Sunday, July 10, 2016


When people are evacuated at short notice to save their lives from floods, forest fires, and earthquakes, etc, what's the first thing they grab? Even before their pets? Family photos.... Writers and photographers choose their work.

March 30 was World Backup Day, which brought with it dismal stats. According to Backblaze's 2015 US survey, they estimate twenty-five percent of computer users never backup precious data at all. Backblaze believe this figure is probably much higher, and these results probably reflect similar behaviour in most countries.

I often ask writers how they backup their manuscripts and judge that the figures are more like 35% are not doing it at all; 30+% put files on an external hard drive kept beside their desktop or laptop; and maybe under 20% upload to cloud platforms. The rest? Who knows? 
Almost no-one backs up daily and should fix this by automating the task. Serious photographers are bit better at taking precautions to preserve their work — perhaps they are more concerned about it because they work in the field not in the perceived security of an office or or at home. 

Everyone I know, including me, has had a hard drive crash that taught us a lesson, but there is a risk today few know about. This can be just as devastating and more costly. Ransomware is malicious software that deliberately encrypts all files on a hard drive on a desktop or laptop rendering it impossible to decipher or use without paying a large sum to the company that did it in the first place. Sometimes, the files are lost forever, but if you're backed up, you're safe from disaster. I run Malware Bytes anti-malware's app at to reduce the risk.

Sensible writers and photographers ensure they back up in two places as one could fail. If you only use the cloud, be aware it can go wrong — in fact, this  happened to me about a year ago when a company folded. However I had everything backed up on external hard drives as well. 

Don't despair if you recognize you don't have two back ups. Dan Misener of CBC says, "Many cloud services let you download a copy of everything you have stored with them. Google has their 'Takeout' service. Facebook lets you download all your data, including photos, as one big file." Smartphones can backup your data to Dropbox or an equivalent.

So what's the best route to prepare yourself for any eventuality affecting your precious data? Here's how I do it for my writing, which may suit you too:
    I mostly work on a desktop at home where I keep my current writing projects on the free version of Dropbox, which also allows me to access them on any device I own wherever I may be.
    I also backup my manuscripts to an external hard drive

every evening, which I unplug every night. (I give my drives to a friend when I'm on the road in case the house is robbed.) If I'm traveling I still use Dropbox, but backup onto a USB drive that I carry on my person at all times.

    When my work is published, all versions of the manuscripts, edits, etc. that are already saved on the external drive, are then also uploaded into a special folder on Google Drive, a service I now pay for. I consider the money well spent and the price of doing business. I write it off against taxes.

I manage my images a bit differently. The higher risk of losing 3000 photos scares me when I'm on a long trip of a onth+ because I earn money from them when they illustrate my books and articles. So here's my process for images:

    I download them from the camera to my laptop (a tablet would work too) every evening without fail however tired I am. Two reasons: Memory cards need to be reformatted regularly to reduce the likelihood of corruption; but the main point is to get my images out of the camera. A young friend of mine lost every photo of a three month trip to Europe when his camera with two big cards was stolen while waiting to board his flight home. 
    If I have Internet, I'll immediately upload the image files, now on the internal hard drive, to folders on my Google Drive. But sometimes in remote areas this is impossible if the Internet is slow or non-existent. (When I get to a location with fast reliable Internet, I do upload them.) But I can't afford to lose them if my laptop is stolen or dropped in the meantime.
    So I backup my images to 128Gb USB drives that I always

carry in a pocket, well separated from my camera and laptop. Why? If my baggage is stolen, my camera or laptop can be replaced with insurance, but my photos are irretrievable.

    And BTW I never carry my laptop and camera in the same bag. The reason should now be obvious!!
    Once I'm home, I backup the original RAW files onto an external hard drive as well, later adding the edited TIFs and JPGs.

Start assessing your situation by asking yourself some questions. Firstly, what data is crucial to you? For your livelihood and memories? Secondly, which files are only backed up in one place? Thirdly, how many gigabytes of storage will be needed? Then set to work to research the products and services that suit you.

There are many services for backing up to the cloud that offer free storage space. Read the fine print as they are all different:
     Dropbox (2Gb - ideal for text files)
    Google Drive (15Gb)
    MS One Drive (if you are a monthly subscriber to Office 365, 1Tb is free),
    Amazon Web Services Free Tier (5Gb lasts for only 12 months after sign up),
    iCloud (5Gb). 

I started with a combo of the above, using two free services for images as I couldn't fit them all in one, and one for my works-in-progress. Later I opted to pay USD$9.99/month for Google Drive (not to be confused with Google Docs) and I now store both types of file there.

I've mentioned my external hard drives— I have two, a small one for text files (above) and a 3Tb one for my images (left). I use five 128Gb USB drives on lanyards because they're easier to find when traveling and can go round my neck if my pockets are full. I number them.

And, yes, you may think I'm paranoid but I haven't lost any data since 1990, despite two hard-drive crashes, one stupid deletion of a folder containing 350 original images, and one laptop dropped on concrete! My methods have changed as technology improved, but not my habits.