Cloud computing during a catastrophe

DisasterIt often amuses people when they learn I was once a Risk Manager at a County Council. I have no idea why.

One of my roles at the time was to look after business continuity arrangements – in other words, what the organisation did when something terrible happened.

I was well into internet stuff at the time, and I was amused today when I by chance came across a blog post I wrote (in August 2007!) on the Communities of Practice on how a cloud based system like Google Apps could be used in an emergency by a local authority when corporate systems were unavailable.

Obviously Google has fixed a few of the issues I mention – Sites provides wiki functionality and a better way of doing websites than the old web page creator. They still haven’t integrated Blogger yet, though. Also iGoogle seems to have been dropped from the Google Apps inventory.

With G-cloud being a little way off, does anyone have any examples of public sector organisation using the cloud as a contingency digital comms setup? Would be good to hear about it.

Here’s the post:

Google Apps for Your Domain (or Google Apps for short) is a set of Google services which can be set up at a web address of your own choosing. You get fully customisable versions of:

  • Gmail (a web based email system)
  • Calendar (a web based group calendaring system)
  • Docs & Spreadsheets (web based word processor and spreadsheet applications)
  • Talk – instant messaging and voice over IP
  • iGoogle – personalisable web portal
  • Web page creator – does what it says on the tin

It’s free for the first 200 accounts and effectively provides you with a cost free, enterprise level groupware solution.

There are countless situations where Google Apps could be used within the local government context. But one opportunity where it could make a real difference would be within business continuity arrangements. Here are some examples of how it could benefit an organisation undergoing a crisis:

Safe Web Pages

The Shire Hall is burning down, and the web server has melted. How to get the required message out to web visitors? Use the web domain you get with the Google Apps account as a backup webspace, a simple site with emergency details already up which can be activated when required. Because it’s held on Google’s servers, the information is safe from the disaster. You should be able to get your .gov.uk web address forwarding to this one in no time, so visitors wouldn’t be inconvenienced.

The system used to generate the web pages is overly simple and you can’t do too many exciting things with them. But for getting a message across in an emergency, they do the job.

Communications on the move

So, if the web server is dead, chances are the email server will be too. Communications in an emergency can be a very tricky business and having as many possible routes as possible for different groups to talk to each other is vital. Email without doubt has a role to play and some Councils already have web based accounts created, with services like Hotmail, in readiness for such a crisis. These accounts can be accessed from any computer with a web connection, which makes it much more viable as a communications medium.

However, Google Apps provides email addresses @yourdomain.com which has obvious benefits in terms of presentation – it looks a lot more professional if you are contacting external organisations. But the real advantages lie in the power of the Gmail interface that you get. For a start, there are 2 gigabytes of storage space for each account – meaning that no emails have to be deleted for space saving purposes. Secondly, the email can be accessed using any mobile device, whether by downloading the client from Google or just by accessing it through your phone or PDA’s web browser.

Key Documents Always Available

Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets service provides a simple word processor and spreadsheet which run within the web browser. You therefore don’t need any other software installed on your machine and as the documents are stored online, you know you are getting access to the latest versions. It also makes it a lot easier to collaborate on documents, for example a spreadsheet giving status updates.

Another use for this service would be to have copies of key documents saved online in this shared space. Such documents could include procedures for vital tasks to be completed in an emergency, staff lists, property plans, contact details, contract records etc.

Instant Status Updates

Google Talk, the instant messaging client, is built into the email interface and provides another method of communication which could well be useful in an emergency for those times when email just isn’t quick enough. Messages appear instantly on the recipients screen. Would be most beneficial as a way of providing status updates to a central coordinator, for example.

Organising Time

The Calendar is an extremely powerful one, again web based making it accessible to anyone with the required privileges. With this system, however, calendars can be shared, merged and certain appointments made publicly available to anyone, should you wish to. In the time following an emergency this could become especially powerful.

Bringing it All Together

iGoogle is the personalised portal, which allows you to display various types of information on one page. This includes summaries of your email, calendar, docs and spreadsheets and talk. You can also add ‘widgets’ which contain updates on RSS feeds and other tools like to do lists and sticky notes.

What’s Missing?

There are two glaring omissions from the Google Apps toolkit. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no wiki function available. The use that a wiki could be put to in an emergency situation is considerable. The collaborative word processing functionality of Docs could be used in this context, but it wouldn’t have the immediacy and ease of access of a wiki. This is hopefully going to be put right soon, as Google bought JotSpot, an enterprise level wiki solution, some time ago and this will hopefully make its way into Apps once it has been Googlified.

