Contribing Authors: Tom Spielman, IT Manager; Bernice Radle, Project Coordinator, Buffalo Energy
Working in the cloud moves software and data from local servers to store it on servers in remote locations. End users then access the servers via the Internet with web browsers or smart phone and tablet applications. This may seem like a big change, but it’s not that much different than when we used to work on terminals connected to a large mainframe computer back in the 70s. However, working on the cloud these days can give the same performance as if the software were installed on the local end-user’s computer. Cloud computing has been said to provide energy efficiency benefits compared to in-house servers.
It also changes how we work by enhancing productivity, communication, and collaboration. The building science community can be fairly slow to adopt new computer technologies, and may be missing a great opportunity to share knowledge and learn together. This post is intended as an introduction to some of the great tools that are available in the cloud.
Google Docs helps us collaborate within our organization and with external partners. While not as powerful as Microsoft Office, Google Docs provides free word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing applications to anyone with a Google account. Any document created in the program is stored on offsite servers, so you can use a computer, smartphone, or tablet to edit it from any web browser or compatible app. Multiple users can share documents to edit synchronously. You can use the chat function for quick questions. The comments function replaces “track changes” to accommodate asynchronous collaboration. We use Google Docs to draft i.e. posts and Innovation Exchange projects.
While Google Docs has drawing capabilities, Lucidchart provides a more powerful way to collaborate with others to create collaborative flow charts, mind maps, and diagrams. A free version is available to share with another collaborator. An even better alternative is integrating Lucidchart into Google Drive (which will soon replace Google Docs). This approach allows you to share with more collaborators, but only using the Chrome browser.
Sharing files with outside of the organization (and its servers) can be problematic. Company firewalls and attachment file size limits can prevent simply emailing large documents. Dropbox stores files in the cloud and allows us to share files with anyone that we give access. An external partners can log into his or her Dropbox account to directly download the files. Storing documents in the cloud frees up disk space and lets us access the files anywhere with an Internet connection. Dropbox can also help with asynchronous collaboration on Xcel or Word files, but the same issues with sharing and editing files on a server apply: you must keep meticulous track of file versions. We’ve also been using it as a repository for reports and articles of interest. We download them from the internet to Dropbox as pdfs, and can read them on our iPads.This is part of our paperless initiative. No one printed the readings to bring to our last CEE Article Discussion Group; instead we annotated and discussed from our digital copies on mobile devices!
During our recent move to the Innovation Exchange, we uncovered several boxes of old 35mm slides that we have collected from past projects and presentations. Several services can digitize old slides; our next challenge -besides deciding where to store the carousels- was archiving the photos for reference and sharing. And what about our myriad digital photos?
Flickr helps store and organize photos; it’s particularly well suited for sharing photos with others. You can upload photos to flickr.com (you have to set up an account for your company) and then email the link. Your recipient can view them, download them, and share the link – all without taking up space on your computer or in your inbox. Google’s Picasa is another option for photo sharing.
These days, it’s just as easy as to take video as it is to take a photo. With YouTube or Vimeo, you can upload videos and share them online. Anyone can watch, but you need an account to upload videos. We have a CEE YouTube channel for videos we’ve produced and one of energy saving tips for our Minnesota Energy Challenge. Ustream enables live video streaming and lets you save the video streams to view later. We have used Ustream to broadcast trainings and might try using it to document our field work.
We have often gotten requests and questions about presentations that we’ve done at conferences and meetings. An attached pdf or PowerPoint can be cumbersome for users who are interested in looking through our slideshows, but who don’t want to waste the time or storage space to download it as a file. We use SlideShare to help share conference presentations on our website. Slideshare lets us embed slideshows of the presentations directly on our website. We’ve posted a few slideshows on our SlideShare accounts here and here.
Working in the cloud is a great way to exchange information and offers greater opportunities for us to all collaborate. We’re looking forward to working with you.
Image credit: wikipedia.org