Digital human assistant, or human digital assistant?
November 3, 2017 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I am an academic and I have either an organizational or filtering problem with respect to my files on my computer. I can never seem to find the files I want, and I also tend to lose things that are recently but not immediately active (so, if I have to go away for a week or two, or things get in my way, it is possible for me to forget some files or some work even exists.

I organize my files, sort of. I am pretty good with filenaming but not so great with filing things into folders, and sometimes my file names are actually pretty inscrutable. I have lots of versions of files. Lots of issues. This is starting to negatively impact my career.

I need one of two things: a personal organizer that can help me get right in my digital life by re-doing my filing on my computer and then teaching me how to do this for myself in the future, or I need a very robust search system that has some automated organization visualization built in (so that for example I could see all the documents that I'd been working with in the last two months, or perhaps clusters of documents with similar textual content, etc.)

As a bonus, some way of getting all the handwritten stuff I create as I work (I am a social scientist, and I mostly work with words) into my computer and also organized alongside and among everything to which it relates would be fantastic.
posted by sockermom to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Investigative journalists use overviewdocs to get an overview of unfamiliar docs. Maybe it has some utility for you?

Their spiel: "Overview is an open-source platform that helps you read and analyze thousands of documents super quickly. It includes full text search, visualizations, entity detection, topic clustering, and more. All in an easy-to use, visual workflow."
posted by aniola at 12:02 PM on November 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's free, so if it doesn't do what you need, you can still try other options.
posted by aniola at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you use Word? When you open Word (or a lot of other software), you can view "Recent Files" to see everything done in the past day, week, month, etc. Sometimes I also sort files on my computer by "date modified" instead of by name if I'm trying to quickly find what I worked on most recently.

You could definitely hire someone help you sort through your files! If I were you, I would set up an "In Process" file system for projects that are active and an "Archive" file system for completed or out of date files and projects.
posted by Mouse Army at 2:01 PM on November 3, 2017

I feel like some of the answer is in your question, stop doing things you know are problematic. Instead of using inscrutable file names come up with a naming convention, write it down and stick to it. Incorporate the date into this convention, if you use the form 171104 for today's date, for example, your files will behave themselves and list in date order, flip it around or use US notation and they won't.

In every project folder make another folder called old or archive or something. Put old versions in there, make sure you actually use the folder.

I know using a system like this is not a personal organiser as such, but I've had similar problems and just getting disciplined and being my own organiser has been the biggest help.
posted by deadwax at 3:50 PM on November 3, 2017

If you use a Mac, DEVONthink may be what you are looking for. Even if you just copy your current folder/file structure into DEVONthink, it has an extremely powerful search engine. You can also set up smart folders which automatically collect all documents which contain a certain term, or even in which certain words are a certain distance apart.
posted by 3zra at 5:59 PM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, my file hygiene is not perfect but I use good names with a standard format about 85 to 90% of the time. My problem seems to be organizing folders. I have about 6 projects going at any given time, plus I have several committees, reviews, student group documentation, and other stuff that isn't research. I also have files for all the classes I teach. The research files are the most disorganized because of the way projects tend to develop, I think. And I often create multiple products from each study but I may not know what those products will look like until they've already generated digital paperwork.

Perhaps more advice from academics about specifically their file management strategies would help me so that I can set up my own system for folders.
posted by sockermom at 7:07 PM on November 3, 2017

I'm not an academic but I work in product development and i hear you on the difficulties of organization as projects unfold. If you think about all your disparate projects, can you envision any commonalities between them? I would use those commonalities to set up empty folders under a folder for each project. Then, when expected 'typical' files are generated you already have a place to put them. There will always be files that are sort of orphans or are in development so they can go into a "misc" folder under the project's folders. It's a lot easier to deal with a small amount of not-so-organized files if the majority are sorted.

A co-worker who ends up being part of other people's projects a lot and doesn't really own them herself sorts a lot of her files by person rather than project and the subfolders under each person are time periods. It seems like could work for your committee or student material maybe. Come to think of that, even in my project folders for early development I keep work in sequential folders - each experiment gets its own folder and the folders are only sorted by a running list of experiment numbers. The output from the various experiments is stored elsewhere (I.e., in reports) and these reports reference the experiment number. (So I don't have to keep the original experiment folder in with the eventual report or whatever that's generated from it.)

When projects really progress and there become many experimental files, I start indexing them. I do it pretty low tech, importing the last of experience folder names into an excel table and giving each one a tag so they can be sorted by subject.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:03 PM on November 3, 2017

Perhaps more advice from academics about specifically their file management strategies would help me so that I can set up my own system for folders.

I'm an academic and I like my folder structure. I can always find things. My folder structure has been the same for the past 15 years, and I think that consistency like this is key. I also rely on multiply embedded folders, which I know some people hate. I keep these folders synced across multiple machines using OneDrive.

My top level of folders is:

The admin folder is not very much further sorted inside - there's a personal folder and a work folder. The work folder has a travel folder, and then everything else is loose files. I can usually search this folder and find anything I need. And most of it is not needed very often after a short period of time.

