On organizing projects and files

Dec 27, 2013

Have you ever wondered where to put a file or a project? Were you perhaps thinking: “To which folder, on which disk do I put this thing, so I’ll remember where it is in the future?”.

Most of us went through the painful learning curve as we used our computers: first we weren’t organizing files, then we added some degree of organizing, and finally reached a kind of an organized system, which works for us most of the time.

Yet, time and again, we find ourselves not finding what we’re looking for. Sometimes, a document simply applies to two separate projects – we can either put it into one folder, or make a copy – in which case any changes to the first file won’t be reflected in the other one (plus we end up wasting disk space). We could make a shortcut, but if we copy that file to, say, our client’s USB stick, he’ll get a sad surprise when he tries to open it.

And if we add into the file-jungle the need for up-to-date backups, revisions of collaborative works, sub-projects, micro-projects, research that spans across multiple projects, we’ll still end up with a semi-useful system, that makes us waste time every day. And no matter how perfect our file organization is, we end up frustrated, not being able to categorize, or find what we need.

Please welcome: The Tags

The solution is simple, and lays in the concept of metadata, often called tags, or keywords. Just as we have tags on YouTube, hashtag’s on Twitter and Facebook, or even genre categories on IMDb, certain specialist areas have been utilizing tags and keyword metadata extensively over the past few years with great success. But tags can be just as useful for the everyday Joe, a car mechanic, a researcher and a CEO of a large company.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between the two organizational principles.

In a traditional hierarchical system (taxonomy), the designer sets out a limited number of terms to use for classification, and there is one correct way to classify each item. In a tagging system, there are an unlimited number of ways to classify an item, and there is no “wrong” choice. Instead of belonging to one category, an item may have several different tags.


The difference is striking

You don’t try to find where something is anymore, you simply type, or even say what it is that you need.

A lot of times we don’t really remember how a file is called, especially if we created it a long time ago. What we do remember about it is usually what it was about.

An example

Say, I really need to find that photo of my girlfriend from holidays by the beach, but I don’t remember what year I took it. In hierarchical taxonomy, if my pictures are organized by date, I’d have to go through the folders and pictures one by one to finally find the right one. If I’ve categorized them by event, I’ll need to first find all those which are “Holidays” and go from there to find the right one. With tags, all I really need is:

#photo #holiday #beach #girlfriend

Voilà! Considering one actually thought of these tags when I imported the pictures, I just saved myself a good 15-20 minutes of otherwise wasted time.

The key here is that tags resemble the way we think or reminisce – the way our brain works, which is, in associations, with bits and pieces of memories, not predefined categories.

I’m in! But how can I use tags in my insert favorite operating system here?

Unfortunately, the innovation in usability of core principles of operating systems is rather stagnant, and even though many things have changed since the advent of first computers, we are still bound to use the hierarchical file-systems created over 35 years ago!

The latest version of Mac OS X allows simple tagging of files and folders, which is a great advancement in this area, but this type of metadata is lost when the file is moved out of the system – either sent as an attachment, uploaded to a Cloud Storage service, such as DropBox or Google Drive, or copied to a file-system which doesn’t support tags. Apparently that’s also the reason why Microsoft decided not to support tags in Windows (they’re available for Office documents and pictures, though the feature isn’t very well exposed in the interface).

There are also programs out there, which try to tackle the issue by providing their own tag database, adding an extra layer to the file-systems. However, the problem with this solution is that those tags aren’t accessible in other software that interact with files, as our database is locked out to that specific software. In addition, those tags aren’t portable – i.e. we can’t copy them and they’re wouldn’t be available on another computer without copying the whole database.

A dream of a perfect tag-based file-system

My idea for a perfect tag-based file-system would not be too complicated. We could gain a lot by keeping certain automatic tags (metadata) about each and every file, with those supported by the underlying software. These could include:

  • when the file was created (already there)
  • what type it is (MIME type – already there, but we could do without the ugly “file extensions” exposed to the user)
  • where the file was created (a geo-tag, since often people remember working on something someplace specific)
  • where was it downloaded from (if done so)
  • from whom/where did I get it (if originally an attachment, or if got from an external disk)

Even such simple automatic tags would simplify the work of any person who wishes not to find his things – fast!

A remedy for the time being

While we can dream of a perfect system, for now we do have to live with . I decided to take things into my own hands and started working on a project that will help solve at least some of those issues.

But more on that soon…