Like everyone in the world working from home during the pandemic, we saw a sudden switch to intensive use of video conferencing for the past eight weeks.
Daily stand-ups with clients, coffee chats with colleagues, meetings, on and on, up to the point you feel you’re only in video calls the entire day. It was such a sudden increase that it now feels suddenly odd to have an actual phone call, without video.

I want to jot down some of our experiences with various video conferencing tools these past weeks, and how it compares to ‘before’. It’s a good thing meanwhile to keep in mind that phones, sms, mail etc also still exist.

One of the first things that stood out for my company at the start of the lock down was that while we did have regular video conferences previously, we didn’t host them ourselves. It was mostly at the invitation of clients or others, using their solutions such as Webex, and Skype for business. Amongst ourselves we used Skype, but usually made regular phone calls. Within my World Bank projects we used Skype as well.

Our cloud tool, NextCloud offers NextCloud Talk, supported with a STUN and a TURN server. We tested this and it works reasonably well for up to 4 people. Our first experiences were however not convincing enough to want to use it for larger groups or as a default for client interaction. We did however use it with one client reliably with 3 to 4 people.

Next to our existing NextCloud we added Zoom, with 4 hosts. Zoom works very well, also with a few dozen participants, and we have been using it for our own all-hands meetings, weekly check-ins and daily coffee times. We also used Zoom for an online workshop, including the use of break-out rooms and that worked very well. Zoom however has been the subject of a lot of privacy and data security criticism, which have only in part been addressed. Various clients of ours do not allow Zoom. Specifically the use of the Zoom client is seen as problematic, some do allow their people participating in a Zoom call through their browser.

Meanwhile our clients operating within the Microsoft silo speeded up their switch to Microsoft Teams, which meant that our interaction with them takes place through Teams’ video conferencing. This for us reduced the need for being the host of a range of meetings, and our need for Zoom.

Still we wanted another video conferencing option for ourselves, that supports larger groups, and is within our own scope of control. We arranged for a managed Jitsi server for our company’s use. This at first glance looked like it might be an expensive solution (as it meant a bespoke service as no regular hosting offers were to be found), but in the end our existing cloud hoster provided us with our own Jitsi server geared to use for larger groups against low costs. Our experiences with Jitsi are somewhat mixed. It works best if everyone is on Chrome browsers, but that in itself is not really desirable nor even easy to ask of every participant. Jitsi does not allow for scheduling or planning a call, as you can only login as a host after starting a call. Jitsi also does not support break out rooms, nor is it on the current development agenda it seems. We’ve used Jitsi reliably in various settings, both with others and amongst ourselves, including a group of 8 people from different organisations. In that case being able to offer to use Jitsi on our own server made the call possible in the first place, as several participants were adamant about not wanting to use other tools such as Zoom.

So the current reality is that we use Nextcloud Talk, Jitsi, Teams, Zoom all in parallel, depending on context and participants, while we also still participate in Hangouts, Webex and Skype for Business meetings. The only thing that has seen a reduction of use is regular phone calls, which upon reflection is an odd effect, as no-one set out to replace or try to improve upon those. Maybe it’s because all the video conferencing tools bring the conversations into the device you have in front of you working from home all day anyway: your computer screen.

With stores around the world either being closed or lacking customers because of lock-downs, putting more effort on digital ordering and home delivery or store pick-up. A bookstore in our city started same day home delivery of any book they have in the store, next to their regular central online ordering process.

Boris Mann shows a great example of stores you maybe don’t normally see online. They went around the shop taking pictures of the shelves and sharing those online so customers can find the items they need. What will remain of such steps once we leave our houses again? Revert to the previous mode, or the start of evolving towards more mature digital means? First data on Dutch online retails suggests that many households who previously only bought online 1 or 2 times per year (holiday packages usually), are now doing so much more. It is likely that many of them will not revert fully back.

Clicking through product categories

Photos of shelves, make your choice

One element to look for in algorithms I think is if they are symmetric or asymmetric in how its choices are treated. I just helped realise an automated subsidy allocation decision process for a Dutch regional government. Key element is that subsidy requests can be automatically awarded (cutting back the processing time from 13 weeks and payment in 17 weeks, to immediate and payment to under 5 days), but that requests cannot be automatically denied. If the automatic process can’t allocate automatically it goes to a civil servant that reviews the request and allocates or denies the subsidy. (Not coincidentally the GDPR forbids automated decision making about people, especially if that decision is detrimental to the person being decided about)

Replied to Things that have caught my eye: An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away. (The Obvious?)

Algorithms already deciding all sorts of things to do with people’s lives. Who gets to decide their priorities and how will we feel when we realise that they are already being applied to us?

Good catching up with you after too long Boris. Excited to hear about Fission. Later on was wondering how IPFS as starting point plays out with highly dynamic material (e.g. real time data sets), versus dat for such data sets. Pleasing to note our thinking since our joined session at BarCamp Brussels in 2006 has evolved along similar lines in the current timeframe, except you more on the tech side of things, and me on the change management side of it.

Das kann ich gut nachvollziehen Heinz. Brandbeschleuniger trägt ja eine emotionelle Ladung die man auch als Luddismus empfinden kann gegen Digitalisierung generell. Obwohl die Beschleunigung ja auch positives bewirken kann, bez. Wissensentwicklung usw.

Wie bei greifbare Produkte verbirgt und externalisiert Digitalisierung Kosten. Den Energieverbrauch von Bitcoin in etwa. Gibt es da einen Weg diese externalisierten Kosten bei Digitalisierung sichtbarer zu machen? Diese anders zu gestalten (zB eine Website die nur online ist, wenn genügend Solarenergie vorhanden ist, und die optimiert ist für niedrigen Energieverbrauch)? Können wir das ausreichend für andere Produkte, sodas ein Vergleich dieser externalisierten Kosten zwischen Greifbares und Digitales ermöglicht wird (zB conference calls gegen vermiedenen Flugreisen)?

Was betont Dringlichkeit, und hat die ‘richtige’ emotionelle Ladung in einem gewissen Kontext? Katalysator, in der Definition bereits neutral. Beschleuniger, Brandbeschleuniger,… gibt’s da mehrere Möglichkeiten in Parallel? Brandbeschleuniger für negative Konsequenzen, dark patterns. Fortschrittbeschleuniger oder was immer, für positive Konsequenzen?

Replied to „Digitalisierung als Brandbeschleuniger“ by Heinz WittenbrinkHeinz Wittenbrink

Digitalisierung als Brandbeschleuniger trifft viel besser, als ich es bisher ausgedrückt habe, den Verdacht, dass die Mitarbeit an der digitalen Wirtschaft, also auch das, was ich beruflich schon lange tue, die ökologischen Katastrophen, die wir gerade erleben, weiter beschleunigt. Andererseits erinnert diese Formel so sehr an konservative Stereotype, dass es mir schwer fällt sie zu verwenden.

Journalism as a service, journalism as a process. And quoting The Guardian on how they diversify revenue streams, as different groups of readers are willing to pay for different things, despite reading the same stories. This ties into what Hossein Derakhshan talks about when he says journalism needs to leave ‘news’ as a format behind.

Liked How news organisations are succeeding with reader-first digital transformation by Kevin Anderson, Author at Strange Attractor

I think his framing of how to become reader focused also made sense in terms of selling journalism as a process rather than as a product. By looking as journalism as a service to be sold instead of a product, then companies could re-orient around their “impact on the customer”, he said.