Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In my work role, i keep track of a lot of different information about companies, the products they sell, their customers, etc. I don't want to put this information out on the web, since it's sensitive: but as my laptop has made me into more of a cyborg, i can't effectively keep it in my head either. I've tried several ways to manage this:

  • folders by company with notes in text files is the simplest, but i've grown accustomed to richer text representations (heading, bullets, etc.) and hyperlinked information.
  • I really like the outliner in Radio Userland, which i also use for blogging: it's nicely integrated with hyperlinks. But it's overkill for this task, particularly if you don't live in it all the time (and i don't, for other obscure reasons)
  • you can put hyperlinks in nicely styled Word documents, but Windows doesn't make it very easy to manage
  • of course, you can author full-up private webs with HTML: but that's more effort than i want to expend

So a few weeks ago, i decided to experiment with a personal wiki. Not the public kind you've been hearing about where people scrap to promote their own version of the truth, but one just for me to use in managing my own information. The basic characteristics i was looking for were:

  • very simple setup (i was aiming for under an hour)
  • lightweight enough to run on my laptop
  • simple text styling (headers, bulleted lists) and hyperlinks

A little googling led me to an article comparing several leading solutions (i can't recall the link now), and after a bit more research i decided on pmwiki.  It runs in PHP on Apache, so setup was easy: it took longer to understand the concepts than to actual configure the software. Pmwiki has a deliberate philosophy of limiting feature creep and sticking to the basics, which i find attractive, and there's no need to take advantage of more advanced features if you choose not to. The steps as i now recall them were about as easy as

  1. download and install Apache (i already had it)
  2. download and install PhP (pretty simple: a few glitches where the instructions for Windows were more complicated than they needed to be)
  3. download and install pmwiki, changing a couple of lines in the configuration file
  4. go wild

So far i'd call the experiment an unqualified success. My wiki files are still essentially big text files, but i can link them together and make them more readable with just a little styling. pmwiki supports templates (at page creation time), so i set up a basic structure to make some commonality easy (without being limiting). pmwiki supports "groups" which are sort of like objects: so i have a groups for Company, Product, Technology, and government organization. The keys are keeping it simple and knowing when to stop. For example, i mention a lot of people, but it doesn't make sense to try to re-engineer Outlook's address book functionality here. It's easy to link in news releases and other random bits of web information, in the context in which they matter (other than managing big bookmark structures, or using del.icio.us). Though i'm the primary author, one of my work colleagues who also does some business research can also add information (when i'm in the office and connected to the network!).

I've found it useful enough that i'm building another one now for a class i'm taking on the side (more distance education). Though UMUC has their own on-line learning mangement system, it's a pain: it only works with IE, you have to log on, if you leave the window idle it kicks you out, it's slow and complex, you can't link in to its content from the outside, whine whine whine. So i just download the key content (lesson plan, readings, etc.) and make them the main navigation elements for the wiki. Since a lot of my readings are in digital form, it's easy to have a page per reading, with a link to the actual text, the citation (in APA style so i don't have to waste brain time on that arcane knowledge), and then notes from the reading. I'm hoping that more active note-taking will help me retain more.



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