Tech tips for development workers (3) – software

This is the third post in a series providing non-technical advice about affordable and practical IT for people working in developing countries, especially where internet access is not great.   In the introductory post, I talked about the basic set-up – getting a computer and making sure it is secure and properly backed up, and getting basic office software and email.  In the second post I talked about easy ways to read blogs.

This third post looks at the software on your computer.  It does not deal with online services (such as Gmail or Dropbox) which I’ll cover next time.

Web browser

Many people use Internet Explorer because it is already set up on their computer.  But Google’s Chrome (free) is faster and more secure, and it just works.  I also have Firefox (free) installed, mainly because there are some plugins that I like and which are not yet available for Chrome; but for day-to-day use Firefox is getting too bloated and slow. (The beta version of Firefox 4 seems to be faster.)

Because I use a couple of different computers, I use Xmarks (free plugin for both Chrome and Firefox) to synchronise the web browsers across computers and across browsers. As well as synchronising bookmarks it synchronises passwords and it can even open the same tabs for you when you move from one computer to another.

Player for videos and music

I use VLC media player (free) because it seems to be able to play just about anything I throw at it.  Lots of people like MediaMonkey (free).

Communications:

Skype (free) is very useful for people who travel.  Skype-to-skype calls are free of charge; and you can use Skype to call people in other countries very cheaply (because your call goes over the internet to the destination country and only goes into the telephone network for the last part of the journey).  The latest version of Skype supports 5-way videoconferences; but that isn’t going to work if you are on a dial up connection.

However, for technical reasons that are too boring to explain, Skype can be a pain if you don’t have good bandwidth.  A good alternative is Google Talk (free) – but it does not do conference calls, and you cannot dial out to normal telephone numbers like you can with Skype.

I’ve also heard good things about Oovoo for multi-user videoconferencing.

Podcasts

I love having podcasts to listen to – I subscribe to podcasts ranging from film reviews to politics and technology.  Many mainstream radio servicies, especially the BBC and NPR, are making their programmes available and there are specialist programmes (such as my Development Drums podcast). Podcasts are a great way to keep in touch with what is happening back home: you can listen to them on long plane flights and car journeys, or in the gym.

Many people will already have iTunes (free) installed on their computer and this provides an easy way to download podcasts automatically. And if you have an iPod or an iPhone, you can set them to transfer the downloaded podcasts to your device automatically.  I don’t use iTunes for my podcasts, partly because I don’t like Apple’s attitude to controlling its users.

I use RSSRadio to manage my podcasts – it has really powerful controls (for example, you can decide which directory you want the podcasts to go into, and how many back-episodes you want it to keep).  I then use a utility called SyncBack (free) to keep my MP3 player up to date automatically.

Other people recommend Juice (formerly iPodder) or MediaMonkey for downloading podcasts.  A new option which is growing in popularity is DoubleTwist – particularly valuable for people with Android phones.

Twitter

If you like Twitter, you’ll like Tweetdeck (free) which makes the flow of your twitter feed manageable.  I find this much easier than using the website.

Faster downloading & file sharing

In developing countries, downloading from the internet can be slow. It can also be irritating if the download breaks half way and you need to start again from the beginning. Free Download Manager (er, free) can help you with this.

Proxy service

Another way to overcome a slow internet connection is to use a proxy service such as OnSpeed. These typically charge a fee. You set up your computer so that you get your information via this service, which get the data on your behalf and compress it before sending it to your computer.

These services can also be useful for getting round blocks imposed by some countries on access to particular websites.

Utilities

For compressing and uncompressing files: 7-Zip (free)

For managing photos: Picasa (free)- this is both a website for storing photos, and photo management software you can install on your computer.

Privacy and cleaning computers (important to avoid identity theft): C-Cleaner (free)

Turn your computer into a wifi hotspot: Connectify (free, but Windows 7 only)

Next time, I’ll look at online services relevant to development workers.

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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7 Comments

  1. Hi Bowen; Neat job; Very useful and handy info. What’s your take on newsfeed readers and the best one amongst them. Like ur narrative…Will keep coming back.

  2. Agreed about Read it Later. I use Instapaper.com, which has a nice no-nonsense interface, and lets you sync your “read later” items to an iPhone or Android phone for offline reading.

  3. I recently killed almost all of the extensions in my Firefox, and golly, it’s just as fast as Chrome now. Turns out I don’t need weather reports in my status bar.

    And the Firefox 4 beta is pretty slick.

    For folks with security concerns, I think Firefox is much better at controlling what information the browser stores, unless you’re willing to run Chrome in “incognito mode” all the time.

    Your readers may also like our ad hoc tech-security guide. Feel free to repost anything you find useful.
    http://commons.wikispaces.com/Online+Security+Guide

  4. Useful info. Can anyone confirm whether or not onspeed would be worth paying for using a USB Dongle mobile broadband connection (via GPRS/3G) in Uganda? Frankly I’d be willing to try anything that’d speed up the connection, but does onspeed really work?

  5. Hi – Do you have any tips for bbc listen again on slow dialup internet, I am in France and rely on the listen again to avoid going completely mad. At the moment I listen to WMA files on 2 minutes talk 2 minutes silence and even this is better than nothing 😉

  6. A useful set of posts!

    The browser I end up using most often when travelling in areas of poor internet connectivity is Opera. Both the desktop and mobile versions have an embedded “turbo” mode that serves pages pre-compressed and optimised via Opera’s own proxy (I wrote a post a while back here : http://blog.aptivate.org/2009/06/09/low-bandwidth-web-opera-turbo/) There’s also http://www.loband.org/ which still does a good job of getting simplified text-only pages to you.

    I’d also mention an anonymising proxy / privacy improving service – ToR is pretty good at this, comes with a friendly GUI these days (http://www.torproject.org/vidalia/) and along with some browser plugins can easily keep your browsing away from prying eyes in certain countries…

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