Saving data donkeys in quicksand with tags

By Ian Hardy
BBC News, New York

  • Published
Filing cabinet
Image caption,
Digital labelling - with tags - is a major revelation for organising information on our computers

It's a little-known fact that in the computer world, the word "Tags" stands for Totally Awesome Gathering System.

Actually, it's a little-known fact because I just made it up after spending a few weeks delving into the mini industry of desktop productivity, particularly the organisation of documents, spreadsheets, emails, images etc.

Of course, I am not the only person to stumble upon this revelation.

For freelancers and small businesses without the people power to continually curate their ever increasing collection of documents, it's often easier to buy another two-terabyte hard drive and call it a day.

As this problem grows - literally by the second - there are more and more solutions, such as the newly launched Doo or Spotdox, that promise to help with organisation.

The traditional "files and folders" way of storing our data is decades old. And while it does reward our brain with a sense of control and ease of accessibility, it's certainly not perfect.

As the file structure increases, documents several subfolders deep slowly get consumed, like a donkey in quicksand.

That's where tags come in.

Tagging has been around for a long time and it's a term that has multiple meanings, but essentially it's a way of keywording a file beyond its title.

Tagging didn't start to get much interest until around 2004, when websites such as Delicious and Flickr become popular with consumers.

Since then, apps such as Evernote have made tagging more visible in the workplace, thanks to the two-thirds of users who use the software both in their personal and professional lives.

Image caption,
Tom Andersen's work means a similar system of tags now works across many services

Evernote's John McGeachie says his company's tools are perfect for a business environment, although some forethought is needed to ensure everyone in a firm can benefit from tagging.

"We don't think of ourselves as builders of enterprise software. We make tools for people. Generally, the administrator controls all the tags used in the business but those can be whatever you want."

Co-operation and communication

Evernote has been so successful with small companies and corporations that it launched a dedicated product called Evernote Business last December.

Notes, notebooks and tags can be shared among staff, leading to greater co-operation and communication.

Evernote is cross-platform, meaning it can be used on Windows and Mac as well as mobile devices. That is made easier because all the information lives inside Evernote's own universe.

When tagging files that reside on a computer, it gets more complicated. Much of the software that allows businesses to do bulk tagging is Mac-based - perhaps not surprising, since Apple's own built-in Spotlight feature has traditionally been used to write searchable keywords and descriptions.

No such culture has really existed on the PC side.

DevonThink Pro Office can collect all your data together inside one place sorted by tag, regardless of file type.

So a project that has calendar dates, reminders, documents, videos, drawings etc can be temporarily contained in a single location.

The company's US representative, Jim Neumann, thinks about files as pieces of information that enter our head and swim around in three-dimensional space.

"If there's a given song, I can mentally classify it according to genre. But that same song may make me sad, because it reminds me of an old love. If a conversation is focused on a particular genre, this song will be available to discuss in that genre.

"But when the conversation turns down memory lane, the same song is available again in this new context."

Tagging and searching, especially at the professional level, has become faster thanks to ever-increasing processor power. Databases can store millions of documents and yet retrieve a tagged group with minimal hesitation.

It has also become easier to use tags across multiple software packages, thanks to work carried out by Tom Andersen, of Ironic Software. He created OpenMeta Tags, which form the core of many tagging solutions including Leap and Yep.

Image caption,
Increased processing power means handling large numbers of unique tags is now faster

In fact, it was so well received by the industry that it has never needed further development.

"We looked at tagging when OS X Tiger came out and realised that the solutions that people were using were not interchangeable at all, nor were they very robust.

"So we got a few other OS X software developers out there together for feedback and consolation, and then wrote OpenMeta in about 2006."

Leap is a favoured solution for tagging a large number of files in one go.

But OpenMeta tagging has increasingly found its way into software as almost a side feature. Default Folder X is a simple application that makes it far easier and faster to control the "save" function on a Mac.

Yet the "save" stage is the perfect time for adding tags to a file. Its creator Jon Gotow received many requests to incorporate tagging and so he did.

"Tagging really fits the workflow or organisation of some tasks well because, unlike organising files in folders and sub-folders, you can put multiple tags on a single file.

"For example, you can categorise a work estimate as both 'finance' and 'client quote', rather than having to decide whether to put it into the 'finance' folder or the 'quotes' folder. Subsequent searches for either term will bring up that document - something that's especially helpful in larger, multifunction organisations."

Revolutionised text

Another app, called Tags 2, by CASEapps, will tag almost any file on your computer, including email messages and frequently visited web pages. Again, it's a Mac-only solution.

That, say the developers, is because the Mac platform and accompanying app store have encouraged them to solve many productivity issues - big and small - with reasonably priced solutions.

Image caption,
Evernote's software proved useful for businesses - so the company made a tailored version for enterprise

For example, apps such as aText have revolutionised text entry and tagging. Instead of repeatedly typing "London, W12 7RJ, UK" several times a day, you can tell aText to trigger that phrase every time ".L" is typed.

In a year, that could add up to hours and hours of time saved.

Another favourite among people serious about productivity is Hazel, which allows a user to set rules for any folder or file.

For instance, any file landing on the desktop can instantly be given an orange label, or imported images can be renamed immediately and automatically then moved to a dedicated folder ready for tagging.

But despite the popularity of tagging, there are some people, such as Brett Terpstra, a senior developer for AOL Tech, who are not convinced that its long-term future is assured.

"I always have that in mind every time I build a system based on tags. The OpenMeta Tag standard has no guarantee of existing five years from now.

"It has to be considered right from the beginning and you must have a back-up plan, because if you're using a universal tagging system, there's always a chance it will disappear."