The Cloud: Using Web-Based Tools for Collaboration
A typical day in the life of many HIV.gov team members involves writing, editing, and sharing documents -- blog posts, training materials, conference materials, reports, videos, and more. Multiple team members working across cities and time zones contribute to and review each document, so having quick, effective, and easy ways to share documents is key. Below, we highlight tools we use to help streamline our communication and document collaboration.
Six years ago when the HIV.gov project launched, most of us were using a single device (e.g., a desktop work computer) to develop and collaborate on documents. Our systems for creating and editing materials were often slow since they required saving and emailing large files and keeping track of the “master” document to avoid version control issues. The other challenge was not being able to easily access the files from multiple computers (e.g., home and work computers) without saving the files to thumb drives (or disks!), or emailing the files.
The good news is, today, thanks to the prevalence of wi-fi, document collaboration has become a lot easier. This is becoming increasingly important as people are often using more than one device (e.g., computer, phone, tablet, etc.) to create and share documents. According to a recently-released Forrester Consulting reportExit Disclaimer (PDF), as of 2010 more than half of U.S. online adults used two or more PCs and smartphones, and they estimate that two-thirds will by 2016.
In addition to using multiple devices to work on documents, people are using “the “cloud” to access, sync, and share documents. According to Common Craft’s video, Cloud Computing in Plain EnglishExit Disclaimer, “Computers used to work alone, inside a home or business. But thanks to the Internet, we can now use the power of computers at a completely different location - what we call "in the cloud."
An example of the many tools out there that we have been using at HIV.gov is DropBoxExit Disclaimer, “a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs, and videos anywhere and share them easily.” Think of it as a virtual folder where you can “drop in” files and then access them from multiple devices. Dropbox can be accessed via a web browser, mobile app, or desktop program. By dragging files over to it, they are saved in the folder (which is backed up online). An important feature of Dropbox is that folders and documents can be private or shareable. We use a shared folder for the HIV.gov team so that any team member can access files there when needed. If anything were to go wrong with our hard drives or mobile phones, these files will still be saved in the cloud.
Products similar to Dropbox include Google Drive (which ties to Google Docs), SugarSync, and Box. Most of these services are accessible across different devices, include a few free gigabytes of storage to get started, and allow for sharing (this article Exit Disclaimer features a comparison of these products and more).
Another free tool we use to manage, create, and share HIV.gov documents is Google Apps. We use it for many different types of project work, but in particular we use Google Docs to draft and edit blog posts. One of our favorite features is multiple members being able to edit a post together in real time, as well as see the latest revisions made. Having all of our blog documents in one place across team members also helps us stay organized. We also use Google Calendar to help manage our editorial calendar.
We know there are so many tools out there and want to hear from you about which tools you find helpful. How are you using online tools to collaborate on documents? We welcome your comments.