Online support for meetings and collaboration
In the era of Covid-19, everyone is suddenly using tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Drive for working together online. Back in the 1990s at Queen Mary, University of London, we were one of many research groups looking into online support for collaboration - also called groupware, or computer supported cooperative working (CSCW).
When I think back to that time, many researchers were doing rich and sophisticated work in trying to understand how people work together and support them online; they providied shared workspaces and collaborative tools for meetings, collective drawing, document writing, software development, etc. A glance at the programme of the CSCW 2019 conference suggests a preoccupation nowadays with AI, social media and ethical issues - not so much the design of tools. There always was a healthy interest in the intersection between software and social issues.
Only basic parts of that early work are reflected in the tools available in 2020. In fact, little apparent advance has been made since the 1990s except in support for streaming media (e.g. zoom). Recent startups (e.g. this list) simply add templates on to a Google Drive pattern. Perhaps no fundamental advance was necessary when it came to information sharing; it certainly was when it came to media. Internet support for video was far less developed. Only a few people at a time could video-conference, with relatively specialised equipment and networks.
We created a system for online collaboration called Mushroom* (here's a Wayback Machine link from 2011, although the project began in 1996). The name stems from "many users sharing rooms" - see the figure of a shared workspace called an "Mroom" below.
*This domain name, champignon.net, comes from that time: I couldn't find a muchroom-related domain name in English that satisfied me, so I went for a French one.
We eventually designed a secure system whereby people could view and modify information objects together in Mrooms. Access was restricted according to the different permissions of individual group members. We equipped the users with collaboration tools such as shared document editors and information browsers. They created Mrooms to support new activities and linked the Mrooms to one another hierarchically or through links - as with shared folders on Google Drive.
We tested our ideas by collaborating with two extremely helpful clinicians who cared for patients with diabetes: Dr Peter Kopelman, a consultant at the Royal London Hospital, and Dr Jeannette Naish, a GP in Mile End. In my first brush with ethnography, I studied their practices and had the privilege of attending and filming patient consultations. The idea was for consultants, GPs and other specialise clinicians e.g. diabetic nurses to be able to access information about patients by entering secure "rooms" online, one per patient. Information was accessible only according to security policies. The clinicians collaborate either in real time or asynchronously using a shared "chat" system and a tool we designed for them to add data to the shared patient record.
The references below describe Mushroom in more depth - and how we used it to support the care of diabetic patients (in principle only - this was only ever a research project).
- Tim Kindberg, Nick Bryan-Kinns, Ranjit Makwana (1999). Supporting the Shared Care of Diabetic Patients, in Group99, Arizona, April 1999.
- Tim Kindberg (1998). Security for Network Places, Presented at the Distributed Systems Security Workshop, ECOOP98, Brussels, June 1998.
- T. Kindberg (1998). On uncertainty: a study of diabetic patient care.
- T. Kindberg (1998). An open architecture for replicated shared objects. PerDiS workshop on workshop on distribution, persistence and Java. Lisbon, October 1997.
- T. Kindberg, G. Coulouris, J. Dollimore and Jyrki Heikkinen (1996). Sharing objects over the Internet: the Mushroom approach. Proc. IEEE Global Internet 1996, London, Nov. 1996, pp. 67-71.
- T. Kindberg (1996). A stake in Cyberspace. Proc. 7th. ACM SIGOPS European Workshop, Connemara, Eire, Sept. 1996, pp. 83-88.
- T. Kindberg (1996). Mushroom: a framework for collaboration and interaction across the Internet. Proc. CSCW & the Web, 5th ERCIM workshop, Busbach, U., Kerr, D., and Sikkel, K. (eds), GMD, 1996, pp. 43-53.