Working in the cloud

This rather mega post from Paul Stamatiou made me think about what I’m going to be using from September to manage myself and my business. Most of these I have been using for a while, or have just started to get set up.

Email

I use Gmail for my email, set up  to work with the DavePress.net domain through Google Apps. It works wonderfully, including being able to access it on my iPhone.

Calendar

I use iCal on my Mac, which syncs with the iPhone through MobileMe. Some people have had trouble with this service, but it works fine for me. MobileMe also means I have a web based version of the calendar should I need to give others access.

Documents

I have two types of documents, those that I am working on with others, and those which are pretty much just for me. The former I put on Google Docs, the latter I edit with Office 2008 on the Mac and save on my iDisk, which thanks to MobileMe is accessible from anywhere. All Docs I regularly back up on my hard drive.

I’m currently experimenting with how to plan work and time, with spreadsheets and calendars. Am sure I will figure it out soon.

Contacts

I have contacts in my phone, synced to the Mac and online with MobileMe. I’m also starting to fill out Zoho CRM, which is an online customer relationship management platform, running in the browser, which is free for up to three users. It’s a very comprehensive system, far too big for my purposes, really, but I am trying to find the bits of functionality I need and how I can make them work for me.

The Zoho suite of online apps is truly amazing, though I have to admit to never having got into them properly because there is simply too much of it!

Notes

Mixture of old and new media here. First port of call is my notebook; but second I go for Evernote which syncs between web, iPhone and Mac desktop application, including text, images and audio.

What’s important

So what I seem to need in the apps I use is mobility. I need to be able access as much of my stuff as I can in different locations, whether I have my own laptop with me or not – and even when I only have my phone with me.

Guidance and Toolkits

There have been a number of posts popping up around the use of the social web within government, both as a reaction to discussions of the civil service guidelines for online participation and to the need to provide the tools and skills to public servants to make their interventions effective.

Firstly, the guidelines, about which I have written bits here and here. Dominic Campbell wishes they weren’t necessary:

Unfortunately, the moment that pen is put to paper and guidance is created, no matter how effective and light weight, things change and often for the worse. Guidance removes the freedom for people to think for themselves and results in situations where people download confidential files onto disc and send them through the post. Until civil servants are trusted to think for themselves, mistakes will continue to happen and the latent creative potential of the collective civil service will remain untapped, no matter how much guidance is created to give permission to behave to the contrary.

Dominic and I had a brief debate on the Local Government Community of Practice for Social Media about this. Whilst I accept his point that guidance should be unnecessary, they do have a certain empowering capacity which I think is very much a good thing at the moment. It provides legitimacy to those that want to engage in this space which wasn’t there before.

Jeremy Gould wrote an outline of the discussions he had at a recent gathering at the Cabinet Office:

I think I heardpeople were asking how to translate the principles into more operational / organisational guidance. In other words, how they’d actually do this stuff. But its also clear that we are still in the very early days of experimenting with the technologies and tools. There is no correct way to do things or optimum tool or technology. This is not the time for mandated solutions but for encouraging innovation.

This leads us nicely into a group of posts by Emma Mulqueeny, who is looking to develop a toolkit to guide civil servants around the social web and how they can be involved in it. This could be seen as being the bit that picks up on the operational side of things that Jeremy mentions people are actually looking for and will be much welcomed, I’m sure. Emma’s blog posts, by the way, are a great example of chucking an idea up in the air and letting people gives their views on it – the comments on her initial post have some great insights.

What’s good about this debate is that we seem to know be moving on from “We can’t introduce the tools til we change the culture” to “We can’t change the culture, let’s play with the tools anyway”. The guerilla, stealth style introduction of social web activity, best summed up in Colin McKay’s ebook, is surely the way forward: get it working, get it embedded, report on the benefits.

The trouble with putting together any generalist toolkit is that the whole issue is so damn complicated. As I have mentioned before, there are at least 16 different ways for officials to engage with the social web, depending on whether:

  • They do so internally or externally
  • They use social media to communicate or collaborate
  • They use their own platform, or get involved with someone else’s
  • They do so officially, or personally

Any toolkit or operational guidance will need to focus on providing a way for public servants to work their way through these options so they can decide on their best approach. They can be wildly different, of course: writing a blog is completely different as an activity to being active on a social network, say. Something is also required on the worldview required to make this stuff a success (give up on a certain amount of control, be prepared to accept some messiness); the roles also need defining (who does what when, etc) and then the platforms require explanation.

