Genealogists often work together on various projects. Typical examples include two or more cousins researching their shared family tree, all the members of a family history society attempting to document all the descendants of one ancestor, or multiple authors working together on an article or even a book to be published in the future. One of the challenges of such group efforts is how to keep everyone involved updated with the latest information.
Luckily, today’s technology offers a simple solution: use a file-sharing service in the cloud. All each collaborator needs is an internet connection and almost any computer manufactured within the past ten years, or even some computers older than that. The computer required could be a Macintosh, Windows, Linux, or Chromebook desktop or laptop system. In many cases, an Apple iPad or Android tablet computer will suffice. In theory, even a so-called smartphone will work although you may not want to be limited by the small screen size of these handheld devices.
Dropbox is a very popular file backup and replication program that is available for Windows, Macintosh, Chromebook, Linux, Apple iPhone and iPad, as well as almost all Android phones and tablets. Dropbox is also the original and best-known such service, so I will use that service as an example in this article. However, I will also list a number of similar services later in this article. Most of these services work the same way as Dropbox although the details may vary.
Probably the most common reason for using Dropbox or any other online storage area in the “cloud” is for backup purposes. You can create a file of some sort (word processing document, photograph, video, genealogy database, or almost anything else) on any of the above computers and place it in a Dropbox folder, and that file will immediately be copied to Dropbox’s safe and secure online servers as soon as an internet connection is available. Should a disaster ever strike, you can easily retrieve any or all the files you have saved on Dropbox’s servers.
Dropbox is a nice service to have if you own one computer. However, if you have more than one computer in your life, even a handheld computing device, you really need it. The online service is a quick and easy way to share files between computers and mobile devices. For example, you can snap a picture with your cell phone’s camera and have it automatically sent to Dropbox’s servers. If your desktop computer at home or your laptop computer in the hotel room is powered on and connected to the internet at that time, the photo will be also be copied to those computers within a minute or two. If those computer(s) are powered off, Dropbox’s servers will patiently wait until they are connected to the internet, then the files get copied at that time.
The same will be true for any other kinds of files: word processing documents, recipes, income tax records, genealogy databases, spreadsheets, and any other files you place in the Dropbox folder. Of course, that folder also can have dozens, even hundreds, of subfolders as well.
The ability to automatically copy files from one to computer to others is the secret for group collaboration. However, before we get to that, let’s look at how Dropbox works on your computer before you start collaborating.
Once installed on your computer, Dropbox creates a special Dropbox folder in your file system. All you do is drag a file to that folder and it is uploaded to your online Dropbox account, making it almost instantly available at any of your other Dropbox devices. Just click on the Dropbox folder or app at the other end to find and retrieve your file. This is a whole lot easier than emailing files to yourself or running back and forth between computers with a flash drive. You can edit documents, automatically add photos, and show off videos from anywhere.
NOTE #1: Dropbox will automatically copy files to Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers as they normally have disk drives with large storage capacity. Storing hundreds or even thousands of files on a computer with a disk drive of many gigabytes of available storage space is usually not a problem.
The process is a bit different on handheld computers with limited storage space, such as “smartphones” and handheld tablets. The Dropbox software for devices with limited storage space provides an index of all the available files and then waits for the user to ask for one or more files to be transferred. When the user requests the file(s), the items requested are transferred over the internet from Dropbox’s servers to the handheld device. Only the requested files are transferred, not everything. In this manner, it is possible to have gigabytes and gigabytes of files available on request, but not transferred to the handheld device(s) limited storage space until needed.
After using Dropbox for a few weeks, I moved ALL the files in my Documents folder to the Dropbox folder. Ever since then I have saved all files I create in the Dropbox folder. My Documents folder now is empty. Instead, all my files are now safely backed up on Dropbox’s servers and also stored in my laptop computers and other devices that I specified. All the files are also available at any time in most anyplace on my smartphone and tablet as well.
Best of all is the price. Dropbox will store up to two gigabytes of files free of charge. Indeed, that is probably sufficient storage space for many people although not for frequent computer users, such as myself. Anyone who needs more storage space may purchase the required space for rather modest prices: up to 2 gigabytes of available storage space is available for $9.99 per month. (I upgraded to the 2 terabyte option although I still have not filled it.) Even more storage space is available at higher prices. Pricing details may be found at https://www.dropbox.com/individual/plans-comparison.
A business version is also available but is designed for larger workgroups, such as corporate workers. I suspect that few readers of this newsletter have any need for the business version. I will ignore it for the remainder of this article. If you are interested in Dropbox Business, take a look at https://www.dropbox.com/business.
While these are reasons enough to sign up, this is just the beginning of what you can do with Dropbox. Everything mentioned so far describes what you can do alone, as an individual. However, many of us have a need to share files or to collaborate on projects with others. Perhaps you want to share old family photographs with distant cousins. Perhaps you wish to share photographs of your grandchildren with other family members. Perhaps you and a friend are working together on writing a genealogy book. Perhaps you wish to share bowling scores with other members of the bowling league. Dropbox can do all that and more. Best of all, it can keep all those pictures and information private or available only to the people you invite, or it can publish files you specify on the web, available to everyone. You decide. All your data remains under your control all the time.
