Software Tools that are Useful for Students & Free

Completing your university work on time, collaborating with many people, and dealing with cost and other requirements of various software systems is a hassle, which I hope that you can eliminate using some of these tools. I’ve used these and I’d like recommend that people try them out. Following is a brief description of some Office Productivity, Time and Project Management, Mindmapping, Reference Management, Note Taking, and Transcription applications. I’ve included a link to access or download them (all cost-free).  Continue reading “Software Tools that are Useful for Students & Free”

Applications for Reading Ebooks

Usually when I read electronic books, I use my phone. In those cases it’s often through an app like Aldiko or if I’m forced to, then a monstrosity like Bluefire or Overdrive. Sometimes it’s better at a computer screen though and possibly easier if you need to see something larger or are flipping back and forth between documents. This brief article reviews a few desktop ebook readers for Linux systems. I learned about some options that sound like they’re worth checking out, in addition to my regular choice, Calibre.

Canadian Government WCM Migration Project Failed—It’s for the Best

Our former federal government (under Harper’s Conservatives) decided to migrate some 1500 government Web sites to a single content management (WCM) system. They chose Adobe’s AEM product and it looks like the project collapsed in failure. As a Canadian citizen, I’m glad the project has not worked out. I can see how such a project could have merit but the software choice was a bad decision in principle and apparently the project planning and management were not undertaken properly. Too bad it didn’t fail sooner to prevent wasting so much money. CBC’s article about the project is here and I’ll point out a few thoughts about why I think the choice of WCM system was bad in principle and raise some questions on project management.

In 2015, I was in a discussion with a group that was bringing consultants on board to work on the migration. Having had previous experience in this domain and with a large AEM migration, the project interested me but I chose not to get involved and so I do not know any details of what happened other than what I’ve read in the CBC article. There are a few things about the project that I always thought were questionable: namely the choice of software and the management of the project. I felt there was an anything-goes sense of desperation in the recruiting, which didn’t make very feel confident about how the project would unfold.

When I read the CBC news article, the following quote raised a flag for me in terms of questioning such a large project’s management.

“A government source with first-hand knowledge of the project, speaking on condition of anonymity, said IT government workers have been told that none of the government’s arm’s-length agencies have been moving their material over to the new site for some time.”

If people haven’t been migrating material for some time, I would want to ask what happened to lose their participation and throw the project off track?

When you have that many sites, involving a large group of people, they’ve got to understand and feel that their concerns are heard, respected, and involved out the outset of the decision-making. There ought to be things motivating them to move toward the project’s goals. Did they participate in selecting the system? Did they receive training and have the necessary support to comprehend the vision of how the new system and associated processes would work? Did they understand and buy in to the goals? Was it going to improve their work experience and outcomes? Were reasonable deadlines established with communication to keep people aware of the project’s movement as they succeeded with their milestones? I’m sure that one could ask a lot more in a post-mortem of the project..

Of more concern to me though is the selection of the most expensive proprietary WCM platform on the market, Adobe AEM, and the choice of hosting Canadian government sites through an American service provider, Amazon. AEM has many good qualities (as well as bad) but the good do not merit its cost.

First, the platform.

Government software selections ought to, by default, consider free/libre and open source software products first and then develop or select proprietary solutions only if no sufficient F/LOSS choice exists.

Some F/OSS advantages include the following. By definition F/LOSS choices result in greater transparency (and potential security) since the code can be audited. F/LOSS can result in large cost-savings due to an absence of licensing fees (though support incurs costs just like it does with proprietary software). In the future, migrating the systems, code, and data for preservation, archival, or shifting formats can be accomplished with more flexibility if the code is open and accessible rather than closed and controlled by a foreign company (which may or may not continue to operate).

F/LOSS does not lock a government into the control of foreign entities and better, it has the potential to involve communities of domestic businesses in support or customization that might otherwise be prevented.

F/LOSS choices align well with government initiatives in that they enable us to also control our own systems, foster our own businesses and communities, and master our own security. In contrast, Adobe AEM is a proprietary product controlled by a foreign company, with no transparency, and no requirement to give back to communities involved with it. Canadians are paying for something that we cannot control and which doesn’t contribute to the Canadian digital ecosystem. It enriches a foreign company.

Second, the hosting.