There needs to be material on how to make online activity effective, cutting through a lot of the bullshit (sorry, mum) that surrounds sites like NetMums or Wikipedia that are trotted out when anyone wants an example of an online community. Stuff to focus on includes:

  • That you need a core group of people involved in any project. You won’t get everyone in the UK interested enough in your consultation to take part in it. A tiny proportion of Wikipedia users edit articles to any major extent. The proportion of Linux users who actually contribute is miniscule. This isn’t a bad thing, but nor is it collaboration on a truly mass scale. Don’t overestimate how interested people are likely to be.
  • Any collaborative online exercise requires some kind of governance arrangements, no matter how informal. This isn’t about anarchy but is about giving people the platform to get involved, which still requires someone to have a leadership role.
  • The tools that are used must be intuitive and accessible. They must fit the type of work being undertaken. WordPress and MediaWiki are jolly popular at the moment, not least because they are quick and free. But do they suit every exercise?
  • Aggregating, moderating and reporting on outputs is vital, and again is a role that ought to be led from the centre. Outputs ought to be managed to ensure that the project actually delivers.

We don’t want to get to bogged down in what a blog is, and how to install WordPress, however. Instead case studies of how this stuff is working already would be useful to help persuade superiors that this is a Good Thing to be doing. Luckily, quite a few potential examples are starting to spring up:

  • Number 10’s ePetitions site
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s blogs
  • DIUS’s consultation exercises
  • CLG’s Communities in Control blog
  • Various government (central and local) forays into Twitter

There is plenty of material to go into a toolkit, before you even start talking about the tools, then. There is a bit of consensus forming, I feel, on the approach that can be taken to any kind of online participation by officials:

  1. start listening,
  2. then acknowledge what people are saying,
  3. then respond to them,
  4. then start creating new content for them.

It is important to be comfortable with each stage before moving on.

Having been reading and typing away for a good hour now, it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t mentioned just why government should want to be engaged in the social web at all. Perhaps a lot of us enthusiasts don’t ask ourselves that question enough. It should be the first question asked in any toolkit: why are you doing this? I think there are a number of reasons:

  • To produce better policy by taking a collaborative approach to it
  • To better put across the government’s position on issues under discussion
  • To explain and educate about what government is doing and why
  • To remove some of the barriers between the governed and the government, as well as those that operate the machinery of government

I suspect there are many other arguments, and also that there are people better at putting them than me.

I’ll finish by quoting a recent piece by David Wilcox, setting a challenge to government:

This is where the challenge is greatest for Government. What’s traditionally worked for Whitehall is top-down, controlled, and not very joined-up You get people to come to your fund, your support programme, your events … then expect them to do the rounds with other departments and organisations. What works on the web is to go where the people are. Instead of building yet another web site it is often better to do a lightweight blog and then concentrate on using a range of tools and platforms to connect with existing communities and networks. The response of the social technology innovator, faced with a new piece of work or project developed by someone else, is “great, if you’ve done that already, I can build on it”. Open source thinking.

MobileMe

MobileMe is a new version of pretty established service from Apple, called .Mac. Essentially, it puts bits of information that are stored on your computer or iPhone, and stores them online for you. This works, because it means that both your computer and iPhone can sync themselves using the online version, meaning they are both up to date pretty much all the time.

At the moment I am doing this just with my calendar and contacts, and just with these services, it’s really useful. Say I put a new entry in my calendar on my MacBook: within 15 minutes it will be on my iPhone too, without having to plug the two together, or having to press any buttons. Excellent!

There’s more, though, which I am going to explore – including hosting files online, thus making them accessible from anywhere. This is through the web interface, which allows you to see your files, calendar, contacts and email (if you use the email address supplied with MobileMe – I don’t bother, personally). I am having a few problems with the website at the moment – it isn’t letting me log in, which is a shame. But the fact that the syncing works is great for me.

