It’s Time For Next-Generation Remote Collaboration

With large-scale gatherings being put on-hold, it's proving time for digital engagement tech.


Way back in 2011, as a graduate student in the Tangible Interfaces course at MIT Media Lab, I dreamt up a solution that would solve a long-running problem with remote participation: while videochat technology was good enough to serve as a proxy for a seat at the table (depending on the degree of accommodation of those physically in the room), remote participants still missed out on crucial social moments like post-meeting sidebar conversations, hallway chatter, and coffee runs. My solution? Hack one of the helium-filled, remote controlled Air Swimmer clownfishes or sharks by attaching lightweight microphones and speakers (and maybe someday, screen).

An air swimmer clownfish with webcam and iphone attached

A clownfish with webcam and iPhone attached promised new telepresence solutions

That project didn’t get far, for obvious reasons. Others went on to design iPad-on-wheels (“telepresence robotics“) solutions to take on the same challenge of meaningful remote participation, and opening up access for anyone who struggles to attend in-person events. While certainly fun, even the best-in-class embodiment solutions remain a distraction to real in-person social interaction.

With more offices closing every day, many of us are remote participants, now. COVID-19, more popularly known as the coronavirus, has quickly ignited demand for remote participation tools. The least-bad video-conference solution, Zoom, saw its stock soar starting in January. Remote-based coworkers, among them many disabled people, who have suffered for years through the alienation and indignities of remote participation may be experiencing mixed feelings of relief and Schadenfreude right now.

Sasha Costanza-Chock (@schock) on Twitter: Abled people: NO WE CANNOT DO REMOTE CONFERENCES ITS SOOOO HaRd  Disabled ppl: it's not that hard rly, just try  Abled ppl: NOOOO the cOMPLEXITY tHe CoST thE problMZ  Disabled ppl: just try  Coronavirus: Hi!  Abled ppl: we're pleased to announce our new remote conferencing system

Sasha Costanza-Chock (@schock) on Twitter

Corporations are banning employee travel en masse, while many universities are shuttering virus-friendly lecture halls in exchange for online learning. From the standpoint of public health, and maybe also for mitigating global warming, this is good news. But companies aren’t suddenly concerned about the climate footprint of dubiously useful trade conferences, and universities aren’t suddenly converting to the 2000’s gospel of globally accessible online education. They’ll probably both go back to the status quo as soon as it’s clear that they can. The degree to which geographically dispersed digital communication tools and behaviors make inroads against (many) humans’ bias for in-person communication will be determined by whether this the technologies and social practices that people learn to use are good enough for social norms to begin to shift.

In short, these strange times offer a window of opportunity for engagement and collaboration software to prove its mettle. These genres of technology get to the core of what we call civic tech. When Micah Sifry, Erin Simpson and I began mapping what eventually became the Civic Tech Field Guide, software to facilitate group decision-making, crowdsourcing, ideation, position mapping, public input, and other participatory processes were front of mind.

But digitization isn’t the same thing as transformation. For years, advocates of truly engaging and collaborative technology practices have pushed back against the tendency to simply digitize analog experiences. We’ve long known that the digital approximation of an in-person experience will fall short of real human presence and true eye contact. And we’ve long argued that if you are going to use digital tools, you should play to their strengths and maximize the affordances of networked communication. It’s the difference between a MOOC that simply reproduces the classroom lecture format with videos of professors talking at length and something more akin to the Duolingo user experience, with real-time quizzes and gamification and a joyful interface.

We know that digital participation can feel lacking compared to the real life alternative. But for at least the next few months, if not longer, many people and organizations are going to shift to virtual meetings for a range of activities, including staff huddles, workshops, trainings, and larger events like conferences. So, here’s an annotated guide to some digital participation tools and platforms that can help.

First, get good hardware for your team.

