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Taking Note

How to tame the tsunami of info streaming to a device near you


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I feel I am always in a struggle to tame the tsunami of data and not really winning.  Fortunately, most of the software engineers in the world have the same problem and they keep trying to fix it.  

There are two key factors that I think are important—the tools should work on whatever device I happen to be using wherever I am and that everything I capture should be available on all my other devices.  So if I take a note on my smartphone or tablet, it should show up when I am at my desktop PC, and vice versa.

I still haven’t found the tool that can magically solve the problem, but here are three that I find help me keep it mostly under control:  

Evernote (evernote.com)—You can easily clip individual articles, whole web pages, snap photos and record voice memos, as well as capture emails and documents.  And you can tag all these things while organizing them in folders.  There are some very cool features too, like taking a picture of your notes and diagrams on a whiteboard at the end of a meeting or someone’s business card. Not only does Evernote store the image, but it can recognize the text in the photos and makes them searchable.  Plus you can quickly share any item with others.

Evernote is available through any browser, but they also offer apps for your desktop and just about every mobile device. They offer integration with many other web software tools as well. The software and basic service are free and are probably sufficient for most people, but a premium service is available for serious users.

Springpad (springpad.com) – offers many similar features and capabilities. Springpad is a little simpler and easier to use as it provides a variety of pre-made custom categories and it automatically captures things into them for you—like movies, recipes, expense items, gift ideas. This tool does a great job at capturing the images on web pages, and it also allows you to set alerts and reminders. For example, save a product you want to buy and it will automatically notify you if there’s a price drop.

Springpad is free and runs in any browser, but the clipping tools seem to work best in Firefox and Chrome. Apps also are available.

WebNotes (webnotes.net)—Webnotes is a little different than the other two. It isn’t aimed at bookmarking, but at capturing information and allowing you to annotate it. You can highlight key passages on web pages with colors. You can make sticky notes and add comments. It extracts the text that you highlighted and your comments and lists them by topic.  As you do any research you can mark up those documents and then see all the notes in one free, searchable place.

A premium version adds some very valuable professional features such as the ability to upload PDF documents and do the same annotations on them.  It also offers a very flexible report generation tool that allows you to take your collected notes on any specific topic and then edit / arrange them quickly into a summary you can then distribute. I’ve worked on several major research projects and have found WebNotes to be an amazing help.

Each of these products does something incredibly useful, and you might give them a try to see if they can help you tame your info overload and earn a place, at least for now, in your toolbox.

Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. He can be reached at roman@lubynsky.com.

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