Government sites hosted by Amazon—a foreign (American) company? Even if the servers sit on Canadian soil, isn’t this a questionable decision? How does that intersect with American laws and American government agencies, which could demand information from Amazon? As I lack detail about this setup, I am certainly not well-informed and I would imagine that all sorts of precautions were taken in this arrangement. Nevertheless, why introduce this kind of a security and privacy risk? Shouldn’t we be critical about putting Canadian government information (not to mention potential personal information) on servers hosted by a company of foreign origin (using foreign proprietary software) when Canadian companies could have provided the same service (or the government could operate these itself)?

Regardless of how the remaining Canadian government sites manage their content, there can be an information architecture, design strategies, and style guidelines developed, which provide usable experiences and good aesthetics for people seeking information from these Web sites. The back-end system can certainly help improve the management, updating, and preservation of the content for the people developing or administering it but it does not necessarily dictate how the user interacts with the public web front. So even with today’s state of affairs on the WCM migration project, Canadian government Web sites can continue to serve their purposes and improve.

Books to Help Engineers Communicate in a Business Context

If you’re a student beginning work within a professional environment you’ll find that there are expectations people have around communications, which are particular to the workplace. A lot of books for engineers cover how to communicate professionally within a business context. These books tend to be oriented toward helping the reader learn skills for improving the way they communicate their own specialized knowledge not just to their peers but perhaps more importantly, to people that do not have the same level of specialized engineering knowledge.

Depending on the position you take, you may need to present to clients or fellow employees. Likewise, different forms of communication (e-mail, live presentation, etc.) have their own characteristics, which you should use as relevant to the content you need to communicate (not to mention the people you’re communicating with).

Here is a list of several books that address communications topics and were written for engineers. These are all available from the Concordia Library so if you’re a student at Concordia they’ll be easy to find. I’m also providing links to find the books on the Worldcat site in case you happen to be interested in any of them and are not a Concordia student.

Access this list from Zotero or RefWorks or read on.

Oral communication excellence for engineers and scientists: based on executive input

By Judith Shaul Norback
Electronic resource (read it online) or find it with WorldCat

Description quoted from the book

“Engineering students and practicing engineers generally cannot give stellar presentations or communicate flawlessly by phone, in meetings, and in teams. They have little notion about which medium (in-person, voicemail, E-mail, IM, texting) is most effective in particular situations. And students and professionals are not aware of how to use oral communication to network on the job” This book aims at helping people solve these problems though practical advice, examples, and exercises.

Engineering your writing success: how engineers can master effective on-the-job communication skills

By James E. Vincler & Nancy Horlick Vincler
Print resource (pick it up at the library) or find it with WorldCat

Description quoted from the publisher

“You’ll never dread a writing project again when you learn to use the step-by-step approach given in Engineering Your Writing Success. This book shows you the nuts and bolts of starting and finishing all your writing projects–reports, proposals, memos, letters, data sheets, and procedures. Learn to design your message to reach your reader, choosing the right words every time. Don’t let poor writing skills hold back your career–this book can help!”

How to Communicate in Business

By David Silk
Electronic resource (read it online) or find it with WorldCat

Description quoted from the book

“This book aims to help engineers to communicate effectively with non-engineers, in the business context. It will also be useful to people from other technical or numerate backgrounds. It will help you to consider the various methods of communication used in business, and consciously develop your own skills. The approach is practical, although built upon some simple ideas of what we mean by communication, and its role in the business enterprise. Major chapters deal with spoken communication, written communication, business presentations and business meetings. They cover the main communication skills that an engineer is likely to need, both in a professional capacity and in a management or administrative capacity. Cross-cultural and international aspects are considered.”

What every engineer should know about business communication

By John X. Wang
Print resource (pick it up at the library) or find it with WorldCat


This is part of a collection of primers on topics that engineers should know for the practical workplace. This book addresses how to make presentations and reduce your fear of presenting. It also addresses how to improve writing skills, how to write for business impact, developing listening and interactive communication skills, preparing engineering reports, and more. Check out the other primers for related topics in this style.

Business communication essentials

By Courtland L. Bovée, John V. Thill, Jean A. Scribner
Print resource (pick it up at the library) or find it with WorldCat


This book covers topics such as understanding business communication in today’s workplace, mastering team skills and interpersonal communication, job interviews, career development guidance, and developing reports.

Power Through Presentations: Tips and Tricks to Build a Better Slide Deck

By Andy Balser
Print resource (pick it up at the library) or find it with WorldCat

Description quoted from the publisher

“Tackling a challenge faced by millions of business professionals every day, this handy guide shows how to create effective, visually appealing PowerPoint slides… It addresses common user concerns, such as turning facts and data into compelling visual images, generating concise project updates, creating presentation decks to be emailed or reviewed over the phone, and finding useful PowerPoint examples with minimal research.”