Nick Grossman of Union Square Ventures has pointed out that for the cost of a single roundtrip plane ticket to a conference, you can trick out your office with a pretty sweet audiovisual setup with big monitors, a good camera, and a good microphone. Laurian Gridinoc, one of my fellow contributors to the Bad Idea Factory, did just that:

an extensively equipped video streaming work station

Laurian’s extensively-equipped video streaming work station

Laurian’s an open source journalism developer who works primarily on remote teams. His Zoom station is comprised of:

  • Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini video switcher
  • Rode PodeMic via Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 USB audio interface
  • Yamaha HS5 near-field monitors, driven by the same USB audio interface as the mic
  • Sony A7s + SLR Magic 50mm f1.1 + Tilta Mini Matte Box + circular polariser filter to remove the screen reflection from his glasses
  • Sony RX0 for side-view shots
  • Philips Hue lights
  • Lapscreen 1080p display at the left monitoring ATEM Mini output
  • LG 34″ 5k2k ultrawide monitor
  • Mac Mini with full specs
  • MacBook Pro 16 back (visible at the right on a stand, that side of the desk is another workstation for personal projects)
  • IKEA standing desk

(Laurian acquired this kit over time; it’s not a recent shopping spree).

If your organization is making the shift to working from home and wants good team meetings, you can start by just making sure that everyone has up-to-date hardware and software, and a robust Wi-Fi connection. Sadly, high-speed Internet access isn’t cheap in the United States (40% of New York City residents can’t afford to have it at home). It’s vital that if “work from home” becomes the new normal, employers — and governments — need to insure that their workers have the tools and bandwidth they need.

Second, how not to get too frustrated with Zoom, Google Hangout, etc.

There’s a good reason this video parody put out by Zoom about the frustrations of a virtual team meeting strikes a chord. All too often, distributed meetings fail because the platform in use doesn’t deliver a seamless connection. But if you watch that video closely, you’ll note that most of the problems that surface during the meeting aren’t because of a bad connection. They’re because of bad human meeting behavior.

People who work first and foremost as part of virtual teams know that these systems are only as good as the norms and protocols put in place to structure the behavior of participants. You cannot simply tell your staff to work from home and “we’ll have our regular meetings using Zoom” and expect those meetings to go well.

Fortunately, there are many great guides to learn from. Here, for example, is a short and timely piece from Erin Barnes, the co-founder of ioby, the civic tech neighborhood team builder, on how she has made video-based team meetings the core of her staff’s work-life for nearly a decade. Her first three rules for good video-conferencing are 1) insuring great connectivity, 2) insisting on eye contact (and getting people to clean their cameras too!), and 3) facilitation. She writes:

Video conferences can feel very awkward because everyone is on mute and isn’t sure when to unmute. These long pauses caused by the Fear Of Un-Muting (or “FOUM”) make the meeting feel slow and labored. Other times, when there is an open ended question and a lot of people answer at once, every stops and starts talking at the same time and then tries to cede the floor at the same time. This, I’ll call, Everyone Un-Mutes At Once (or “EUMAO”) is even worse than FOUM.

A lot of Barnes’ solutions will feel like common sense once you start using them with your colleagues; there’s a lot of hard-won experience to learn from. Want to go deeper? Dive into this guide to remote work culture from Aniyia Williams of Black and Brown Founders. (She’s included a whole bunch of helpful suggestions for further reading at the bottom of the article.)

Need to move your conference online?

If you have some familiarity with Zoom or similar video-conferencing platforms, you know that they’re mainly good for two types of functions: small group conversations or large group broadcasts, where a few people give presentations watched by many others. Just as a single face-to-face conversation starts to break down once the number of people actively trying to participate exceeds 8-10, video-conferencing for conversation also devolves once you reach that level of users. One solution that Zoom offers is the option, for administrators, of breaking a large group of participants into smaller breakouts, each with their own screenfull of users. Unfortunately, if what you want is an experience closer to that of an analog conference, with main hall speakers and simultaneous breakout sessions that attendees that pick and choose on their own, Zoom can’t do that for you. That’s because it doesn’t really offer many tools on top of its main video function.

Enter platforms like QiqoChat, which civic tech enthusiast and coder Lucas Cioffi created because he “believed that existing online platforms were only scratching the surface of what was possible in terms of online collaboration and member-to-member engagement.” He’s not wrong. Rather than launch yet another videochat solution, Lucas wisely built QiqoChat atop of Zoom. What makes it different are its online community tools.

