I really didn’t expect to be posting anything today, certainly not this, but it seems to be quite urgent, so here I am. Google is planning to (finally) give Google Reader an overhaul. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time. But what I didn’t expect is that instead of integrating gReader’s social functions with G+, they’re replacing the former with the latter. No more “people you follow” feed, no more “comments view”, no more of my little clutch of gReader buddies, formed around the mutual opinion that each of the others shares interesting stuff. These people have introduced me to some of the most interesting pieces of reading I’ve come across, many of which have ended up linked to on this blog or influencing my thinking and writing.
Here are some of the posts about the shuttering that have come up (in “people you follow”, of course):
I’ve mentioned in a recent comment that I’ve slowly started reading less on Google Reader because I can’t keep up with everything. Well, the one area that is consistently 90% read-worthy is “people you follow”. Killing the social part of gR will kill the whole service for me, I’m afraid.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Google+, I like it when social networks get an overhaul, even when it forces me to change how I use them. I’m the guy who can’t wait to see the new Facebook newsfeed, not the guy who shakes his fist at Zuckerberg every time the interface is improved. Heck, I’ve specifically been waiting impatiently for a new gReader interface ever since I saw the Preview theme on Gmail. But moving the social features out of gReader will make me very sad.
So, the EUDEC Council meeting has been over for almost a week, and until yesterday I was on self-enforced vacation, which went very well. Chloe Duff and Or Levi — who are organizing the IDEC@EUDEC 2011 Conference — were here, and a great time was had by all.
Anyway, some of has felt that during this Council meeting we reached a whole new level of effective collaboration. There are many different aspects to this and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. We spent a lot of time developing our methods, and in this post I want to share a few of the ways the Internet has become a vital part of how we work in Council. Perhaps some of you will find them useful.
What it all boils down to is simultaneous collaborative use of Google Docs, with each member working on their own laptop and the meeting moderator selectively using a projector.1
Here are the main ways we use GDocs. Some or all may be relevant to other organizations or endeavors. Scroll through until you find something you like, and let me know if you have any more ideas or any questions in the comments below!
Collaborative text editing
When Council has to create a text and we decide everyone should work on it together, we just put the text in a document, all open it, and start carefully going through it. We can add comments or make changes and everyone else sees them live. Whenever anyone wants to try something out, they can do it right away and we can discuss it immediately. It works surprisingly well, especially for putting the final touches on something that’s basically done. I would generally recommend not trying to edit any text in a group of more than three people unless you’re sure it’s very near done.
Live collaborative minute-taking
We noticed during our weekly VoIP conference calls that we can use Google Docs to take minutes live, which lets everyone contribute and improve the minutes, and saves us the bother of approving last meeting’s minutes every week. When everyone can give their input as the minutes are being written, they always end up better reflecting the collective understanding of what was discussed and decided. In this last live meeting we took all minutes this way from the start, and it worked great.
The live workplan
This one’s a tiny bit trickier to set up and makes use of spreadsheets rather than just plain documents. The live workplan is a spreadsheet in which each sheet is a day of sessions, and each row lists the title, moderator, goal, starting time, duration and ending time of an agenda slot, break or other activity. The columns where time is kept are set up so the starting time (except for the first slot) is set by the end of the previous slot, and the end of each slot is calculated from the starting time and the duration (in minutes). This means you only have to set the starting time of the first session for each day
We originally used this format2 to just create a plan for how we’ll use our time, but it eventually evolved into a live workplan, in which we can extend a session ad hoc and immediately see what that means for later sessions. This means we can be flexible about time and take extra time when we need it, but we can also tell when we’re taking too much time and starting to push important sessions off the back end of the schedule. It’s especially good to combine this system with “open work sessions” — slots at the end of a day where sit together and work on different things separately or in small groups and talk freely. These are useful if the time remains available, but not crucial when the time gets eaten up by earlier sessions.
It’s usually too complicated to start really moving things around in a full discussion, so whenever things got complicated we just decided on the immediate change or extension and one or two of us worked out the rest of the details during the next break or meal-time.
The virtual WHITEBOARD
This document is perhaps the coolest of our tools. It starts as just an empty document which we can all use for jotting down ideas and thoughts. During difficult discussions, it’s often the document we beam on the wall. The moderator can use it to write up the points we should be focussing on, adding details as they come up.
We also use the whiteboard to collaboratively keep a speakers’ list. People can add and remove themselves independently, meaning the moderator can better pay attention to the discussion itself. Having the list in a place where everyone can see it also means nobody is ever stuck wondering when it’s their turn, and any mistake made when adding people to the list (wrong order, wrong name, etc.) can be corrected without losing a moment of discussion.
We started using the whiteboard in live meetings and have just figured out they would be equally useful for our weekly “chat”. I look forward to trying it out there for the first time tomorrow.
Of course, other tools, like Etherpad or whatnot, can be used instead. I like Google Docs and it seems to suit Council’s needs very well, but that’s not what this post is about. [↩]
We got this format from either Leslie Ocker or Christel Hartkamp, I can’t remember who [↩]
Wired has a fascinating look into Google’s search algorithm and how it has developed. I may not have mentioned this, but I really love Google. However, I was hooked into this one by the quote provided on The Daily Dish, which made it sound like linguistics might come up:
Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, has been saying all week that, although Israel’s immediate aim is to stop the rocket fire and not to topple Hamas, there can be no peace, and no free Palestine, while Hamas remains in control. She is right that with Hamas in power in Gaza the Islamists can continue to wreck any agreement Israel negotiates with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Mr Abbas, along with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, may quietly relish Hamas being taken down a peg. Egypt is furious at Hamas’s recent refusal to renew talks with Fatah about restoring a Palestinian unity government.
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