Colin Delany January 15, 2008

More Than Nerd-Cool: Online Collaboration Tools Have Political Uses

At last week’s tech project management workshop, a software developer from Community IT Innovators talked about a worldwide collaboration that’s plenty nerd-cool but also gives political communicators something to chew on. Late last year, a group of 30 or 40 software developers scattered around the world gathered for a live debugging session. They were working together to fix final problems in the next version of the open source content management system Joomla, and they used five key (and either cheap or free) technologies to work together:

  • Skype. They began the session with an internet conference call to get everyone on the same page and assign basic tasks
  • Chat. To communicate quickly as they moved through the process of fixing bugs, they used IRC. Instant Messaging would have been an alternative.
  • Screensharing. When they ran into problems that needed a picture rather than words, they used free screen-sharing software. This way, a developer in India (for instance) could show a developer in Europe what he was doing and either get or give help.
  • Google Spreadsheet. They used a Google Docs spreadsheet (also free) to track changes and allow all participants to view the project’s status and make updates.
  • Face-to-face. Many of the developers were gathered in small groups and could help each other directly, turning to their online colleagues only when needed.

Obviously, this was a group of power-users rather than newbies, but the tech tools they used are available to anyone in the world with a decent internet connection (and IRC and Google Docs will work over dial-up). Besides the political implications of their project — many advocacy campaigns are using Joomla and similar CMSs to build websites and maintain them easily — political communicators shouldn’t ignore the potential of distant collaboration that this example illustrates. From environmental work to democracy-building to media relations, the ‘net provides tools that make it infinitely easier than ever before to organize and communicate across borders — or across the building. Most political users will obviously lag behind the tech elite in adopting them, but these applications are so useful (and cheap) that even the tech-averse can’t ignore them forever.

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