MobileMe isn’t free, and if I can’t log into the website soon, I am going to be pretty annoyed. The cost is about £60 a year, which I think is worth it just for the syncing alone.

Telegraph switches to Google Apps

Been busy at WorkCampUK so haven’t been following my feeds that closely, but my eye was caught by a post written by Shane Richmond, Communities Editor of the Telegraph’s web presence:

I’ve been testing Google Apps within the Telegraph for the last few months so I’m delighted that we’re now switching over entirely. The speed, accessibility and flexibility of Google Mail, Google Calendar and Google Docs make them much better to work with than the programs we used before.

Interesting news. After all, if an august institution like the Telegraph can make such a move, why not any other organisation?

I do have a few issues with the Google Apps offering though. For a start, the version of iGoogle that comes as standard is a seriously crippled version which, amongst other things, only lets you have one page of stuff. Also, sharing forms using Google Spreadsheets doesn’t work for people without an account on the Google Apps domain. It also doesn’t make sense to me that Google Reader isn’t a part of the package too.

But just in terms of email, as someone who has used various versions of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus Notes and other enterprise email systems, Gmail is better than any.

Dimdim

Dimdim

Dimdim looks very interesting. It’s a way of hosting your own online conferences or (ugh) webinars. You can do this yourself by downloading the open source package, or by using the hosted option which is, I think, free. No need for that Webex subscription any more!
Excellent stuff.

Future of the cloud

Interesting column from John Naughton in today’s Observer on the potential issues of an increased focus on ‘cloud computing’ ie using online services like Google Docs, etc. Firstly he talks about the recent outages in Asia caused by the Pakistani authorities re-routing YouTube to nowhere – in other words, just how stable is the web? – and secondly he discusses the environmental issues.

A comprehensively networked world requires unconscionable numbers of ‘server farms’ – huge warehouses stuffed with computers consuming vast quantities of electrical power. We haven’t yet begun to think seriously about the environmental footprint of this kind of technology, but it’s clearly significant.

Some companies are already aware of the looming environmental issues. Google’s senior executives are reportedly obsessed with their company’s power consumption. And last week IBM launched a new mainframe which provides the computing power of 1,500 PC-based servers but with 85 per cent lower energy costs. Perhaps this is a token of what’s to come: the mainframe is dead; long live the mainframe!

Or, the network is the computer. Interesting, the green angle on this. I had always equated innovative methods of online working as being environmentally friendly. This aspect has taken me rather by surprise.

What Google Apps Does

Google Apps
I’ve written a couple of posts about Google Sites over the last couple of days, and in summary: I really like it. I have spotted a few posts about complaining that this isn’t a service that’s available to those with standard Google accounts. That’s because it’s a part of the Google Apps (for your domain) service, which provides a bunch of Google’s systems for you to use under your own label and domain, with users limited to those you set up on the system.

What’s remarkable about Google Apps is that it’s free for up to 200 (count ’em!) users. Given the range of services now provided (Sites is an important addition), this presents a way for a new organisation to run their entire back office systems online, or within the cloud as the current popular phrase has it, for free. No need to invest in the necessary technology to run email and web servers, networked drives, groupware systems like calendars or intranets. Not only does it cost nothing (except for the registration of a domain name) but it also provides other advantages – because it’s in the cloud, the folk in your organisation can be working anywhere in the world.

You can even set up access to the services to use easily understandable domains, so email is accessed at mail.domain.com, calendars at calendar.domain.com etc. The only issue is around how you present the web content for your organisation – but more on that later.

To show just how good this actually is, I’ll give a brief run through of what you get for nothing.

1. Gmail

Your very own branded version of Gmail, with 6.5gb of mailspace for every one of your potential users. It runs exactly as the normal Gmail does, with filters, labels, threaded conversations etc. Gmail is the best web interface there is, and you can have it for yourself.

2. Google Docs

Create presentations, word processed documents and spreadsheets using a web based interface. You could see this as the equivalent of the network drive on a traditional setup. Only with this solution, you can share and collaborate on documents with your colleagues without having to email them round. You can instantly make any document created within your domain viewable or editable by other account holders, as well as invite in people from the outside.

