Tech tips for development workers (4): online services

This is the fourth 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. The previous posts have been:

This fourth post looks at online services, such as for mail, backup and online media.

Online services are a mixed blessing for people who live in developing countries.  On the one hand, it is helpful to use services which you can access from an internet cafe or from an office PC.  This means you can travel light but still get hold of the resources you need. On the other hand, services which only work when you are online are not much use in a place where internet access is expensive, unreliable, or unavailable; nor if you want to use those services on a plane or in a 4WD on a long road trip.  This blog post looks at how you can use these services even if you don’t have a great internet connection.

Online mail

The big three webmail services are Hotmail (from Microsoft – 364 million users), Yahoo! Mail (280 million) and GMail (from Google – 191 million).  I use GMail all the time, because it has the most features of the three, and I find that the spam filter is very reliable.  There are lots of other webmail services, but few are as reliable or have as many features as the big three.  If you are worried about privacy and security, either because of the work you do or to protect yourself from financial fraud, you might consider Hushmail, which focuses on security and encryption and is also free for personal users.

If your internet access is intermittent, you probably want to be able to read and manage your mail when you are offline. Fortunately you can do this, while still being able to use webmail from an internet cafe when you are on the road.  The best way to achieve this is to enable IMAP on your webmail, and then use Thunderbird or Outlook on your computer.  IMAP is the technical name for a clever protocol which means that any changes you make to your mail (move, delete, reply etc) on your computer will be reflected in your webmail when you are online, and anything you do in webmail will be reflected on your computer when you next connect.   This is vastly preferable to using POP.  With both Thunderbird and Outlook an additional advantage is that you’ll have a backup of your mail on your computer.

A few tips about online email services:

  • Use a different password for your webmail than you do for other online services and keep it secure.  You may not think your email is particularly important, but if a bad guy has your webmail password, they have access to almost all your other online services because they can simply tell those services to reset the password and send it to your (compromised) email account.
  • If you are a freelancer, set up your own domain name (mycompany.com) and have emails to that address go to your webmail account.  This looks more professional than having a webmail address (studmuffin@hotmail.com).
  • Set up a honey trap email account for use for online services that need an email address.  I use a hotmail address which I regard as disposable.  That way, I don’t have to give my real email address to websites.  I only log in to that hotmail account when I need to click an authentication link

Read more: What’s new in Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo mail – The Times of India

Online office applications

Google Apps is now clearly the leader in online word-processing, spreadsheet and presenation software.  These are free, and they provide almost all the functionality you need, though less than the more feature-laden but expensive Microsoft Office applications.  Google Apps are a great way for a team to collaborate on the same document or spreadsheet.

Free is good, but if you don’t have ubiquitous cheap and fast internet access, then this stuff isn’t much use.  But Google is in the process of rolling out a free service that enables you to use your Microsoft Office software on your computer, with the files saved into Google Apps automatically.  This offers the prospect of the best of both worlds: online collaboration and backup when you are online, but the ability to work offline using Microsoft Office tools.

Online backup and file sharing

Dropbox is an excellent service for (a) backup; (b) sharing files across more than one computer; and (c) transferring large files from one place to another, especially with slow or intermittent internet connections.  It is free for accounts of up to 2Gb.

When you install Dropbox, it creates a folder on your computer which is just like a normal folder as far as your computer is concerned.  You can copy or move files into it; edit them; or delete them.  In the background, when there is bandwidth available, your computer will silently and invisibly synchronise those changes to your online dropbox space, and to any other computers on which you have dropbox installed.

I have two computer with Dropbox installed, and on each I have moved the “My Documents” folder into my Dropbox folder. This means that whenever I create or change a file, Dropbox updates the online version, and synchronises the changed file to the My Documents on my other computer.  This means I always have the most up to date version of every document on both computers, without having to think about it.   If the computers are connected to the same local network, Dropbox is smart enough to transfer the files across the local network rather than download the file from the online version.

