5 Ways (+1) to collaborate using anything but email.

Post by: Kim Stephens

Can you imagine working on a project with numerous people and never having  to check email once? This is not the world that most of us live in. However, there are tools for collaboration that do allow this to happen.  I think it is a really important skill set for the emergency management community. Emergency management, even before a crisis, always involves working with numerous groups of people, inside and outside of government, and email is the absolute worst way to handle interactive work processes.

Although I do understand that a lot of these tools aren’t available for people on their work computers due to firewalls and concerns about security, but I still think it’s interesting to know what new platforms are available.  Its also possible you might be able to take advantage of at least some of them. A lot of this info is probably old news for most of the folks that like to read this blog, but it was recently brought to my attention that quite a few people haven’t heard of these tools.

I’ll use an example from something that happened to me to illustrate how this type of collaboration can work.

1. Twitter.

I proposed a new project on the #SMEMchat, which happens every Friday at 1230 EST on twitter. Several folks were interested in helping. Aptly, I’m interested in creating a video about WHY emergency managers should be using social media, by and for practitioners.

2. Pirate Pad

After the weekend,  I connected with one of the self-selected volunteers via twitter again, to see if she was available to work on the idea.  She sent me a direct message with her phone number. We met on a PiratePad and typed up the idea.

Let me provide some background for those who have never used a PiratePad. It is fairly simple, when you open the platform it gives you a new URL and a blank slate, essentially, like a notebook. Each person that receives the URL joins the pad  and their name is displayed in the upper right corner next to a square-colored box. As that person types on the pad, the print is highlighted with their assigned color. That way, you know immediately who is adding to the collaborative document. There is a chat feature on the lower right corner designed for discussions about the document without changing the doc itself. The biggest complaint I have with the software is that is can be slow at times, and can “time-out” if you will. So it wouldn’t be the only collaborative tool in my arsenal.

From their website: PiratePad.net features

  • Work on a text file alone or with others
  • Collaborate through the public pad chat room
  • Import and export files through PiratePad
  • View saved revisions and the time slider history feature
  • Quickly invite other users to a public pad
  • Access PiratePad without logging in
  • a free service

I sent a quick twitter message to other people I thought might want to participate and at least six people joined me and the original volunteer. We hashed out a plan on the page. So that’s the end of my story, but I’m going to press on with this concept anyway.

3. Google Docs.

After you have completed the major portion of your planning on the PiratePad, then export the document to a Google Doc. It’s not as easy to collaborate on a google doc, but the platform is a little more stable than the “pad”.  You do have to be a member of the google “club”, so if you don’t have an account it will ask you to sign up for one. Once you’ve done that, you essentially have a free word processor  that also allows you to “invite” others to either view or edit the doc. It also has a chat feature and I’ve worked in groups that “meet on the google doc”. You can choose who has access and editing ability for each document you create. The description from Google:

  • Create, edit and upload quickly: Import your existing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, or create new ones from scratch.
  • Access and edit from anywhere: All you need is a Web browser. Your documents, spreadsheets and presentations are stored securely online.
  • Share changes in real-time: invite people to your documents and make changes together, at the same time.
  • It’s free: You don’t pay a nickel

It’s not as fancy as Microsoft Word or Mac’s Pages, but the ability to collaborate and have access to the info in the cloud make it worth the limitations.

4. Yammer:

A platform that might be more appropriate for public agencies or private companies that need some level of privacy. Yammer is a communications platform built a like a social network, but closed off to anyone outside the company/agency. I have to confess that I have not used this tool, but I do see the allure of the closed community. It has a list of 13 features:

  • enterprise microblogging
  • groups
  • files, links and image sharing
  • directories
  • administrative tools to increase control
  • topics and tags to organize content
  • mobile
  • profiles
  • Direct messaging
  • communities–for working with partners outside the network
  • knowledge base–archived conversations
  • security–
  • ability to install third party applications.

Here’s an older blog post by Aneta Hall abut the pros and cons of the service.

5. Podio

Podio is a new service probably built to compete with yammer.  It boasts of its secure features as well as its ability to “go mobile”. It’s designed to help not just with collaboration but with work processes as well, including task management, performance tracking and evaluations. It has the look and feel of a facebook-type platform, so most people probably would be able to use it with very little training, although they do have some handy videos to aid with implementation.

6. Skype

I received some feedback from my twitter followers that I forgot to include Skype, and I apologize for the error–of course, Skype is an important software application. According to their homepage page, the company was founded in 2003 and is based in Luxembourg. Their stated purpose is lofty “to break down barriers to communication.” The basic service (like most of these platforms) is free, and added features come with monthly fees. Specifically, Skype allows users to use the internet to make voice calls and conduct chats.  According to the Skype wikipedia page, it is not voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) since it is a peer-to-peer system and not a client-server system. Their free service includes basic calling from one Skype account to another, video chatting, and instant messaging (which is the feature I use the most).  The chat feature is nice, since you can have many people chatting at once, which does allows for collaboration. You can also use their service for video conferencing, as long as your computer has a camera either embedded or attached.

The problem, however, with the service is that it is probably banned on your government or work computer since quite a few network administrators have concerns about security or bandwidth usage.

These are just a few ideas for how to get away from the never ending cycle of email. If these platforms don’t present enough options, visit this list of collaborative software on wikipedia.  They have a great comparison chart there as well. NASA didn’t like the options available back in 2009 and so they built their own platform: spacebook. The point is, get creative, and get working together.


One response to “5 Ways (+1) to collaborate using anything but email.

  1. Gordon L. Dilmore

    1) I don’t understand your negativism toward e-mail. In a collaborative environment, some type of messaging is necessary, and instant messaging does not always fill the bill. Used properly, e-mail provides a valuable platform in which to rapidly exchange information, instructions, attach files, map, pictures, etc.
    2) I would point out that Twitter has never been used as a primary platform in a major disaster (not even in Japan) and, in my view, it has not proven itself in such circumstances. We have no idea of what will happen if and when the Twitter architecture is stressed.
    3) Pirate Pad is a Beta product and, although it looks neat, support is obviously lacking by their own admission.
    4) Yammer is a corporate-type product which leaves out an important segment of the EM work force.
    5) PODIO is certainly interesting and might work for certain segments; I would question its value across the board.
    6) I would argue that SKYPE is a communications product, not a software application, per se. It does little more than provide a communications channel.

    In a perfect world, we would develop an enterprise web portal and dashboard with multiple applications available to accommodate e-mail, SMS, audio & video conferencing, whiteboarding, file exchange, VOIP, GIS, etc.

    This is not the time to be downplaying the things we have found to date that make the job easier and more productive.

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