Qiqochat is geared towards hosting live, virtual-only events. The platform mirrors in-person conferences with breakout rooms, so that you can maintain concepts like thematic tracks and concurrent sessions on different topics. You can easily use Qiqochat to schedule a day’s worth of sessions, and use its schedule coordination tool to alert participants to when sessions are ending and new ones beginning. There’s also a “Live Café” feature that tries to make 1-on-1 meetings with people less formal.

The platform is also designed to enable users to join ongoing community “circles” (which can be formal entities like work teams or less formal ones like fans of a topic), giving them the option of creating personal profiles and connecting laterally to other users on their own. This past weekend in Seattle, DemocracyLab used Qiqochat to host its annual St. Hack-Trick’s Day hackathon, which has gone virtual in response to the coronavirus crisis. In their After Action Report they found that the technology mostly worked well, allowing event organizers to see, for example, how many Zoom attention minutes were spent in each breakout room. Challenges included orienting latecomers who found the event and popped their heads in, and facilitating inter-attendee connections. DemocracyLab will be iterating on the format for their May 9th event.

In 2016 and again in 2019, well before the current coronavirus crisis made the idea more mainstream, Cioffi used Qiqochat to organize his own virtual-only conferences for civic tech practitioners. The 2019 conference took advantage of the civic tech community’s global footprint, reframing the goal of virtually bringing together people doing civic tech in dozens of countries as a net-plus. That’s because such a diverse set of attendees could bring a much wider awareness of issues and work being done without the expenses of plane tickets and jetlag. I joined in and got some amount (though certainly not all) of the knowledge and social connection I would get at a regular conference, and in the process, saved a huge amount of travel time and virtually all of the expenses an in-person conference would incur.

The main drawback of Cioffi’s 2019 virtual civic tech conference, which ran over for 2 hours, 45 minutes, was the lopsided ratio of presenters (40) to attendees (115 RSVPs, including speakers, though far fewer made it to the breakout rooms). That had the effect of making speakers compete for nearly empty audience chat rooms, leading presenters to abandon their own talks to go attend other sessions. Many attendees were also still learning how to switch to different ‘tables’ in Qiqochat to move between sessions. If this learning curve is addressed, either through practice or an improved user interface, Qiqochat could be a serious solution for virtual-only conferences. And there are other alternatives. MeetingSphere is similar to QiqoChat. It offers similar (though fewer) collaboration plug-ins, like brainstorming and voting modules.

The Tax Justice Network recently shared a great debrief from their own virtual conference, held in December 2019. More than 150 people from around the world participated. The organization concluded that it would have benefitted from more people serving as moderators, and that it was difficult to schedule the event at a time convenient for participants in certain timezones (especially Australia and East Asia). The Qiqochat conference’s “magic timezone” was 9:30am Pacific, 12:30pm Eastern, 6:30pm Central European Time, and 1:30 am for GMT+8.

Tax Justice Network credits the virtual format with helping secure great and more diverse speakers and participants, dramatically reducing carbon emissions, and conserving precious financial resources. They used Zoom for panels, and then Open Broadcaster Software in tandem with Crowdcast to stream the sessions to other outlets; Crowdcast can stream to Facebook Live, Periscope, and YouTube Live.

If you are looking for a less structured convening, along the lines of an unconference, Unhangout is an “open source platform for running large-scale, participant-driven events online.” It’s a MIT Media Lab project by Katherine McConachie, Philipp Schmidt, Yumiko Murai, and Charlie DeTar, my former Center for Civic Media classmate and the creator of Intertwinkles. There’s an in-depth guide to it here. The video feature isn’t working at the moment, so the team recommends streaming live with an embedded YouTube Live stream. The code is up on Gitlab, if you want to contribute.

Making decisions together online

If we are to honor the premise that meetings are for decision-making, and leave the announcements to email, Slack, and other asynchronous methods, we need better decision-making tools. Here are some from the civic tech community:

a screenshot of a consensus map in the Pol.is tool

A screenshot of a consensus map in the Pol.is tool. Image courtesy of pol.is.

Our favorite is still Pol.is, which uses semantic learning and interactive design to rapidly enable a large group of people to share statements with each other and discover where they agree or disagree. Liz Barry wrote about this platform (and the vTaiwan process it supports) in great length in a previous Civicist post, and everything she said about its usefulness is all still true! Pol.is is special because it is one of the few internet tools that manages to draw attention to areas of group consensus without glossing over real differences. The user interface is simple for participants, but powerful for administrators.

