Way back in the early 1980s, there was no email in the CGIAR. When scientists wanted to collaborate with each other, they did so using the technology available at that time: phone, fax, telex and cable. Some of these communication methods were often slow and unreliable, and always expensive – factors that had a direct bearing on critical research efforts. Then in 1985, with the advent of email across the CGIAR System, things began looking up. Almost overnight, day-to-day communications became much faster and cheaper. However, long-distance collaborative efforts could still be slow and, at times, confusing.
The age of social media
Fast forward to the 21st century and we have a completely different scenario on our hands. Welcome to the Age of Social Media!
To find out how today’s scientists are collaborating in the CGIAR, we caught up with WorldFish GIS specialist Shwu Jiau Teoh at her office in Penang, Malaysia.
“I feel social media is changing the way some CGIAR researchers work with partners and present the results of their research,” she says. “For example, my team uses Google Sites to share documents and collaborate. It’s easy to create a website using the Google Sites template. You don’t even have to have a programming background – I picked it up in a few minutes. It’s ideal for accessing and sharing information and it’s free.”
Shwu Jiau is also impressed with the various features and functions of Google Sites.
“My team in Penang needs to be able to share information and collaborate with our Chinese partners while working on our project Valuing Living Aquatic Resources of Wetlands in China, led by Dr. Suan Pheng Kam,” she explains. “We started using the site last May, when the project first got underway, and we feel that the 10GB of storage (Google Apps standard edition) is more than enough for our needs. We have created content on a public Google site, so that visitors are informed of our work as the project advances. But we also set up a restricted site available to just our team members for sharing knowledge and documents in one place. The site settings allow us to easily assign different levels of permission to our members.
“Any changes to a document are tracked in a history archive, so we can follow the evolution of a document as it is accessed and changed by the various team members. There’s also a calendar, a section where members can see announcements in real time, and a page for project and research documentation. A dashboard page, which is by default a two-column webpage with four placeholder gadgets, automatically gives an overview of the project: an embedded calendar with the most recent posts from the announcements page, a list of updated files from the project document page and links to the different research components page.
Of all the easy-to-use features available on Google Sites, this GIS specialist feels the File Cabinet, in which project documents and literature are stored, to be the one that team members value the most.
“Without Google Sites, we would have to communicate via email, which wouldn’t be convenient when we want to share large files, as some mail boxes have limitations,” she explains. “The File Cabinet is very useful for storing our reports and research literature. In addition, it immediately displays the latest version of all our documents. This makes it easy for team members to keep up to date and also helps with the compilation of donor reports – this is easily done by referring to the related documents available on the project page, without having to search through all the annexes.
“We also use the File Cabinet when we want to prepare material for a workshop and need input from our Chinese counterparts. At the conclusion of a workshop, we usually upload material from the event onto the site for the team members to access and also embed into the site a Picasa slideshow that displays the workshop photo album. There’s no way we could go back to using just email to accomplish this.”
It looks as if Shwu Jiau and her team have their feet firmly planted in the 21st century.
For those who are already using Google Sites, we’d love to hear your story, too.