Friday, 26 August 2011

CPD23 - Thing 13 - Online collaboration and file sharing (Google Docs, Dropbox and Wikis)

After my mammoth post for Thing 12, I am now turning belatedly to the subject of online collaboration via tools such as Google Docs, Dropbox and Wikis.

Collaborative file sharing tools

To be honest I've not yet had reasons to use Google Docs or Dropbox. So, as suggested I tried out one of the suggested tools - in this case Google Docs (purely because I don't want to get into the rigmarole of downloading more software and because of network restrictions on my work PC).

On first impressions, Google Docs is very easy to use if you want to do simple editing and sharing. And to test it I've uploaded and shared a video of my dog:   -

However, I am more than well aware that it can't provide every functionality, as fellow CPD23 Things blog Sherm Sez highlights much better than I have. He puts out for instance, that it doesn't provide support lots of Excel functions and it is limiting in requiring an active internet connection (which is where Dropbox holds it own more by being accessible in an offline version).

In reality, however I mainly edit documents collaboratively in a work context. Since I work for a large government department we already have our own internal bespoke collaborative secure workspace or electronic document records management system (EDRMS) called Matrix.

This effectively has the same functionality as both Google Docs and Dropbox allowing access to:
  • edit, create and upload new documents
  • download, amend, edit and reupload documents
  • add keywords to describe documents
  • view author and revision history 
  • access previous document versions
  • search functionality
  • connection to email software (eg Microsoft Outlook) and so can send either pointers or files to mail recipients or upload an email to system
The difference between an internal EDRM system such as Matrix, which is quite sophisticated, is that it is only accessible on internal networks and it is not so easy if you are seeking comments from outside government departments or organisations.

I do sometimes seek external comments and I could feasibly see myself using Google Docs to share some draft website guidance material in the future. However, I'd be very wary about privacy issues and settings. Sharing information in this way would only ever be applicable to content that is non-contentious and unrestricted content. For wider government information, alternative secure systems would have to be found.
The value in using free or low cost online collaborative tools, such as Google Docs and Dropbox, is that if used wisely in the right context, they can save money for government departments and organisations looking to find quick and simple ways to share and collaborate on particular issues. This is highlighted in a blog post "Doing more with less: Vive la frugalista" by Jenny Poole who works at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). She highlights the professional value for BIS of using another online collaborative tool called Huddle as an alternative to complex intranet systems where possible.

The issue of taking advantage of the opportunities for online collabarative opportunities offered via 'cloud computing' networking tools while being mindful of secruity considerations is one of the biggest work trends that IT teams across government are grappling with. The Cabinet Office, for instance, has information on how the public sector could use cloud computing in a programme known as the G-Gloud Programme. Also in July 2011 as announced in the IT press, the Foreign Office awarded a contract to Huddle, the online collaborative tools suppliers to provide a cloud computing based system for civil servants to access classified and restricted documents.

Collaborative editing tools

I'd put 'wikis' in a slightly different category description of online collaborative workspace tools. Compared to tools like Google Docs or Dropbox, they have a slightly different end purpose. Google Docs and similar tools are for editing time defined documents or short term collaborative projects. In comparison, wikis are effectively webpages that are constantly evolving. They can be edited, refined and shared into an indefintite future by multiple people - the best example being Wikipedia.

I'll also freely confess here to being a massive fan of Wikipedia. I use it regularly as a ready reference source (eg to check whether Kosovo was a region or a country - answer's on a postcard please! - or to read up on whatever happened to the stars from 'Thirtysomething'). Don't know where I'd be without it!

However, I am of course conscious that its reliability can potentially be called into question because it allows collaborative and anonymous editing is feasibly open to abuse such as false or misleading information. Even if these allegations are not real, its still important for us all to be confident that the information on the site is correct, readable and accurate since it is open to being referenced as fact by everyone including journalists, cited in court, quoted in academic texts and many more daily examples. For this reason, independent analysis of Wikipedia, for instance via the Wiki-Watch software analysis tool, is important.

I've not created a wiki in a work context yet, but have used contributed to others, most notably to the Library Routes project wiki.

In terms of my day to day work, there is the potential need to create a wiki for internal training purposes to replace outdated hard-copy training manuals. One solution to this might be to use the Civil Pages wiki funcationality developed by the Cabinet Office. Daily Mail readers might scoff (see article on 'Civil servants to get own £1m "Facebook" site so they can gossip without fear of public exposure and ridicule') but, this does provide a potential secure internal communications tool.

I'll let you know in a future blog posting what is decided and what route we eventually decide to take - to wiki or not to wiki.

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