05 January 2010

My Second Brain

It is true the Internet contains all the information you might ever need. The problem is finding the relevant information and remembering where it is located. Also, in the ‘real world’ you collect information which might be useful in the future, if only you remember where you stored that piece of paper…

Saving web page addresses (URLs)
While surfing I want to store the web site addresses of web pages which contain interesting information. I have used sites like http://www.myhq.com and http://delicious.com to collect the URLs. This works OK but saving the URL is not the important part. Many times I revisited the web page only to find out that the important info disappeared because the page contents changed.

Saving real world information
With real world information I mean stuff like receipts (for warranty claims), recipes, useful information from magazines. Scanning and converting to PDF or JPG format seems a good idea, but how do you know which file contains the desired information?

My second brain
I found a software application which helps me enormously with organizing and maintaining this ‘information overload’: Evernote

At first glance Evernote looks like a digital version of a notebook.  But it is much more than that. Let me explain.

Making notes
The first step is that you make a note in Evernote.  You can do in various ways like entering a note directly in Evernote, clipping a web page, sending a photo or grabbing a screenshot. If you want you can tag the note for easier retrieval in the future. Now your information is stored in information. But as you know, finding the information is perhaps the most important part!

Finding notes
You can search for (key)words which occur in the title or body text of the note and of course for tags which can be attached to the note. The most interesting part (and hidden treasure) of Evernote is that all words inside your images (like photos and screenshots) are recognized by optical character recognition (OCR). Even handwriting can be recognized (up until a certain point  of course). At the moment only English is supported, but Evernote is already being translated into other languages (including Dutch). The beauty of OCR is that note taking is more than typing in text into Evernote. Do you want to store the results of a brainstorm session? Take a photo of the whiteboard! Save an interesting article? Scan it!
Afraid you lose that business card? Take a photo with your smartphone and upload it to Evernote. The OCR capability will make sure that you will find back the business card when you need it.

Information at your fingertips from multiple points
The best thing is that your information is accessible in several ways:

  • a Windows client with a local database so no online access is needed to have access to your data.  And when the Evernote servers are not accessible, you still have access to your data.
  • a web site to search your data which is also stored on the Evernote servers.
  • various mobile clients (Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone) to get to your information on the go.

So I don’t have to worry about how I get access to my data. It is always available!

How I use Evernote
Besides the simple note taking, you can do so much more. The Evernote web site contains extensive examples. I use it to store (and successfully retrieve!) the following:

  • parts of web pages including the URL
  • scans of receipts so I can find it in case of warranty returns
  • manuals of every device I use
  • configuration details of equipment
  • recipes with the ingredient list as text inside the note for easy access from my HTC Touch HD
  • scans from magazine articles
  • screen prints from Windows error messages I am investigating
  • scans of packaging with instructions / explanations
  • photos of whiteboard sessions
  • coupons
  • reservation tickets for holidays, hotel rooms, cars etc.

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