Tips to work collaboratively

Having a supervisor on each side of the Atlantic Ocean can sometime complicate communication, who never experienced endless chains of emails to revise a document? It is then quite hard to remember who did what, or which of the 10 files with the same name is the latest version. Thankfully, there are some useful tools that can simplify this process.

Online collaborative tools

Since almost everybody has a Google Mail account, an easy way to create and collaboratively work on a document is to use the google docs suite. It is in fact quite useful for text documents, spreadsheets or presentation drafts. The set of features is however quite limited and you won’t be able to create documents with fancy formatting, but it still offers all the basic revision tools, keeping track of the successive editing and their respective authors. If you are looking for more advanced functionalities, there exists other free online office suite alternatives, among which Zoho and Think Free.

Collaborative edition of a Latex document

Latex being a reference for the writing of scientific documents, it is worth noting that being based on plain text files, it can be easily shared via any source-revision systems such as CVS or SVN, as any other source code. A way to do this is to create a Google Code project, which gives you a 1 Gb storage space online with Subversion access, beware however that all the content of such project is publicly available.

Share files

If you are more used to your favourite desktop office software suite, you can also use a tool to share your documents with other people. An excellent way to do it is to use dropbox, which synchronises your files with an online directory. You can find more detail on the uses of dropbox in this previous post. The key feature to work collaboratively is to share one of your dropbox folder with your colleagues, then every time one of you does a change in one of the file of this shared folder, all the others will receive the latest version of the file. Beside, a revision control function allows you to see the previous versions of the file, with the date and the user who modified it.

Free online file backup and synchronization

How nice would it be to have your important files synchronised with an online storage space to access them anywhere anytime.

For those who never needed a file that was on your home computer at work or vice-versa, or never lost an important file because of a deficient memory stick, this may not seems as of first importance, but it might still save you some time or prevent some bad surprises.

To solve this problem, there are a few online web storage services, I personally used box.net since its launch to store important files. A good thing about this service is the possibility of linking it to a Zoho account to create and edit files, but you still need to manually upload/download your files to ensure that the server version is the same as the one on your computer.

However, a little revolution took place in the last months with the arrival of a new innovative online storage service: Dropbox. After creating an account you will be asked to download a small application (available for Windows, Linux and MacOs) that will create a “My Dropbox” folder on your local hard drive.

The magic is that all files on this folder will be automatically synchronised with you online space, so you will now be able to access them anywhere. But it isn’t all : you can connect any number of computers to the same dropbox account, meaning that they will all have the last version of your files available locally.

Furthermore, you can share folders with other users, creating a workspace where every member has the latest version of all files. If you delete a file by mistake, want to go back to a previous version, or see who last edited it, a nice web interface allows you to track the last 10 modifications.

You can also share files individually with a direct download url, or use your public directory to share files with anyone.

Opening a free account gives you a 2Gb storage space, with up to an additional 3Gb by a referral process (250Mo per invited referee).  The 50Gb pro account costs around $10 a month, while 100Gb will cost you $20.