You can share folders and files in your Dropbox account with anyone (even if they don’t have a Dropbox account – yet). You can control whether people can edit, comment, or only view your files and folders, when you share them, and when you stop sharing them. Edits or comments that are made to a file or folder are updated live for everyone with whom they’ve been shared.
Once the invitees accept your invitation to access a file or folder, the shared item then appears in their Dropbox folders if Dropbox is already installed on their computer(s). If they do not already have Dropbox, the email invitation includes a link where they can download and install the free software. Any time a file is added to that folder by any member of the group, it soon appears in every other member’s folder as well. Should one member open, change and save the file back to their shared folder, it will replace the original on all the other members’ computers.
The process is simple to use. Detailed instructions for file and folder sharing may be found at https://help.dropbox.com/files-folders/share/share-with-others.
Note: You probably only want to place COPIES of files in the shared folder, keeping the originals in separate folders that are not shared with others. That will prevent anyone else from altering or erasing your master copy.
Shared folders could be an easy way to organize peer group reviews of documents, submit articles and/or photos to family newsletters, share files too large to email, or any number of other handy uses.
Dropbox even provides a free web server for your use. However, the “web server” is limited to rather simple publishing of files; it will not work for more sophisticated web applications. You can share one, ten, or thousands of files, as you wish. You decide which files or folders to share; there is no need to share everything. Detailed instructions for publishing on the web with Dropbox may be found in several places online. I will recommend you first read the How to Use Dropbox as a Web Server in 3 Easy Steps article at https://creativepro.com/how-to-use-dropbox-a-web-server-3-easy-steps/.
Of course, if you wish to keep things private, don’t share anything. In other words, simply install Dropbox and don’t enable any of the sharing options. All private information stored on Dropbox is encrypted, using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and AES-256 bit encryption. Other Dropbox users can’t see your files in Dropbox unless you deliberately share links to files or share folders. Dropbox employees are prohibited from viewing the content of files you store in your account. Further details about Dropbox security can be found at https://www.dropbox.com/help/27/en.
That said, I suggest that anyone with very sensitive information to store should encrypt that information first before placing it in a Dropbox folder. This is true of any cloud-based file storage service. I encrypt any files containing credit card numbers, banking information, income tax records, and anything else I wish to keep secret. If you encrypt files before saving them in Dropbox folders, not even the Dropbox employees can read your files!
Save backup copies of your files. Automatically copy the latest version of your files to other computers. Have your pictures, videos, and data available wherever you go on your smartphone or tablet computer. Share and collaborate with others or not, as you wish. Keep your data private from prying eyes or share with a select group of friends or share with the entire world, as you wish.
Not bad for free software!
You can get started at http://dropbox.com.
Other File Storage and Collaboration Services
As mentioned earlier, Dropbox is not the only online file storage service available. In fact, there are dozens of Dropbox competitors; prices range from free to thousands of dollars per month for services that are designed for use by corporations and larger nonprofits. As to free services, Dropbox is one of the most limited, offering only 2 gigabytes of free storage space. Other services offer various amounts of free storage service. Some of the better-known secure file storage services include:
Google Drive (already included on Android and Chromebook systems, usually offering 15 gigabytes of storage free of charge)
- pCloud (up to 10 gigabytes of free file storage space)
- MediaFire (up to 10 gigabytes of free file storage space)
You can find a lot more information about the above services by searching for the above products on any search engine.
Google Drive is especially appealing as it includes Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides, which are a part of an office suite that permits collaborative editing of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms, and more. You and your collaborators can use these apps for word processing, spreadsheets, or presentations (similar to PowerPoint) without any software installed in your own computer(s). For instance, if you are using Windows and the other person is using an iPad, Android, Macintosh, Linux, or Chromebook system, you both can create or update files and work on the files together, all without installing any software other than the small Google Drive file sharing app. This is very useful when the two or more of you are using different word processors, spreadsheet programs, or presentation programs or don’t even have your own programs. All of you can work together on the same documents.
I might also mention NextCloud which technically isn’t an online cloud storage provider itself, but offers free open source software to download and install on your own server. Using a server on your home network for cloud storage is much faster than relying on an internet connection to remote servers in the cloud. It is also potentially as secure or possibly even more secure than remote file storage services in the cloud as the hardware is totally under your own control. You can also enable encryption and make sure the information never leaves your home network, which is even safer.
The “server” you use could even be an older Windows computer that you no longer use and is presently stored in a closet. Another possibility is to use a tiny and cheap Raspberry Pi single board computer along with an external disk drive that connects via a USB connection. Either can easily be converted to Linux and used as an in-home server, able to support a large family’s or small business’s file storage needs. However, I can only recommend NextCloud to anyone with enough technical expertise to install and maintain Linux software. It is not as simple to use as the services I mentioned earlier. NextCloud is available for download free of charge. Since it is free software, you cannot call for telephone technical support. Instead, support is available from online message boards.
More information about NextCloud’s free software may be found at https://nextcloud.com/.
Whether you use file sharing software simply to back up your own files or to copy files from one of your own computers to another or extend its use to sharing files with others, the use of a cloud-based file sharing product can both simplify your life and allow you and your team to do things that were previously difficult or impossible to accomplish.