I can also access all my files via the web from any other computer (useful if you are travelling and need a document you don’t have with you).  If you accidentally delete something or change it and want to go back, you can recover old copies of all your files from Dropbox for up to 30 days – or if you pay $39 a year for Packrat, you can have Dropbox store an unlimited archive of your old files.

If you are considering putting a lot of data into Dropbox, and your internet connection is slow or you are charged by the Mb, you may want to consider doing this when you are next travelling.

One particular challenge in low bandwidth environments is sending very large files from one place to another.  It is especially frustrating if the internet connection drops when you have downloaded 90% of a large file over several hours and you find you have to start again. Using Dropbox you can create a folder which is shared by the recipient and the sender.  The sender copies the large file into the shared folder on their computer, and Dropbox will then synchronize it to the shared folder on the recipient’s computer.  Because this all happens in the background, you can get on with doing something else; and the synchronisation will take up where it left off if the internet connection drops half way through.

There are alternatives to Dropbox which provide a similar service.  Live Mesh provides 5 GB of free online backup space, as compared with 2GB of Dropbox. SpiderOak,  Syncplicity and  SugarSync all provide 2GB fee.  Syncplicity is Windows only.

Online backup

If you start to use online services such as GMail, Google Apps, Flickr or even Facebook, you should consider making a backup of your data.  Google does not seem likely to go bust or lose all its data but people do sometimes find that their account is compromised and they are no longer able to access it. If it would be a problem for you to lose all the photos you have stored on Flickr or Facebook, or of all the emails in your GMail account, Backupify might be for you.

You can download all your mail or all your photos to a backup on your computer, but that is not going to be feasible if you are in a low-bandwidth environment.  Backupify backs up your data from one part of the internet “cloud” to another, so it doesn’t matter if the bandwidth where you are is not very good.

Online media

In some developing countries, or when you are in the field, you cannot easily access international media or the latest Stieg Larsson book.  Often the internet may be too slow to be able to stream radio or TV programmes. But there is a lot that you can download for later, even if your internet connection isn’t all that great.

Here are some ways to use online media even when bandwidth is low:

a.  buy Kindle books from Amazon.  You can read your book on a Kindle, if you have one (I really like my Kindle). But you can also download free software to your PC, to an iPad, iPhone or Android phone to read your book.  (Once you have paid for the book, you can read it on any platform that suits you).  There are lots of free books (eg Shakespeare, Dickens) available.  And you can also use the Kindle to get daily newspapers from many countries round the world. The books download very quickly, even on a slow internet connection.

b. listen to audio books.  The market leader is Audible.  This is a great way to “read” while you are travelling, such as on long car journeys if reading in cars gives you travel sickness, or on long flights.

c. listen to podcasts.  This is a great alternative to radio if the local radio isn’t very good. You can download lots of shows from e.g. the BBC.  I host a free development podcast called Development Drums.  There is a list of other development-relevant podcasts here.  You can get these, and lots of other podcasts, free on iTunes.

Even if you don’t have an MP3 player, you may be able to transfer audio books or podcasts to your telephone and listen to them on that.

Conclusion

Internet access in developing countries is improving fast, and many development workers now have either mobile internet access or access through their office, though it is not always very quick or reliable.  The online services described above may be useful for you, even if your internet connection is unreliable.

Here are the previous posts in this series:

Disclosure: I don’t have any interest in any of the services mentioned here.  But if you click on the link for DropBox above and use that to sign up for DropBox, you and I will both get a little extra free online storage space.

6 thoughts on “Tech tips for development workers (4): online services”

  1. Pingback: Tech tips for development workers (4): online services | Global Health Hub

  2. This is all great advice. A couple of other suggestions:
    * There’s no need to use Outlook or Thunderbird: the offline facility in Gmail is excellent. It used to be flaky, but these days (on Google Chrome at least) it works like a dream.
    * For reading newspaper articles and blog postings offline, I use Instapaper.com. This lets you mark any page as “read later”. Then you can download your whole reading list to an iPhone, Android phone or Kindle and access it any time.

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