storage/reading - it's searchable
there, too.


9. And use another service to create an ebook or PDF version


10. RSS. Loosely joined services:

Author: WordPress -->
                   Preserve: EPrints -->
                                        Read: GReader

11. p.s. How about using EPrints to drive a WordPress site, too? Why extend a perfectly good preservation and storage application to include web 2.0 features, when it can be used to populate a cutting edge CMS with repo data?

WordPress: Beyond Blogging session at IWMW10

Together with our Web Manager, Chris Goddard, I ran a session on the use of WordPress in HE at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2010. It was good to see all chairs taken and people seemed to get something out of it. It was useful for me, too, to find out about how WordPress is being used at other universities. A video interview followed.

WordPress beyond blogging from UKOLN on Vimeo.