Access this list from Zotero or RefWorks

Document Your Search Strategy with this Template

While assisting students with their research, I often use a template I made to keep track of key concepts, synonyms, and to organize search strategies. Since it’s a good practice to record search strategies, I thought I’d make it easy for other people to get the template. It includes space to document the databases, journals, or other resources that you use as well as queries, dates, etc.

Download the spreadsheet template from the following links. Copy, modify, and re-use it as you need.

Open document format (.ods)
Search strategy template & simplified version

Microsoft Excel format (.xlsx)
Search strategy templatesimplified version Continue reading “Document Your Search Strategy with this Template”

Adapting Standards for Climate Change

Since I was just reading up on the new Canadian standard for zero carbon buildings, this other and related issue caught my eye. The European standards organizations have been working on adapting standards for the changes we’re experiencing and will be expected to experience with the climate.

They’re focusing on three sectors: transport infrastructure, energy infrastructure, and buildings and construction. Of course, obvious or not, climate change impacts all sorts of things, from temperatures that devices are designed to operate within, to electricity grid reliability, to withstanding extreme weather conditions, and much more.

To find out more about the CEN-CENELEC’s standards work, visit their climate change adaptation Web site. They have a number of free documents to download. Such guidance on adapting standards for climate change may prove worthwhile to have in mind while working with a range of other existing standards.

New, Canadian Zero Carbon Building Standard

The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) recently released a new, Zero Carbon Building Standard. They explained that the standard aims “…to make carbon emissions the key indicator for building performance.” It applies to both new construction and existing buildings through certifications for design (new), performance (existing), or both. You can download the full document (PDF) free here.

The standard’s main components cover greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency and associated strategies,  preparing for the future/renewable energy, and carbon from the lifecycle of the building materials.

This new standard contributes toward a goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from commercial, institutional, or multi-family buildings. The standard’s summary explains the CaGBC’s concern with current buildings’ performance because they expect a large percentage of these (over 80%) to continue being used in 2030. Additionally, the future lifespan of new buildings puts pressure to design for zero carbon emissions from the outset. This includes establishing techniques for offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from the building’s energy consumption.

Much more information about the standard and the CaGBC’s Zero Building Program is available from the Zero Carbon Building Initiative web site.

Digital Curation Issues Involving Open Government Data

Open data is a well-defined concept but in the public sector, there is some difficult work ahead for its digital curation.

Although the support and production of open data from governments around the world varies (with many not yet supporting it at all) there are clear movements to encourage and grow open government data initiatives. Within the realm of governments that do support and produce datasets open to the public, benefits that would otherwise accompany the availability of this open data are sometimes hampered due to incomplete adoption of best practices.

I’d like review some of the tenets of open government data, then I’ll discuss some of the digital curation issues that are important to deal with for the success of open government data initiatives.

Note: this article is cross-posted on my other blog.

Continue reading “Digital Curation Issues Involving Open Government Data”

Newsblur as an Intelligent Agent Used for CI

Newsblur ( is a Web-based RSS feed reading service. This is a review of how I found the service useful while working on some competitive intelligence (CI). It’s convenient and conducive for tracking issues, trends, commentary, and news.

Newsblur has a set of features that I find make it worth paying for an annual subscription (it also offers a no-cost option). I’ve long used RSS readers, initially preferring desktop readers like Akregator or RSSOwl. The quantity of feeds that I follow is so large now that it can take desktop readers a long time to update, whereas Web services can use their resources more efficiently to deliver the feed content. I currently use Newsblur to follow about 1300 feeds but I’ll just cover a few examples in the context of how it might be used in CI work.

Newsblur sets itself apart from many other feed readers with its “Intelligence Trainer” functionality. The Intelligence Trainer enables the system to proactively filter new entries by marking key words, tags, authors, and sites that should be raised as a priority for reading because they match user-specified characteristics. The Intelligence Trainer also allows a user to decrease the priority of entries based on the same criteria.

A user can go through a step-by-step process of training the service for every feed—but that can be time consuming so users can also train it on an ad hoc basis, whenever there is a good opportunity. The Intelligence Trainer proactively filters results that would otherwise require manual searching.

Examples with the Intelligence Trainer

In order to research some issues related to the subject of open innovation (OI), I created a folder in Newsblur to store feeds from any site with potential to publish information on the subject. I also created subfolders for feeds from organizations that might offer information even though their domain was not my primary interest. This allowed me to distinguish and pay better attention to the context of my sources.