3. Start Page

This is the Google Apps take on iGoogle. Your own branded version of the personalised start page. You can make this more interesting though by setting what one of the columns features for all users on the domain. This way you can ensure that vital stuff appears on everyone’s page, whilst they still have the option to personalise the majority of the content presented.

4. Google Calendar

Shared calendars across the domain, using one of the best online systems there are. Calendars can be shared across the domain, and again it can be branded with your own logo.

5. Google Talk

This is present in the Mail interface, as with traditional Gmail, but also can use the downloaded client software. A great way to communicate internally without worries as to which instant messaging platform others are using, and you can open it up to the outside world if you choose.

6. Page Creator

This is the only really piss-poor feature to Google Apps, and following the launch of Sites, it seems to be disappearing from view. It’s a simple way to produce pretty useless web pages. It certainly isn’t good enough to produce any kind of website for an organisation. You’re far better off delving into the world of DNS records and pointing web traffic to WordPress.com or something like that.

7. Sites

The really exciting bit, Sites is JotSpot reborn and Googlified. Not the perfect wiki, but the perfect introduction to them, and this – Gmail apart – is the real convincing argument for using Google Apps. When you consider how much stuff like Micrsoft’s Sharepoint costs, it’s unbelievable that Google is giving this thing away for free. It’s an intranet on steroids.

Google Apps rocks, and it provides pretty much everything a startup organisation might need. Work in a grown up, distributed, online way – for free.

Google: not just search

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people reading this blog that Google provides a number of services other than their traditional business area of web search. Many of the tools can be used as part of an online community environment, indeed it’s possibly to build an entire platform – albeit one spread amongst disparate, if partially integrated, services – using these tools, all for free (or at least very cheap). In this post I will cover some of these and discuss how they can be used to communicate and collaborate online.

Google Reader

Reader is Google’s RSS aggregator. These are really useful services which enable you to monitor your favourite websites without having to visit each one individually. This video shows how uber-blogger Robert Scoble uses Reader to get through an astonishing number of site feeds.

Reader is the best service of its type. Good community use of it includes the ability to share items you find particularly interesting. This produces a web page of content you have picked out which others can use, and there is an RSS feed for this too. Interesting blog posts or other website content can therefore be easily shared with others. Further social networking functionality is being built into it all the time, so it could become a great place to track what’s hot on the web.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Bloglines, Newsgator

Google Groups

Google Groups is a system of creating communities which communicate through email or a web based interface. It’s effectively a souped up mailing list arrangement, but works pretty well. The web section allows documents to be uploaded and shared, and web pages to be created for further pooling of information.

To be honest, services like Groups are somewhat unsophisticated in today’s world of Facebook, Bebo et al. But they are quick, free and easy to set up and could provide the basis for a community, certainly at the early stages. The ability to contribute just through email is pretty useful too. Using Groups as a mailing list server for barcampukgovweb worked brilliantly.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Groups

Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Docs and Spreadsheets is Google’s answer to ‘Office 2.0’ – the use of office suites of applications within the browser. In this case it’s a word processor, presentations and a spreadsheet app. The benefits of this type of approach are as follows:

  • Zero cost of software
  • No upgrade worries
  • Access and edit your documents from any computer with a decent internet connection
  • Share and collaborate on documents from anywhere in the world without having multiple emailed versions flying around

In terms of online collaboration, these tools are astonishingly good. There are some risk considerations: you need to be online to use them, your data is stored on a third party server and the functionality isn’t up to the standard of desktop applications. But overall, the good stuff outweighs the bad considerably.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Zoho, ThinkFree

Blogger

Blogger is Google’s blogging service. It’s incredibly popular, largely because it was first out of the blocks. Personally, I hate it, but it’s pretty easy to use for beginners, allows total control of how your blog appears, lets you have adverts to make some money and there is a certain level of integration with other Google services.

However, it’s almost impossible to get the address you want for your blog as so many people are already using it, as a network it’s full of spam blogs, and is nowehere near as feature rich as the likes of my personal favourite in the field, WordPress.com.

Blogs should be an integral part of any online community platform though – they make publishing content so easy.