Other digital tools that are specifically designed to engage residents in collective online-decision making include:

These platforms generally offer a mix of features like forums, input collection and analysis, project timelines, and a variety of ways for users to vote or express sentiment. They are all in the Engagement Tech section of the Civic Tech Field Guide, if you want to explore further. These products have been explicitly designed to help governments, civil society organizations, and others to better engage their constituencies with digital technologies and asynchronous communications. While the digital divide persists in the form of literacy, comfort, and speed, cost, and ease of access, there are certainly representation benefits to opening channels for people to engage beyond the weekday night public meeting–especially if those meetings can’t happen in physical space right now.

If you need to replace realtime public meetings with online solutions, you might want to check out Granicus govMeetings, ProudCity, or Decidim. Granicus is a govtech vendor used by over 4,000 governments. It was merged together with GovDelivery, another govtech vendor, by an equity firm. Granicus has been a go-to solution for livestreaming public meetings for years. ProudCity is a smaller, newer (2016) govtech vendor whose solution relies on YouTube and Soundcloud.

Decidim is a bit different, as it’s an open source, radical municipal platform developed by the City of Barcelona. It’s used by many cities, and co-developed by some of them, like the City of Helsinki. Its wide range of engagement modules allow for meaningful co-participation by citizens, including meetings and conferences features.

If you’re looking for asynchronous and remote public engagement, more generally, most of the commercial civic engagement platforms are plug-and-play: you don’t need to be a developer, find hosting, or install updates yourself. Platforms like Granicus, Neighborland, CitizenLab, CivicPlus and   cost anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars per month. That cost often includes setup help and ongoing support.

Decidim, CONSUL, and e-Democracia, meanwhile, were all created by governments, and are free and open source. This means you can install your own instances and modify the platforms as needed, provided you or your team are technical enough. CONSUL and Decidim enjoy healthy communities of other users contributing to the platforms, but that’s also who you’ll turn to for support if something’s not working.

Many of the engagement platforms built to help governments communicate with and benefit from outside contributions can be repurposed to address any constituency, from organizational staff to customers. The Citizens Foundation, for example, has offered free hosting for its Your Priorities app for nonprofits to use, whether they use it with the public or internally.

What happens to political organizing when we’re all social distancing?

It’s become increasingly clear that to save lives, we need to flatten the curve, or rate at which the virus spreads through the population. And to flatten the curve, we need to physically separate. Micah wrote yesterday about the unfortunate lag time between the new social reality posed by the coronavirus pandemic and our political organizations’ slow, and in many cases, still-undetermined adaptation plans. What is politics, or social justice organizing, without canvassing, in-person meetings, and large events? What does a national campaign look like in this environment?

We’re about to find out, and it might not be good. Voter turnout could take a hit: a survey in France found 28% of respondents were reconsidering voting because of the virus. Louisiana has delayed its primary votes. Social isolation combined with media echo chambers could be a scary mixture. For well over ten years, we’ve preached that digital tech should support and augment traditional organizing tactics. Even the biggest tech boosters wouldn’t be caught advocating for digital-only strategies (not after the 2016 election, at least). And yet that may be exactly the scenario we find ourselves in.

Fortunately, where national political groups have proven slow to adjust, some of America’s savviest organizers and facilitators are self-organizing to try to figure out what we’ll do next.

Thaís Marques of CREDO Action and Randall Smith of PowerLabs, who I met eons ago while organizing the Massachusetts RootsCamp, have put out an open call to organizers and campaigners to consider, together, what to do next:

How can organizers adapt to a world with social distancing? We believe that people in our community have pieces of the answer (or maybe the whole answer). We think that bringing people together will help all of us figure out how to adapt our strategies and tactics. This call isn’t a webinar or a presentation. You will be on a video call with 5-6 other people like you discussing how we can adapt our strategies and tactics.

They’re hosting that call today. You can join it — and the collective process — here.

And on the product side, Nate Woodhull of ControlShift Labs, a distributed organizing platform, posted that the company is “thinking about doing some rapid-response product development…to help our customers keep organizing locally even as in-person meetings are restricted. Our idea at the moment is to add Zoom integration support to our distributed events tools.” Got feature requests? Leave a comment on Nate’s post.

