Imagine accessing documents from any computer with an Internet connection and not worrying about misplacing a USB flash drive or hauling around a laptop. Web sites have emerged that allow just that, with the added bonus of document storage, collaboration and sharing without the hassle of e-mail attachments. Not only can users free themselves from hard drives, they also can work together on documents in real time.
Online document management sites -- Acrobat.com, Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live Workspace -- allow seamless partnership among programs similar to the ones used every day by government agencies. They can provide cost savings, collaboration, document creation and storage, and eliminate the need for portable storage devices. The sites let users access documents from any computer with an Internet connection and a standard browser without downloading anything.
"The drivers of moving online are: I want to access this stuff from two different machines, I want all of my things searchable or I want to share them with a set of people," said Jonathan Rochelle, project manager of spreadsheets for Google Docs. "We're finding that institutions are finding it easier to share, which is a much more relevant action within a group these days."
D.C. Deploys Google
The District of Columbia was planning to spend $4 million on a new intranet deployment but killed that project and launched Google Apps, a suite of Web-hosted collaboration services, such as Google Docs, Google Talk (an instant messaging and voice over internet protocol tool) and Gmail.
This move saved the district more than $3.5 million.
Abandoning the original intranet project was a logical business decision for the district, said Vivek Kundra, the District of Columbia's chief technology officer. "I said we could do that in a very low-cost fashion using Google Apps to drive collaboration, move us to real-time sharing of information and drive adoption, in terms of technologies people are already familiar with," he said. The decision to deploy Google Apps aligned with Kundra's three core drivers: being good guardians of taxpayer dollars, getting the greatest value from technologies and providing solutions quickly.
The district's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) deployed Google Apps in October 2007 for its approximately 700 employees. "We literally just turned it on, so it wasn't like we had to deploy software and spend seven months architecting it," Kundra said.
Following OCTO's successful deployment, Kundra decided to launch Google Apps for the district's entire government -- about 38,000 employees -- beginning July 24, 2008. The goal is to move all government information to the intranet via Google Apps.
Kundra's advice for others looking to move online: "I would say look at the power of the consumer-market forces. Don't underestimate that, because when you're deploying applications for millions and millions of users, the demand on that infrastructure compared to a small enterprise is very different."
Google Docs provides online storage, creation and collaboration of presentations, word processing and spreadsheet documents. When sharing a document, the owner can invite users, who are given a read-only copy or assigned editing privileges. The site permits users to make documents public by publishing them as Web pages or posting them to a blog.
Google's Rochelle said the collaboration portion of the applications is what makes a difference. "That is what varies significantly and lets people turn the corner on productivity," he said.
When documents need to be edited or proofed by multiple people, online document management allows smooth transitions. "The problem with attachments and e-mails is that they really just proliferate versions," Rochelle said. "The first difference really is in the single-version control. There is a single place where this document lives, many people can edit and access it, and it's all online in one version. You
can get prior versions as they are edited, but there's literally one document."
Rochelle said Google Docs is secure through a single sign on and, unless a user makes a document public, documents are only shared with the people specifically invited to view or edit them.
Google Apps Team Edition might benefit organizations that need a custom e-mail address and an intranet system, in addition to the other services provided. Applications included are: Google Talk; Google Docs; Google Calendar, for arranging meetings and coordinating schedules; a start page; and Google Sites, group Web sites for sharing information.
Agencies looking for further customization can now add programs onto the spreadsheet application. "One of the things we launched recently was gadgets in Docs, which is specifically meant for spreadsheets right now, but we could see that expanding," Rochelle said. "That allows people to write specific third-party programs that actually allow them to visualize and see their data and interact with their information in Docs in their own way."
When it comes to online document creation and management, governments have a few options to choose from. One choice is Adobe's Acrobat.com, a hosted suite of online services that includes file sharing and storage, a PDF converter, word processing and Web conferencing. The suite is now available as a free beta version and was launched in June 2008.
"One of the real secrets to Acrobat.com, and to practically all of our online services that we're making available, is the fact that we're leveraging Flash Player," said Bobby Caudill, government solutions manager of Adobe. "Regardless of where you are in the world, regardless of who you are in the world, you pretty much have the technology already on your machine to be able to leverage the services that we're making available."
Adobe's online word processor, Buzzword, allows real-time collaboration, and users can be given full editing, comment-only or read-only privileges.
ConnectNow, a Web conferencing tool, lets users create a meeting room and supports audio and visual communication, remote screen control and screen sharing, among other features. In the complimentary version, only three people can meet at once. Organizations seeking a wider implementation might consider purchasing Acrobat Connect Standard or Acrobat Connect Pro, in which users are granted 5 GB of space and can share documents with an unlimited number of people.
"As of right now, the physical security is handled all by Adobe," Caudill said, "so we certainly take the physical security very seriously."
The online security runs in an encrypted session, and currently a user name and password are required to sign on. "But at some point, I could see us being able to strengthen that and harden it down some more," Caudill said.
Bridging the Gap
Another option available to governments is Microsoft Office Live Workspace. Called a "companion" to Microsoft's software, it is currently available as public beta. Users are given a workspace, which is an online place to save, access and share documents. However, users still need a registered copy of Microsoft Office software because new documents cannot be created online. Users can save files from Microsoft Office programs directly to their online workspace.
Microsoft SharedView enables real-time collaboration by allowing users to work together on the same screen. Users can share files with up to 100 people and are allotted 500 MB of storage, though each document can't exceed 25 MB.
No downloads are required, but Microsoft provides an Office Live Update to ensure easy access to the site's components.
Files are secured by virus protection from Microsoft Forefront Security and can only be accessed with a password and a Windows Live ID.