How to prevent catastrophic data loss on handheld devices

This article first appeared in Labour Research magazine.
In the course of the last decade, two colleagues of mine — both senior trade unionists — have suffered catastrophic losses of data. One lost his address book and calendar when his hand-held device died. The other lost all his handheld’s calendar entries when he synced the device to his desktop PC, which had contracted a virus, thereby wiping out what was on the handheld.
There are two important lessons I draw from these experiences.
First of all, backups are essential — but not in the way we used to do them.
And second, use of open source operating systems is no longer a luxury for the geeks.

In the first case, which took place nearly a decade ago, my friend understood the importance of backing up his handheld device. Which is why he left it with his PA to do it regularly. He did not know how to backup the device himself. When it did crash, it turned out that the PA hadn’t done a backup for some time.
Backups cannot be dependent on others; each of us needs to take personal responsibility for backing up vital data on what is, after all, a personal device.
But backups also cannot be voluntary. They cannot be something on our to-do list that never gets done, that we need to be reminded about or find time for.
Backing up should be an integral part of the process of using handheld devices.
A good example is the integration of web-based tools on an iPhone or iPod Touch. I maintain my task list on a website called Toodledo. Every time I access the list using my iPod Touch, the tasks listed on the device and those on the web are synchronized. I am not asked if I want to synchronize, and I do not have to remember to do so. The software on the iPod knows to do this.
If I lose my iPod, I’ve got the latest version of my task list on the web. If the website crashes, I have a version on the iPod.
The same is true with my calendar. The iPod’s built-in calendar can automatically sync to my Google calendar. If I lose one, I will have access to the other.
It’s not a question of making the traditional backups of data, where there’s a clear distinction between the primary location of the data and its backup, which is somewhere else (such as on an external disk). The two task lists, on the device and on the web, are equally useful and accessible.
The other lesson relates to viruses and other forms of malware that cause endless headaches to many of our colleagues. Of course you can keep some of this under control by using the very latest anti-virus software, keeping it updated on a daily basis, but there is a far better solution.
If my colleague who lost all his diary entries due to a virus had been using the open source Linux operating system on his laptop, it is highly unlikely that the problem would have arisen in the first place.
While it is theoretically possible to have viruses on a Linux machine, it is highly unlikely. The system is inherently more secure than Windows, and because its user base is so much smaller than that of Microsoft’s, virus writers don’t target it.
The use of web-based backups to data on handhelds, and of Linux on laptops and desktops, is not common among the trade unionists I know. And as a result, a number of them have suffered the kind of catastrophic data loss that can now easily be avoided.