Finding the Needle in the Haystack — Dropbox and DEVONthink

Now, where did I put that doc­u­ment again?

needle_in_the_haystack_4Any organ­i­sa­tion­al sys­tem is only as good as how easy it is to find the mate­r­i­al you are look­ing for, and this sys­tem is no dif­fer­ent. But some­times it can feel like try­ing to find a nee­dle in a haystack. I think we have all been there, after all that is why the meme works so well. While in my first sys­tem the organ­i­sa­tion was a mess of fold­er tabs and hang­ing files, my lat­er, ear­ly dig­i­tal, sys­tems involved portable usb sticks, com­plex syn­chro­ni­sa­tion scripts, and a pletho­ra of dupli­cat­ed files. However, this cur­rent sys­tem is a lot more stream­lined, easy to use, and rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple in prac­tice. It involves just two appli­ca­tions, that link into my over­all struc­ture: Dropbox, and DEVONthink.


Dropbox is a bit of a sta­ple of many organ­i­sa­tion­al sys­tems, being one of the ear­ly cloud file stor­age ser­vices. However, even now I am con­stant­ly sur­prised by the num­ber of peo­ple who don’t use a cloud synced ser­vice like Dropbox, and even more sur­pris­ing­ly have nev­er heard of the option. While hav­ing a cloud synced stor­age option is not com­plete­ly need­ed, it is an excel­lent way to work. In my broad­er envi­ron­ment I have three machines, two lap­tops and a desk­top. The lap­top on my desk at col­lege is an old­er Macbook Pro, which I am hap­py to leave just locked in an office. On the oth­er hand my desk­top and new rMBP are a bit more pre­cious and gen­er­al­ly stay at home or with­in eye­sight. This does present a bit of a prob­lem though, how to trans­fer files around. What hap­pens if I am read­ing a doc­u­ment at home, and then head into col­lege and it isn’t there. Well that is where Dropbox steps in. To be able to find the nee­dle in the haystack, you first have to have an acces­si­ble haystack.

Dropbox and Organisation

Dropbox and Organisation

Basically Dropbox works by syn­chro­nis­ing every­thing you place in its fold­er into the cloud, and then repli­cat­ing that sync to each machine. Its pret­ty sim­ple real­ly. While there are a ton of ser­vices that offer this fea­ture, I start­ed with Dropbox and giv­en that it hasn’t eat­en all my doc­u­ments yet, I’m hap­py to stay with it. There are a ton of oth­er fea­tures of Dropbox, such as shared fold­ers (Gill and I use this reg­u­lar­ly), and a bunch more. But the basic func­tion­al­i­ty that I use is sim­ply to share files around the place. Now one of the rea­sons that I have stuck with Dropbox is that as an ear­ly ser­vice provider it is gen­er­al­ly also sup­port­ed by oth­er appli­ca­tions, like GoodReader on my iPad which I will look briefly at next week. Having oth­er app sup­port is quite crit­i­cal in some ways, so I would encour­age you to find an app that works with every­thing that you want to work with. The key to work­ing with Dropbox is to have a good fold­er organ­i­sa­tion sys­tem. You can see mine in the screen­shot, and it works for me. I rec­om­mend that you sit down for a bit and try and fig­ure out a log­i­cal struc­ture ear­ly on. They can be changed lat­er, but the ear­li­er you start with a struc­ture the more nat­ur­al it feels. As a lit­tle side note, if you want to have a fold­er appear at the top of a list­ing every time then just put an ! at the start of the fold­er name, as you can see from my screenshot.

The oth­er bonus with Dropbox is that it pro­vides a good back­up ser­vice. When your lap­top goes miss­ing, or Word eats a doc­u­ment, then you don’t have to wor­ry as much about los­ing every­thing. Quick sto­ry time:

Years ago when I was work­ing in IT Support at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, I had a PhD stu­dent come to me in a pan­ic. He was lug­ging his PC along with him, and to cut a longer sto­ry short the machine had been fried in an unfor­tu­nate light­ning strike. Now he had all of his digi­tised data on that machine, and I do mean ALL of his data. From chap­ters of his the­sis through to the raw data that made up his work­ings. Furthermore, he was some­what para­noid about some­one steal­ing his research and so while he kept note­books for lab ses­sions, he destroyed the data after he had digi­tised it. Oh and he had no back­ups. That’s right, NO back­ups. Thankfully we could restore a bit of his data, but he still lost around 8 months worth of work. Moral of that sto­ry: back up your data!

Dropbox is handy here, while I don’t advo­cate it as a com­plete back­up ser­vice (and it shouldn’t be treat­ed as such), it does pro­vide a medi­um lay­er of back­up, and a bit of piece of mind.

Still make sure you BACKUP EVERYTHING. Email it to your­self, have mul­ti­ple copies across mul­ti­ple machines. Print it out if need­ed. But make sure you backup.

If you haven’t heard of Dropbox, or you haven’t signed up, then I’m going to do some­thing unusu­al for this blog. I’m going to give a refer­ral link. Basically if you use this link then both you and I get a bit of extra space. Its not a lot, but it is bet­ter than a slap in the face with a wet fish. So if by some odd­i­ty you haven’t signed up for Dropbox, then go here:


Onto the next lit­tle app: DEVONthink. If Zotero is your ref­er­ence and research data­base, then DEVONthink is your ‘Google.’ This app is prob­a­bly a bit of an option­al extra for most read­ers, as a lot of its usage depends on how you remem­ber things. Personally I have a real­ly good prim­ing mem­o­ry, and so tend to remem­ber ran­dom quotes or bits of arti­cles. DEVONthink essen­tial­ly works as a large and rel­a­tive­ly smart search engine for my local machine. I get it to index my entire research library, and then you can exe­cute search­es with­in that database.

DEVONthink Search

DEVONthink Search

Now if you have all your scanned files OCRed into search­able text, then you can find pret­ty much any­thing with­in your library rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly. In addi­tion it has a decent infer­ence lan­guage search engine, so that it can tell you which doc­u­ments are relat­ed to your search terms, even if it doesn’t use that exact phrase. 1 This is only scratch­ing the sur­face of DEVONthink, as it sup­ports tag­ging, meta­da­ta and much more. However, giv­en it is only an option­al extra, I wont go into it in a huge amount of detail. My main usage for DEVONthink is to lever­age my own mem­o­ry type, and so while it makes sense for me it may not for you. If you don’t need such fine grained search­ing then its quite like­ly that the built in Spotlight search in OSX will work for you.

Thats it for this short­er post this week. Although I am inter­est­ed in how oth­er peo­ple find data in their stor­age data­base. Comment below.

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  1. Pretty sure it uses a mod­i­fied LSA algo­rithm here