The applications folder has a folder for CVs, a folder for grant applications, and a folder for job applications. Inside the grant applications folder, there's a folder for each grant I've ever applied for. I create a new folder here the minute I decide to apply for a grant. Inside the job applications folder is a folder for each job I've ever applied for.

Development is any programming projects I've done with a folder for each.

Fieldwork has a folder for each fieldwork trip, with scans of notebooks, and similar under each. There are "audio" "video" and "photos" subfolders, but for most of my trips, the media files are too large to keep on my main computer, so I just have metadata here and save the actual media to external drives.

Notes is a catch all. There's to do lists, and notes to self, and notes from meetings that haven't been written up into minutes, and notes from conferences or meetings. I stopped using this so much lately because I've started relying on Evernote and Google Keep.

Outreach contains a folder for each outreach and community engagement activity I do.

Research has two further main folders: Reading and Writing.
Reading contains two folders: "To Read" and "Read". I put pdfs in the 'to read' folder when I come across relevant things, and when I've read them, I either delete if I think I'll never want to look at it again, or I put them in the "read" folder if I liked them and want to refer back to them but they aren't associated with a particular writing project. If they are references I might use heavily for a particular article or book I'm writing, I'll move them into the folder associated with that.

Writing contains a folder for every journal article or book I have ever written, and I create a new one each time I start writing something new. There's also a folder called "talks" where I put abstracts and powerpoints from conference papers or seminars, because those usually grow into articles later, and I like being able to browse through that whole folder when I'm looking for something to write up. And then there's a folder called "final versions" where I put a pdf of the proofs and final printed article for each paper when it comes out so I can easily find those to send to people who request them. The folders for each article or book have a particular naming convention that I find helpful: I prefix them with one of "archive-" "current-" or "on-hold-. E.g. "archive-mama" is a folder containing all the files I created or used when I was writing a paper on the term 'mama' in Australian languages, which has since been published. "current-visualisation" is a folder containing all the files I am currently using as I write a paper about data visualisation. "On-hold-bereavement" is a paper I started writing once about bereavement terms in Australian languages but realised I didn't have enough data to do properly and I don't know if I ever well. This naming system means all the current papers are grouped together alphabetically and are easy to find.

Teaching has a folder for each class I've ever taught, and inside them, there are folders for each year I've taught that class. It also has a "guest lectures" folder.

Archive has some folders with old material that no longer fits in this file system, copies of old hard-drives, my PhD thesis, even my undergraduate essays, etc.
posted by lollusc at 9:51 PM on November 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

I am just a PhD student but I wrangled a lot of research in my old library job too, so I carried some of that structuring over.

I have one dropbox folder for all of my university work (I freelance write as well, so those are separate folders, similar structures), then subfolders for:

Admin: mostly bios, CVs, teaching assessments, the million forms, that sort of thing.

Archive: this is for finished things, so papers that are done and dusted go here, forms that are outdated, etc.

Current Projects: this is the main folder for work I am doing so it contains:
Book- manuscript/book folder with outlines, research, feedback etc
Admin- ongoing admin for my paper files (so things I print out to regularly fill in for my bullet journal)
Data- data folders for my PhD: separated into surveys, interviews, case studies
Name of Paper or Topic- papers 1-7 (8 + 9 are on google drive to share with those cowriters)
Thesis- thesis folder with drafts, older versions, feedback etc: at the moment I have the draft I am working on in there and a folder called 'old' for everything else, just in case I need to revert back or find something
Name of Project- research assistant project folder: data, scanned minutes from meetings, papers (duplicated)

- a few overarching files that are mostly admin so I can get a vision of what I am working on and what project is where in the process*
Reading Club: a shared dropbox folder of material for a reading club in my area

Library: back up of my zotero

Publications: plain PDFs of all my published work, separate to their folders in 'archive' or 'current project'

Readings and notes: this is my own personal database of papers and my notes on them. I use Zotero and so I take notes as I read a paper, then every so often scan them in and attach them within Zotero to the paper/citation itself. I don't put my interview notes into zotero, but I use a similar pattern for those in my data folders. Notes from conferences etc go here too, or into my paper journal to have something done with them other than just a note.

Teaching: organised by year and subject, doesn't include my feedback because that's sitting in admin for use during the upcoming season of job applications.

I do duplicate stuff, either between reading and other folders (usually if I am cowriting so I can share the papers) but all centralised through zotero, or having clean copies right there in my face in publications.

*this is because in July alone I was anxious about how much work I had to do redlining and editing two of my chapters...that I found out I had done prior to a conference trip, and somehow forgotten about until I repeatedly picked up the paper copy to find it already marked up, then opened the draft to find it already amended. So I have an excel spreadsheet of all the papers I am writing, or want to write, or gave presentations on, with details. I got the idea from a blog I cannot recall, then adjusted it for my process which was not anything like theirs.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:01 PM on November 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

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