Secondly, there is no integrated blog. This would be a pretty easy one for Google to achieve, given that it already runs Blogger, probably the most popular blogging platform there is. I actually have quite a strong personal dislike of Blogger, finding it slow, lacking in features and somewhat unreliable. But at least it would provide a means of providing regular updates without having to edit web pages manually with Page Creator.

Conclusion

These downsides apart, Google Apps provides a pretty good coverage of the tools you might need to manage and communicate in a crisis. And given the miniscule costs – just the price of a domain per year – it might not be worth not doing.

Bookmarks for March 13th through March 15th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for March 8th through March 13th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Importance of mobile

Mobile platforms are going to be ever-increasingly important to government, not least in terms of communicating and consulting with citizens – especially in terms of engaging with the disadvantaged who are more likely to have a mobile phone than a web-connected computer.

But there is another side of this too, which is the role that mobile will play within organisations. As Oliver Marks writes on his Collaboration 2.0 blog:

The danger in this recessionary era is ironically choice: many employees have to resort to their personal mobile phones and unofficial (and often illegal) use of web ‘Software as a Service’ applications, storing sensitive company data outside the company, simply in order to get their job done. The challenges of putting together workflows which leverage the power of the new technologies is far more about motivating people to use processes mapped to appropriate technologies than the actual technology tools.

We are in a period of unprecedented change, while also fighting our way out of a deep financial markets induced recession. Companies who focus on leveraging their most precious asset – their people – and empowering them with the workflow, guidance and tools to innovate and work perceptively and productively will emerge as a more sophisticated next business generation. Those who don’t are likely to choke to death on costly fragmentation and lack of focus.

In other words, if organisations don’t embrace new ways of working and empower staff to use new technologies to work together better, the ever increasing sophistication of mobile platforms will mean staff can get on with in themselves. Not only will this mean organisations won’t make the most of this opportunity, there will be risks created by staff doing their own thing.

Google Dashboard

Google now let you see (almost) all the information on (almost) all the services you use with your Google Account, with Google Dashboard.

In an effort to provide you with greater transparency and control over their own data, we’ve built the Google Dashboard. Designed to be simple and useful, the Dashboard summarizes data for each product that you use (when signed in to your account) and provides you direct links to control your personal settings. Today, the Dashboard covers more than 20 products and services, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web History, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts, Latitude and many more. The scale and level of detail of the Dashboard is unprecedented, and we’re delighted to be the first Internet company to offer this — and we hope it will become the standard. Watch this quick video to learn more and then try it out for yourself at www.google.com/dashboard.

Here’s a video explaining more.

Zoho Discussions

You may not have heard of Zoho, but they are one of the leading providers of cloud-based applications on the web. If you are looking for an alternative to the likes of Google Docs, you might not go too far wrong with Zoho.

They have just released a new service, called Discussions which allows you to run internal or external discussion forums, and includes loads of functionality like rating posts, creating idea style forums – a bit like UserVoice or IdeaScale – and a bunch of other stuff.

Well worth looking into, and this video explains more:

Socialwok

Socialwok

As a user of Google’s enterprise tools, usually known as Google Apps, Socialwok looks very interesting.

It sticks a social networking layer on top of your email, calendar, Docs and so on – something that the Google suite was really missing if being used as the main infrastructure for an organisation.

Here is a video to explain more:

More cloud working stuff

I missed a couple of bits out of my recent post on stuff I am/will be using to work once I am self employed (not long to go now, folks!). Here’s a couple more:

Communications

Being at home alone more often will mean I need to have good communications links with other folk to help me keep on top of things as well as keep me sane. So, I have Skype which is as useful for instant messaging as it is calling people over the web. I’m davewbriggs on Skype, if you’d like to connect on there.

I also use Meebo, which in an in-the-browser instant messenger client which allows you to chat to people whether they use Microsoft, Google, AOL or Yahoo! instant messaging. Very useful! These days it’s also useful to keep an eye on Facebook chat, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular.

One communications medium I would like to make more is online video, both by using ‘webinar’ (ugh!) type services like DimDim and GoToMeeting and video conferencing like ooVoo. It would certainly be cool to be able to provide support or even coaching online using these sorts of methods.

Intranet

It might be a bit strange for what is effectively a one-man-band to have an intranet. I see it as another tool with which I can organise myself, though. I’m using a wiki I created with Google Sites, which makes use of several templates to create the functionality I need. Each bit of work I undertake has a page in the wiki, and an entry in a big to-do list. All the files for a project are attached to the relevant wiki page, which also lists everything I know about the project: who I am talking to about it, URLs etc so I can’t forget anything. It also means I have a record of completed projects that I can refer to easily. It seems to be working pretty well so far.

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.