Cost: Free
Rivals: WordPress.com, TypePad, LiveJournal

Customised Search

Google’s customised search service (CSE) is extremely powerful, easy to set up and stuffed full of benefits for service providers and users alike. This technology effectively provides an alternative to products which cost a serious amount of money.

CSE answers the problem of searching the web and getting loads of irrelevant or spam-filled results. Here’s how it works: you provide Google with a whitelist of sites which you know to be relevant to want people want to search and when people use your customised search, they only get results from those pages, thus increasingly significantly the likelihood that they will be relevant. You can also label sites, which provides clickable filters for the user to further drill down into the results.

Google provides you with a homepage to direct users to, or you can embed the engine within another website, or even set up a bespoke homepage. Examples of uses of this technology include my efforts LGSearch, KMSearch and BookZilla. I have produced a slideshow demonstrating just how easy this is to do on Slideshare.

Cost: Free (you will probably make some money on adverts!)
Rivals: Rollyo, Swicki

Google Maps

Lots of people use Google Maps to find their way from A to B, and it works very well in this regard. It’s also very simple to insert a map into another web page, to show the location of your offices, for example. But the Maps API (application programming interface) means it can be much more powerful than that.

For example, you can create a map and display it on your site with a wide variety of information on it. Such mashups are an incredibly powerful element of the technology base of Web 2.0 and Google Maps is a great example of a company being open with its information for the benefit of the community. The potential application of this technology has limitless benefits for online communities and collaborative partnerships.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Virtual Earth, Yahoo! Maps

Gmail

Gmail (or Googlemail as it’s known in some parts of the world) is a web based email service that is probably the best one available at the moment. Here’s a list of some of the cool features:

  • Threaded conversations – replies are all kept together in context
  • Over 6 gigabytes of storage space – no need to delete anything
  • Excellent spam filtering – publicise your email address with confidence
  • Handle other email accounts through GMail – you can even send mail from a different address
  • Add labels to emails rather than putting them in folders – so you can have an email with more than one label
  • Use Google Talk instant messaging without having to leave the Gmail screen
  • Find your emails with the powerful search tool
  • The adverts are text only and unobtrusive

Gmail is great to use as an email system for online communities, whether as a contact address for the community as a whole or for use by individual members. There are a number of innovative ways it can be used as a productivity tool as well – soon making it an indispensable service.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail

Calendar

Google’s calendar offering is another one which, like Gmail, blew the opposition apart. It’s a great little service, with sharing information with others at the heart of much of what is cool about it.

You can share your appointments with other people, create group calendars which aggregate lots of people’s appointments into one, and make calendars public and readable by anybody.

This flexibility makes Calendar a great time management tool for any collaborative enterprise.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Kiko, 30 Boxes

iGoogle

iGoogle is the name given to what was the personalised home page. It’s basically a Google search page with lots of different content on it, which you can choose. It could be made up of RSS feeds, mini versions of Gmail or Calendar, an interactive file list of your Docs and Spreadsheets and a whole gamut of other widgets and services.

iGoogle actually falls behind some of the competition in this area, in that it’s difficult to share a personalised page with others, so its use as a community tool is limited. However, with a little organisation, it should be possible to work out a common set up between members of a community to help foster information sharing and reuse.

The real value of iGoogle, though, is its role within the Google Apps for your Domain platform.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Netvibes, Protopage, Pageflakes

Google Apps for your Domain

Google Apps, as the service is known for short, is a customisable version of the following Google services:

• Gmail
• Calendar
• Docs and Spreadsheets
• iGoogle
• Google Talk
• Web Page Creator

Essentially, you register a new domain, or configure an existing one, with Google and they provide these services for free up to 200 users. You can change colour schemes and add logos to give it all a corporate feel. Effectively, this is a enterprise standard groupware solution. For free.

iGoogle becomes more useful because you can control what the left hand column contains, so that a certain element of the page is similar for everyone, ensuring that specific information is distributed to everyone on the network.

The only lame part of the package is Web Page Creator, which is a service I haven’t mentioned before because it isn’t great and isn’t terribly important. Unless you are a DNS wizard, it’s tricky to get your URL displaying anything other than the pages you create in this very simplistic application. See the Change2 homepage for the sort of thing that’s possible (ie not a lot).