Lastly, in a sea of “how to move your meetings online” articles (like this one), it’s worth considering how we facilitate and move effectively in these disembodied spaces. Nancy White at Full Circle Associates, which offers facilitation, community and network-building services, has written a four-part series on Moving Online in a Pandemic. It covers the holistic process, from online meeting basics to thoughtful consideration of which offline meeting baggage you might choose to leave behind. In addition to the series, Nancy has organized a community for other online facilitators similarly considering how to support the dramatic societal migration to online meetings. They’re also crowd-curating facilitator-approved resources for online meetings, classes, and eventsYou can join the facilitators’ group here.

What if you want to become a fully virtual organization?

Companies and nonprofits can use many, if not all, of the engagement tools listed above internally. There are also many resources made specifically for organizations to facilitate remote work. For example, Edge Ryders is a social enterprise and online community of social good changemakers. As a fully distributed community and organization, they’ve curated a thorough, openly licensed guide to distributed collaboration.* Like the Tax Justice Network, they’ve tilted toward working virtually because of the greenhouse gas savings of the model. The manual covers concepts like building organizational culture with memes, clarity of communication, healthy conference calls, and practicing good documentation habits to reduce bothering colleagues for help.

In the world of political technology, MoveOn, America’s oldest online organizing network, has always worked as a fully-distributed digital organization. A key concept for MoveOn is not mixing central-office and distributed models. No one is meant to feel more or less remote, and thereby disadvantaged, than others because everyone is distributed. By not allowing workers who happen to live in the same city to regularly cowork, MoveOn has sought to prevent co-located staff from developing into cliques and “physical power centers.” That said, a key part of MoveOn’s model is that it regularly brings its whole staff together for long working retreats, where everyone is in the same place at the same time.

Product Hunt has an extensive library of remote work apps.* The list is comprised mostly of digital nomad startups and remote-friendly job boards, but does include the Remote Starter Kit dashboard of helpful apps and practices, and Remote Stories, a place to anonymously share your remote work experiences.

Enough about work; what about interpersonal relationships (AKA socializing)?

The rapid spread of coronavirus has led public health officials to call for social distancing measures, urging people to voluntarily isolate themselves, especially seniors in areas where containing the virus has failed. This might work for preventing the spread of disease, or at least “flattening the curve” of its growth, but social isolation has very negative effects on people’s mental health. Remote workers often miss out on in-office socializing like inside jokes and happy hours, so it’s worth considering how to begin to reproduce these interactions digitally. Here are some lighthearted ideas for encouraging pro-active socializing when you can’t get together in person:

Remember Turntable.FM, where you could compete with other DJs in virtual clubs? Chinese DJs have turned to hosting cloudraves‘ on Douyin, a TikTok-like app. Plug.dj is also hoping to fill that place in our hearts. Walk into a virtual club, like, say, Civic Tech Jamz, make an avatar, and you can take turns spinning your favorite YouTube and SoundCloud bangers.

The aforementioned Edge Ryders guide also has a section on quality time and distributed socializing. It provides counterpoints to the inevitable feeling of capitalist-inspired guilt about socializing not being “productive,” and offers a variety of formats for virtual socializing, from chatrooms and forums to audio and video “lounges” and applying paired programming principles to making other modes of work collaborative.

Slack’s emoji reactions have earned an outsized role in organizational cultures, and developers have created additional Slack integrations to help improve interpersonal relations. They’re sometimes awkward, but could be especially helpful right now for suddenly-remote teams. For example, Donut, used by Civic Hall staff, is a Slack bot that operates within a Slack instance to automate the process of suggesting informal 1:1 meetings between teammates.

Whatever happens next as the coronavirus spreads, it’s clear that many of us are suddenly swimming in the deep end of the pool of virtual meetings, work, and campaigning. Remember that the main thing is to keep your head above the water and just…breathe.

*With thanks to Newspeak House’s crowdsourced Coronavirus Tech Handbook for the tips.

Updated to reflect that Laurian is a contributor to, but not full Corporate Overlord in, the Bad Idea Factory.

Updated to include the results of DemocracyLab’s online event after-action report.