Another potential collaboration tool that we’ve been playing with is the much-hyped Google Wave. Although it is very early days, and those who believe the more extreme hype will inevitably be disappointed, I think that it’s going to be a really useful tool.
Google Wave is a browser-based “collaboration platform” which is basically a combination (“mash up”?) of email, wiki, instant messaging and social networking. But, because of the way I’m using it, I really just think of it as “souped-up email” and I like it because it makes it natural and easy to combine and organize messages and resources at a “project” level.
I work on a number of different projects at the same time, with various differing combinations of collaborators, both here at UWA and remotely across the world. Most of our communication is by email and for any one project, the exchange of ideas, questions, references, papers, computer programs, computer output and so on will be scattered over hundreds of messages, usually with dozens of different Subject: lines. If I am looking for the answer to a question that I recall being answered earlier by, say, Michael then while I can easily locate all of his messages there will be lots of messages about other projects, seminar announcements, coffee times etc. that I have to wade through or filter out. If there are three or more collaborators, then each person has a possibly-different subset of the messages organized or otherwise in their own way. Using a Wave for each project eliminates or at least ameliorates many of these problems.
So, just what is a Wave?
It is a document created by a number of participants consisting of an arbitrarily nested collection of messages, each containing a mixture of formatted text, links, attachments (among other things). There is a single copy of each Wave (stored on Google’s servers) and so every participant is always viewing the same thing. If one participant adds a new message or edits an existing message, then the changes are reflected in real time in every other participant’s browser. New messages or replies to other messages can be inserted at any point in the Wave, and so a Wave can contain multiple “conversations” but still render them in a logically ordered fashion. Any resources such as copies of papers, preprints, links, programs, data and so on can be embedded or attached to any message, presumably at the most relevant point, and are then immediately available to all the participants.
Apart from the lack of support for mathematical typesetting in some form, this model actually fits very well with the way I do research, which never proceeds in the smooth linear fashion usually presented in the final published paper. Often we’re struggling more-or-less simultaneously with several possible approaches and will try one for a while, then another, then return to the first, then try another new one and so on. When returning to a previously abandoned approach (days, or weeks or even months later) it usually takes me quite some time to retrieve the previous work relevant to that approach and to track down any resources that we have collected or created. But with everything combined in a Wave or more likely, a modest number of Waves, the problem is greatly reduced. Using Waves should dramatically increase the “granularity” of the information I’m trying to keep track of by combining hundreds of unstructured messages, files and papers into far fewer and much better structured Waves. And although it’s still too early to see how it will work in the long-term and how effectively it will scale up, it’s already been sufficiently useful that I now have a Google Wave window permanently open next to my mail client.
Here’s a screenshot:
The latest thing that I’m using it for is to write an ARC Discovery Project research grant. The application is long and in addition to the mathematical description of the project, it needs each participant to write a fairly detailed description of their track record, career, publications, research support and so on. So I’ve created a Wave that just consists of a sequence of messages outlining exactly what is needed in each section, and as my collaborators get the various bits and pieces together they can add them at the right place and in their own time.
I’ll revisit this post in a few months time and see whether I’m still using Wave and – if so – how my use has evolved from these simple beginnings!