There are a couple of services that really ought to be integrated too, like Blogger and Reader for example. But Google Apps is still an amazing deal.

Cost: Price of a domain
Rivals: None that I can think of

What’s missing?

In terms of the Google spread of services, not a lot. Using the free stuff Google offers, you could clearly create a useful network, with a little work and using the Google Apps service as a hub to control the rest obviously has its benefits.

But there are a couple of things missing. One is a decent wiki service. Google has Notebook, a simple note taking and sharing tool, but it is nowhere near the power of, say, Wikispaces. This should be sorted out soon, however, as Google bought JotSpot not so long ago, which is an established and fully featured wiki platform. I would hope to see this made part of the Google Apps suite pretty quickly, too.

The other is a decent photo sharing service to rival Yahoo!’s Flickr. Google has Picasa Web Albums, which ties in with their free desktop photo manager (which is actually quite good) but there isn’t anywhere near the same power, flexibility or community elements that Flickr has.

Conclusion

Google provide a huge array of free tools to help you communicate and collaborate with others online. For many community groups and collaborative endeavours, this will be sufficient. The real gem is the Google Apps package, which for the price of a domain name will enable you to tie together a number of the services and provide a more tightly integrated experience for users.

But Blogger for me is too weak a blogging tool to be of much use to anyone but a real beginner, and I would recommend using WordPress.com instead as a free option. Also, until JotSpot is re-released, any wiki pages will have to be hosted on a non-Google site like Wikispaces. These are two areas that will need to be addressed before Google can be considered a one-stop community shop.

Further reading:

Online collaboration does work

Despite now working in further education, I’m still involved in the predominantly local government based Communities of Practice social online collaboration platform, which is developed by the Improvement & Development Agency. For a quick run through of the whys, whats, wheres and hows, Steve Dale’s presentation from Online Information 2007 is as good a place to start as any.

I currently facilitate a few communities on the platform, principally the Social Media and Online Collaboration one, where we discuss the latest and greatest online innovations and muse dreamily on how wonderful it would be for our bosses to allow us to use them. Another is the Public Sector Knowledge and Information Management network – which could be significant as the management of knowledge becomes an ever-more important issue for public bodies.

If there is anyone reading this blog who might be interested in either of these communities, do sign up. It’s tremendous to see people engaging with social web tools to work together, and to share their knowledge and experience. This stuff really does work, people.

Perfect online collaboration

What does the ideal online collaboration model look like? Much of the work I am involved with at the moment concerns helping people work better with one another using online tools, both in local government and (once we have the technology in place) in further education. This means sharing information, which could be in a number of formats, discussing it and then editing it as a group.

A discussion that Steve Dale and I had at the Online Information Conference concerned what the environment would look like. The method used in the Communities of Practice platform for local government is by making blogs, forums and wikis available as separate entities. This means that the user can choose the medium that best suits their material, or which allows for the type of collaboration required. The problems with this approach are that:

  • Folk don’t always know which one to choose in the first place
  • The manner of collaboration can change throughout a discussion

So, maybe what’s needed is a system that has all of the best bits of blogs, forums and wikis in one, without making the user choose at any point. They don’t really care what the precise definition of the tool that they are using, they just want to get on with things. Does such a tool exist? Well, almost.

WriteWith does most of what we want, I think. It’s based around document collaboration, in a very wiki-type way (notably in the excellent handling of versions and edit history), and it lets you start by uploading an existing documents, which makes things easy to get going. There is a comments feature right next to the editing area for discussion, and then you can publish at the end in a number of formats, including a blog.

writewith1

The collaboration side of things is excellent too. You can invite people to read, comment on and edit your document, and even set them tasks with deadlines. There are email alerts so you can keep up to date with what is going on with your document, as well as RSS feeds.

There are downsides though to this as the complete platform I described earlier. WriteWith is document-centric, so if a user just wants to start a conversational thread, they can’t. You need the document to begin with. It would be nice to be able to start a discussion and then begin work on the document all within the same platform. Also, you invite people to documents individually. It would be nice to be able to create groups with whom conversations and documents could be automatically shared.

And of course, the perfect solution would be for a white label version to be developed!