Intelligence Trainer example
Newsblur Intelligence Trainer example

I trained Newsblur to identify key words or phrases, examples I’m showing for this post include “open innovation”, “r&d”, “management practices”, “patent”, etc. These varied depending on the particular feed. Some feeds, for example PubMed, can be pre-filtered for the open innovation topic so the Intelligence Trainer could be focused more on specific issues within that subject. This technique can produce useful results.

Although it’s possible, I wouldn’t recommend manually re-entering those terms to search the feeds for relevant information.

Newsblur "focus" screen
Newsblur “focus” screen shows entries the Intelligence Trainer filtered.

Instead I’d click Newsblur’s “focus” button (after setting up the training) and scan the results that it provides me—these are essentially automated search results based on the intelligence training. I would then use the search function if the recall was too high and I wanted to narrow the list of results. For example, I trained my feed for PubMed OI on following terms:

  • partners
  • collaborative
  • shared governance
  • open source
  • patent
  • management practices

This resulted in about 10 entries from a list of over 100. From within that pool, it’s possible to search on specific terms but that can produce overly narrow results. A sampling from scanning the results on their own (without the deeper search term precision) produced a good number of entry titles, which suggested useful intelligence. When I reviewed results this way, they strongly matched my need.

How it Works and Other Notable Functionality

title text intelligence training
Newsblur Intelligence Trainer example 2, with title text.

The Intelligence Trainer (as far as I understand) picks up words based on the entry title, body text, the feed publisher’s tags associated with entries, authors’ names, and the feed name itself. It allows the user to specify different terms based on the fields you want to use. I discovered a “cheat” to train the system for words that haven’t yet been included in any entry’s text, by typing the word into the editable title field. That’s useful to prepare for potential future interests.

Newsblur has other functionality that can be useful for CI work.

Newsblur example showing how it displays edits to an entry
Newsblur example showing how it displays edits to an entry trained on the term “pharmaceutical”

If a user wants to see changes to entries over time, it is possible to turn on a change tracking feature. For example, a feed of press releases might seem static: the release is issued, the reader picks it up, and the user reads it. However it’s possible that a PR person made an error and later corrected the release. In such a case, Newsblur can be set to show a red strike-through of the original text, and have the new text in green beside it.

Newsblur also provides a “save” feature and a Blurblog. Both of these features enable different ways of capturing feed entries for later review or collaborating with other people. In both cases you can add notes to the entry and review other users’ notes.

Previously, Newsblur’s search was somewhat confined but now it supports searching across all of a user’s feeds. It would be nice if it had advanced search functionality that made it possible to designate which fields to search (title, body, etc.).


Although the intelligence trainer is a very nice feature, it requires some amount of effort to use it well. Newsblur would be more useful if it offered a management tool that pooled all the terms and tags you’ve identified, to prioritize or deprioritize. It currently requires that you manage them feed-by-feed or story-by-story. It should also enable users to organize terms by folder groups, to apply to all the feeds within, or across folders.

Generally users need to paste the URL of an RSS feed into Newsblur. The system makes a valiant try at discovering feeds on a Web site if the user doesn’t know the exact URL. If the site has no available feeds however, Newsblur cannot track its content and this of course is one of the limits in using RSS for competitive intelligence.

A risk with any third-party, Web-based service is the lack of control: it can be shutdown (as Google demonstrated with its Reader). While Newsblur has proven reliable and convenient with regular refinements to features for over a year (in my experience), it is a small organization so there is little guarantee of its longevity (of course, Google is big and that didn’t guarantee Reader’s longevity). It is easy however, to export your list of organized feeds into an OPML file to transfer to another reader if the site were ever to shut down.

Overall, I find Newsblur a very efficient way to track a large quantity of updates and news related to a CI subject but I would not recommend relying on any RSS reader as the sole means for finding and tracking information. Applicable intelligence results depend on the utility of the feeds that you’re able to find, as well as your resourcefulness and precision in refining the Intelligence Trainer.

Alfresco ECM in 2013

I had a chance to hear from Alfresco earlier this year about its direction and some new product features. Alfresco has grown to be a go-to, lower-cost, open source solution excelling in large-scale intranet implementations, corporate file sharing services, and document collaboration.

Alfresco currently has 33,000 customers whose ECM activities are enabled through on-premise, public or private cloud, or hybrid deployments. This is a particularly convenient situation for Alfresco considering there is a good deal of interest in hybrid environments from organizations seeking ECM systems.

You can download my report from this link (it’s free but it does require registration).