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Coping with information overload—with an iPad

Adam Wagstaff's picture

Life before the web was neatly compartmentalized. Research was produced by researchers who wrote articles for academic journals; news was written up by professional journalists who wrote for newspapers and talked on news broadcasts on the TV and the radio; policy was made by politicians and policymakers behind closed doors in smoke-filled ministries in capital cities; and entertainment was crafted by professionals and delivered in theaters, cinemas and on the TV.

Nowadays researchers are just one of the groups generating new ideas, and researchers aren’t just doing research—they’re also writing op-eds, blogging, delivering TED talks, running randomized policy experiments, and advising policymakers. News is tweeted and filmed on cell phones by the public and then uploaded to YouTube. News is shared online as much as in print; lots of newspapers have perished, but lots haven’t, and many old ones and new ones are focused as much on the web as they are on their print editions. Professional journalists share the writing of news with unpaid amateur bloggers—in the case of the Huffington Post in the same institution. Policymaking is more public—China’s government set up a 24-hour-a-day staffed website so it could gauge its citizens’ views about its planned health reform. Social media have allowed the public to put their politicians under closer scrutiny even when they don’t invite it. Some of the funniest entertainers are amateurs on YouTube. And the boundaries between education and entertainment have become blurred—when we’re watching a TED talk we’re learning and being entertained.

This process of de-compartmentalization has been accompanied by a huge growth in total volume; some newspapers may have disappeared but that’s far outweighed by the growth in words, pictures and videos the web has made possible. Sifting through all this is a major challenge—the sheer volume is almost overwhelming.

In this post I thought I’d jot done some ways I’ve discovered to make sure I keep on top of at least some of what’s out there. The post is dedicated to my self-confessed Luddite colleague who’s worried his annual performance review rating might be linked in future to the number of people he’s following on Twitter.

Start with an iPad

You can do a lot of what follows without one, but having an iPad really helps. For written material—whether it’s news, blogs, random thoughts tweeted by people whose thoughts you want to hear, or even journal articles—it’s nice to have a single place to go where it’s all collected and formatted nicely. Flipboard does just this. It allows you to create your own web-based magazine. You choose the sections. The easy ones to create are off-the-shelf sections. The Economist, the Guardian, the New Yorker and National Geographic, for example, have an agreement with Flipboard and push material to (say) your Flipboard Economist section from blogs and other online content at the Economist. Other off-the-shelf sections include the Huffington Post, ProPublica, Lonely Planet, the Harvard Business Review, Freakonomics, and Foreign Policy. Flipboard also has its own curators—these people feed you material from the news, lifestyle magazines, etc. in a Flipboard section.

You can also create your own Flipboard sections. You can add a section for a blog that you like: for example, you can create a section for the World Bank blog. Why not? It’s actually a vast array of diverse blogs, my personal favorite being the Development Impact blog. Some online journals also work with Flipboard (e.g. the International Journal for Equity in Health), as do some listserves (e.g. the PAHO/WHO equity listserve).

What I’ve described so far gives you a great personalized magazine, but there are two additional tools that help you sift further through the rest of the web. One is Google Reader. You can use this (for example) to stream blogs from a number of bloggers into a ‘favorite blogger’ section of your Flipboard. The other is Twitter, which has two uses—one is to share thoughts and photos with ‘followers’ (not to everyone’s taste!); the other is to share links to interesting things on the web. This second use can be really powerful—it allows you to get tips from other people on what’s worth reading on the web. Follow people who repeatedly make good recommendations, and click ‘unfollow’ if they prove disappointing. Set up sections in Flipboard for your favorite tweeters, and Flipboard will assemble and format their recommended reading for you.

Beyond Flipboard

So, you’ve got your iPad and you’re hooked by Flipboard. How else can you use your iPad to grab interesting material from the web?

Lots of news organizations have iPad apps. My personal favorites (ok, I’m biased) are BBC News and the Economist. The BBC app’s free; the Economist is free if you subscribe to the print edition. The Economist’s app also allows you to read the Economist offline. You can even download the audio version of the magazine; I particularly like listening to the obituaries, which are beautifully written and read by Shakespearian actors. Or that’s what they sound like. I gather the Guardian is about to release an iPad app that will be subscription-based. In the meantime, make do with their beautiful Eyewitness photo app.

Next install the TED talks app. You can save talks you want to watch offline. Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan has a nice one on “Solving social problems with a nudge”, and the FT’s Tim Harford has a new one on “Trial, error and the God complex”. (Personally, I’d have preferred it if Tim had left out the teenage US high-school attire and language: Archie Cochrane a “dude”? Really!) While on the subject of entertainment, you might as well install Netflix (stream movies to your iPad or hook your iPad up to a TV and stream them to the TV), as well as PBS, HBO GO and XFINITY TV, all of which allow you watch movies on your iPad (but not your TV) if you’re in the US. For overseas trips, you’ll need to download movies from iTunes—personally, I think the HD versions are worth the premium. For music, install Pandora, which allows you to create your own “radio” stations of streamed music over the web. Start off with a song or artist you like, and the Music Genome Project will pick similar songs for you and will tell you all about the artist. So Pandora is another great tool for sifting through the mass of good things waiting for you—in this case in the real and virtual worlds. Pandora too won’t work outside the US, so you’ll need to load up your music before you go.

TripAdvisor has an iPad app to help you tell the good restaurants from the bad wherever you happen to be. And Tripit (hat tip to Caryn Bredenkamp) takes all your travel details from your travel agency’s itinerary and hotel booking email confirmations, and assembles it beautifully for you to pull up at the key moment. Got a Blackberry too? You can sync the calendar on your Blackberry (e.g. Lotus Notes) to Google Calendar and then sync that to the calendar on your iPad. You may also be lucky enough to get your corporate email on your iPad (World Bank staff will have to wait a while until the current trial finishes).

An iPad can also save you lugging papers, reports and books around with you while traveling. Drop into Dropbox things from your computer you want to read on the road; mark them as a favorite if you want to read them offline. You might want to get Stanza or something similar to make reading pdf’s easier and more pleasant. You can upload to Dropbox from the web while on your iPad, and you can share Dropbox folders with other people, so it’s great for collaboration even if you don’t have an iPad. Use Dropbox and your iPad too when you want a second computer screen and you’re working on a document referring to charts and tables, or to other documents. There are lots of note-taking apps for the iPad. The one I like (Elements) keeps the documents in your Dropbox so you can edit them on a regular computer too.

See—it’s not that scary, is it?

I bet I’ve missed a lot. Please share others. No ads please!
 

Comments

Thanks for your interesting entry. I'm a research scientist in sustainability, and indeed, coping with a lot of information is now one of the biggest challenges. I completely agree with you that the technology you list can help. But more fundamentally, I think we need to focus extra hard on the quality of what we do, so we don't get lost in quantity. Check, for example, the slow science link: http://slow-science.org/ Or my own take on impact factors http://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/the-2010-journal-impact-factors-are-out-should-we-care/ Or on quality in sustainability science: http://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/quality-in-sustainability-science-what-is-it-and-how-do-we-produce-it/ So yes ... those devices help -- but isn't there something more fundamental we need to do than just update our technology?