Collaborative document creation tools to meet a set of values and requirements

Consider the scenario of co-authoring a document among more than one person and fewer than a dozen or so, with people dispersed across multiple time zones, and all with a fairly reliable Internet connection. The scenario is plausible in many sectors, whether one is an academic, a business operative, in the global nonprofit arena, or a journalist. It is even a plausible scenario for a family composing an annual update letter for friends and acquaintances. The question at hand: what are the available technological tools to support such distributed work, all the while attending to the practices and values of the group members?

Some initial candidates include a permissions-based wiki, shared Google Drive document (or similar), file syncing service such as Dropbox, emailing a file among the authors, and any number of other online web-based tools for collaboration (from project management to a group platform).

As a set of values, consider the following, as these values help determine which solutions fit. One value is that of control and ownership over the data. In its simplest manifestation, this means the ability to export the data from the tool for use in another tool. In another vein, this means trusting the host, in the case of a third-party online solution, to keep the data private and not use the data in some nefarious manner. Another value is that of flexibility to grow and adapt to changing user needs over time. An important value is that of reasonable costs associated with implementation, maintenance, and use of the system. While financial costs are important, so too are the costs of time for the administrator and users. And, in general, a value placed upon open systems.

The functional requirements include

  1. Text-based data entry into semi-structured documents. Editing intricate graphics within the system would be a bonus rather than necessity.
  2. Semi-structured documents mean the ability to mark up the document with headers, bullet lists, hyperlinks, bold, indentation, sections, etc.
  3. Synchronization of the document so that all authors are working on the most recent version of the document or section of the document. This includes the ability to avoid editing conflicts such that, for instance, the document is locked when one author is working on it or the ability for simultaneous, non-conflictual editing.
  4. A maintained history of edits with the ability to view and revert to previous versions.
  5. Compare differences between document versions.
  6. External file attachments, such as for a graphic produced in a different tool.
  7. Embed external sources, such as a video.
  8. Simple finishing features such as exporting the entire document as a single object for distribution through other channels.
  9. Security features to define user-specific permissions of access and editing. Creation of groups to be assigned permissions.
  10. Certain level of interoperability with other systems, such as sharing user logins and/or exporting/importing.

Taking into consideration the values and the functions noted above, a self-hosted tool like Open Atrium or BuddyPress, is preferred. Both of these tools can be installed in a web hosting environment by an accidental techie, the latter even with an automated installer, and are customizable. A second option is either to install wiki software, such as MediaWiki, on a web host (also possible to use an automated installer).

In the quest to keep systems as simple as possible, there is not a much simpler system than Google Drive. A free and easy account creation as well as simple sharing with others is attractive. Other free, online, no maintenance required solutions exist outside the Google ecosystem. Yet, taking into consideration the values noted above, the information is, ultimately, held by a third party. Loosening the importance of ownership might encourage the selection of one of these free options.

On the issue of using a smartphone to edit documents, note the scenario is setup, intentionally, to take advantage of a typical desktop, notebook, or even tablet device. That is not to preclude smartphones from the possibilities, just to prioritize the use of a larger keyboard and screen for the purpose of typing and manipulating documents. And going further, if the values and requirements change, then a new set of possible solutions enter the mix. The values and requirements set out above coincide with personal preferences and experiences.