The next interview took place at July 3, 2006 with Dorine Ruter from ETC.
Meeting at a distance
“Over a year ago the programme committee of RUAF (Resource Centres for Urban Agriculture and Food Security - www.ruaf.org) came to me with the question whether I knew a tool that would make it possible to conduct a meeting over the internet. The group consists of about 10 people and they are spread over different countries across all continents, i.e Peru, China, Senegal. The programme committee has one face-to-face meeting each year, during which members exchange information regarding the progress in their region and the problems they encounter and talk about how to continue the work in the coming year. There was a need, however, to meet on a more regular basis to share successes and exchange and discuss how to address problems that occured. Additional online meetings will fulfil this need, but have some practical advantages over additional face-to-face meetings: participants only have to be available during the meeting (a few hours) and there are no costs involved such as flight tickets and accommodation. The regular and informal character of the online meetings should support more exchange and closer links between the various resource centres.”
How did you handle this question? “I started trying out different options (MSN Messenger, Netmeeting, Skype). We used MSN messenger for our first meeting for example, but the (fast) typing turned out to be difficult. Besides that, chatty conversations can become chaotic really fast if everybody replies to the same message. You get double messages where both say the same thing and can lose the overview really quickly. Thirdly some participants preferred a tool that supported synchronous conversation with sound. This would be closer to a real meeting.
I also tried using Skype, but at that time Skype only allowed a maximum number of 5 people for conference calls and that wasn’t enough.
Eventually I received a reference to Teamspeak. Teamspeak is a tool that is used a lot in the gaming world, but it seemed perfect for the purpose of the programme committee. It provides the opportunity to actually speak with more people at the same time over the internet and that was just what I was looking for!"
Downloading and log in
“In order to use Teamspeak, you need a client application for each member and one server application. Here at ETC we didn’t want to deal with the technical implications of hosting the server application on our own server, so we decided to let the application be hosted somewhere else. We chose a provider experienced in hosting Teamspeak. This costs us only a few euros a month.
The people that want to participate in a meeting need to download and install a client application. This application is rather large in size (5.59 MB), so in areas with low bandwidth this can take a while. A backup plan was to send the application - downloaded by us - on a CD-ROM. However, all participants managed to download the application directly.” All this sounds pretty complicated. “Oh no, that really shouldn’t stop you from using the application! Software installation is something that always needs to be done, whether you are using Skype or MSN or Teamspeak. After that, the use is fairly simple.
If you want, you can try the software first from the Teamspeak website. You only have to download the client application and than you can use the Teamspeak server. All the information you need is provided by Teamspeak. What information do you need to set up Teamspeak for your group? “Participants need the usual login name and password to connect to the server address. They also need the direct number of the server, a so called IP address.
To help people set up and use the software I wrote down a step-by-step description for the participants, which contains all the data people need, (including the login and IP address) and exactly what they need to do to take part in a meeting. Even the simplest steps are mentioned in this document, since that’s were things usually go wrong (e.g. Make sure you have a headset, Check that the volume on your computer switched on). It happened to me once that I had been testing someone’s connection and equipment over and over again, because he couldn’t get any sound. It turned out that the volume of his computer was switched off!”
Testing and preparing
Do you encounter a lot of technical problems? “No, not really. I always make sure to implement some testing time for each of the participants, about a week before the meeting will take place. New members that join a meeting for the first time need to download the application or sometimes the computer settings, which makes a firewall stand in the way, are changed. These kinds of things are still fixable at that moment.
Besides that, we ask the participants to be online 15 minutes before a meeting starts, to have a last minute check and solve some the last problems, like a volume button that is switched off. During the meeting I am reachable by MSN, Skype and regular phone in case somebody encounters problems.” All this sounds like there is really a need for technical backup. “It can come in handy if somebody, who’s not taking part in the meeting itself, is around for technical assistance, so the meeting facilitator can concentrate on the actual conversation. Technical backup is not absolutely always necessary. If you just want to talk to someone or with a few people, all you have to do is login and start the meeting. But with the meetings I support, there are around 10 people involved and it already takes a lot of effort to find a date and time that everybody is available. So if you have found a moment that all can take part in a conference call, you want the meeting to go flawless.”
Sharing problems more easily
What is your experience with online meetings so far? “We have conducted a meeting with Teamspeak about three times now and the people involved are very pleased with the process and the tool. They just wanted to consult each other more often and now they can with the use of Teamspeak. People can come forward more easily with their smaller problems, because of the informality in comparison with the annual meeting. Naturally meeting over the internet (and especially meeting over low bandwidth and without visual contact) is not the same as meeting physically. Some aspects during the meeting must be kept an eye on more carefully.
For example, you need to make sure the background noise is as little as possible. Teamspeak provides a ‘Push to talk’ mode. When somebody wants to activate his microphone in order to talk, they must press a keyboard button. When not speaking, he/she leaves the microphone muted. This reduces the noise input from those participants that are listening. This feature also visualises who exactly is talking, since you cannot always recognize someone’s voice when it’s digitalized.
Also you have to find a way to make sure not everyone speaks at the same time. When meeting without visual contact, all cues for when to speak and when not to, are missing. When using the ‘talk button’, a green dot appears before the participant’s name. You can use this feature to give notice when you would like to say something, a bit like raising a hand if you have a question. This prevents people from talking at the same moment and helps the facilitator keep an eye on who would like to contribute. Still, if you want to you can talk simultaneously of course.
A minor disadvantage of Teamspeak is I think the way the chat function works. To use that you have access a menu by mouse, so it doesn’t work very well while talking. If it did, like with Skype where you can talk and chat at the same time, the chat function can be used to take the minutes. Everybody can than briefly enter what they have been talking about.”
Do the conversations run smoothly? “Yes that is going really well. The goal is to share your experiences and problems, so people tell their story and others respond to that.
See the team while you speak
Is there a future with Teamspeak at ETC? “I think we just continue to use it at the meetings, because it works really well for our purpose. We’ll be on the lookout for low bandwidth conference software with webcam functionalities, though, since we believe this would help connecting and sharing during the online meetings."
Server application… Client Application… Hosts… Technical difficulties? No, just a way to talk to a few people at the same time, without submitting a conference call at KPN. I tried Teamspeak myself. It is really easy. The only question to me seemed: when will I be using Skype and when will I use an application like Teamspeak? A lot of people are familiar these days with Skype, or have at least heard of it. The main reason Dorine choose to try Teamspeak was because more people could be added to the conversation. I see several reasons for trying out Teamspeak: