10 things I intensely dislike about Google Hangouts

OK, so I don’t hate Google Hangouts. It’s an incredibly useful tool, and it’s free. We use it a lot at Open Knowledge for ad hoc meetings, catch up calls, scheduled webinars and sessions, even for parties.

Open Knowledge Foundation online Christmas party: We were treated to carols, christmas outfits, tales of cheese eating and show & tell of Christmas presents - this is shabby man in the picture!

Open Knowledge online Christmas party

However I find it a confusing tool to use and I’m always getting caught out by it in some way. I think I get it…and then I discover I’ve messed up. So here are 10 things that annoy me and the lessons I’ve learnt.

1. Screen sharing – Screen sharing on Google Hangouts is confusing. If you are trying to present slides the best way seems to be to share your desktop and present your slides using presentation mode. You’ll need to get someone else to monitor the chat but at least people can see your slides properly – and not some sad, half-version of them with notes. And you know exactly what people can see – no confusion there. Sharing a window (or part of your desk top) just doesn’t seem to work that well ☹

screen sharing

2. Broadcasting a Google Hangout – Set up your Google Hangout on Air page and then go directly from that page to the hangout using the start button. Only go by this route, do not pass go and do not collect £200. Do not use the url for the hangout that you’ve got along the way. Doing that means you will end you up in a hangout with no broadcast button, which means no streaming and no YouTube video! I’ve made this mistake a few times. Also the “Start broadcasting” button is often grayed out for ages before you can start, or maybe that’s just my broadband!

3. Muting when typing – I get the point but arrrrgggggh!!

4. Number of participants – Google Hangouts has a limit of 10 active participants, 15 if you have Google+ premium or create the hangout from a Google Calendar event. Sometimes 15 is not enough!

5. People popping up – If you run a Google Hangout on Air and share the Hangout link openly be prepared to have people (normally teenagers) popping up in the middle of the session. Normally they just should something silly then leave. Oh joy!

6. Too much going on – Facilitating a Google Hangout on Air by yourself if tricky. There is just too much to keep an eye on. There’s the chat in the Hangout, the chat in the Hangout on Air and also the Q&A thing too. I just don’t have that many hands or enough space in my head.

7. Crash – When a Google Hangout on Air crashes for the person who set it up a new Hangout on Air needs to be started. Grrr! This caused problems at the Making it Matter workshop I ran.

8. Google monopoly – If you don’t do Google then you could be shut out of the fun. For example if you want to participate in a Hangout on Air by asking questions or commenting in the accompanying chat you need a Google+ account. Not very inclusive.

9. Loosing your chat – Once it’s gone it’s gone! Or at least it seems like that. If you accidentally drop out and come back in the chat has gone – it’s like people talking behind your back! It would be good if there was a way to hang on to your chat in a Hangout. I keep loosing important links.

10. Google effects – Fun for 5 minutes then annoying and confusing – mainly because you are distracted by searching for an effect you’ve used once before but can no longer seem to find!


I actually didn’t think I’d be able to come up with 10 things but it wasn’t tricky…

Are you Mumbling?

We’re still on the hunt for a ‘video conferencing/webinar service type thing’ at Open Knowledge and a couple of weeks ago we tried out Mumble.

mumbleMumble is a voice chat application for groups that has been designed primarily for gaming. Mumble is the client application and Murmur is the server application. The client, Mumble, runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux and I had no problem downloading it once.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about Mumble, it does what it says on the tin, but we were all extremely impressed with the latency and sound quality. It pretty much felt like you were talking to someone on a good landline, or better to be honest. The reason for this is ‘de-noising’ – apparently this a standard part of Speex 1.1 implementation.


One annoying thing is the text-to-speech feature – which speaks out all the chat messages. Luckily this can be turned off, and I can see some advantages in having it.

I guess the biggest issue with Mumble is that you can’t screen share, so the possibilities are limited. But as a voice chat application it was pretty smart!

There is a good FAQ on the technical aspects of Mumble.

Get Sqwiggling

sqwiggleSo we are all pretty familiar with Google Hangouts and Skype, but it seems there is a new kid on the block. Sqwiggle is an “always-on online workplace for your remote team to work together throughout the day and feel more connected“. Its features include file-sharing, chat and instant video, though it currently can’t support file sharing. Sqwiggle is optimized to use minimal bandwidth throughout the day with even the largest teams and unlike some of the alternatives puts a lot of emphasis on presence, for example it sends photo snapshots throughout the day to keep you connected to your team. There is a useful feature comparison sheet available from the Sqwiggle site.

Sqwiggle in action

Sqwiggle in action

Unlike Google Hangouts it costs (think Skype premium) but then for that cost you get user support. There are some nice testimonials on the site from Zapier, Go Fish Digital, Terracoding, Hippo Education, Gamevy and others.

The team have just released a music video showing you all the places you can sqwiggle from. You have to admit – it is a good verb!

Netbook vs. Tablet: It’s All about Fit

jamieSo which one do you prefer? Netbook or tablet? Or is it horses for courses? Here’s a guest blog post exploring the issues in more detail.

Jamie Lee lives in Charleston, South Carolina, in the US and works for Telogical Systems. He is a full-time tech consultant as well as a writer for eBay (where as Jamie puts it “you can find the world’s best selection of new and used tablets, netbooks and other travel friendly computing devices“). You can catch Jamie on Google+.


I am a laptop kind of guy. Always have been, and, well, I will be for the foreseeable future. I use my laptop in the office and when working from home. I listen to music on it and it’s my go-to device for business and recreation.

Even though I feel like I have found the device that fits me and the work I do, it’s difficult not to acknowledge new technology in the marketplace that makes laptops look old and clunky — namely, netbooks and tablets. If you are in the market for a small computing device, you may find yourself looking at the options and scratching your head. I know … I have been there. Given that I have used both fairly extensively, I find that, like my laptop, it really boils down to personal fit.

Following is a breakdown of each, along with their pros and cons.

laptopNetbooks: Netbooks are really just smaller, more portable versions of laptops, complete with keyboards and screens. Current models tend to range from 10-inch screens at the smallest to 15.6-inch screens for the largest. Not only are most of them smaller than your average laptop, but they are less expensive. Lower-end models, like models of Acer’s Chromebook series, can be purchased for less than $200, and higher end models can cost up to $1,000. You can buy a popular mid-range device, like the Lenovo ThinkPad or the HP Pavilion TouchSmart, for less than $500.

  • Netbook PROS :
    Much like laptops, netbooks provide a combined screen and keyboard setup, enhanced usability of word processing applications like Word and Excel, and they are intended for more basic tasks – like checking e-mail, browsing the Internet, light entertainment and light productivity – albeit in a smaller package. Given the increase in popularity of tablets with touchscreens, some netbook manufacturers are making devices with similar screens that eliminate the need for a keyboard or mouse. Like tablets, extended battery life for these devices is a plus. If you conduct virtual meetings regularly or use programs like Skype for phone calls, netbooks often provide webcams.
  • Netbook CONS :
    While netbooks are great if you are looking for a mini version of your laptop, including similar functionality and operating systems, size can be a detriment. Smaller devices have tiny keyboards that can be difficult to use. Keep in mind that these aren’t intended to be high performance machines and generally have less RAM (Random Access Memory) and HDD (Hard Drive) space than their laptop counterparts. These performance constraints aren’t a big deal for users who don’t expect a lot from their netbook, but power users and gamers may quickly find that a netbook doesn’t meet their needs.

If you are looking for a device somewhere between a laptop and a tablet, consider a netbook. You will have limited functionality, but a similar look and feel on a smaller scale and at a lower price. Keep in mind the limitations when it comes to RAM, HDD, and graphics capabilities. If you are fine with these aspects, a netbook may just be the device for you.

$_57Tablets: The iPad started a tablet revolution, and these rectangular computing devices with touchscreens and apps galore are only increasing in popularity. Top tablet manufacturers often offer a “mini” version of their primary model, and screen sizes can range from 7-inches for Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and HDX to 10-inches for Google’s Nexus tablet. Tablets and netbooks are priced similarly, and you can spend anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to nearly $1,000, depending on the size, memory, connectivity, and other features.

  • Tablet PROS:
    Tablets tend to be smaller and lighter than netbooks, and manufacturers are focused on usability and versatility. From the touch screens and scrolling features to advancements like high density display that Apple introduced with its iPad 3, they are great for watching movies, reading books and entertaining kids. While netbooks rely on programs, much like a laptop, tablets allow you to use apps that are easy and cheap to install, and the selection is extensive and ever-growing. You will also find additional functionality in some tablet models, like the ability to take photos or HD videos.
  • Tablet CONS :
    The one area where tablets tend to fall short is productivity. Most don’t have a built-in keyboard, but rather a touchscreen. This can be remedied by purchasing additional equipment, but even then, I find it to be a subpar experience when using word processing software. Like netbooks, size can negatively impact your user experience if you purchase one that is too small.

Tablets are currently the “in” device, and it’s not surprising. They are easy to use and extremely versatile. That said, if you are looking for a device that supports your productivity, or even your creativity, you may be disappointed in a tablet. It is not necessarily that the tablet won’t allow you to do the work or access the programs, but rather you may find it more challenging to complete tasks efficiently on a tablet instead of a netbook (or laptop).
It is clear that a tablet is the best bet for many in the market for a small, lightweight computing device, but don’t make the decision to hastily. It is important to consider what you plan to use it for, as well as your workflow preferences. You may just find yourself sticking with that good old laptop.

Meet me at the Watercooler

I’ve recently had a guest blog post published on the Digital Epiphanies blog about how we at the Open Knowledge Foundation facilitate virtual informal discussion.

I’ve mentioned the Digital Epiphanies Project before when I was interviewed as part of their research. It’s an EPSRC- funded project that is attempting to enhance understanding of the “paradoxical and double-edged effects that new technologies and digital practices are having on work-life balance“.

I’d like to repost some of the thinking in behind my blog post here, for those who missed the original.

As those of you who read my blog will know the Open Knowledge Foundation is probably fairly unique in that it is a truly virtual organization. Our staff sit on 4 different continents and over countless timezones. We communicate primarily using online tools and face-to-face is rare for us.

To support our remote/virtual working we have a suite of tools that we utilize, some are for administrative purposes, such as Xero for expenses and Toggl for timekeeping, others are to help us with our work, such as Google drive for documents and Google hangout for meetings, and Trello for project management.

Watercooler moments

The area that always proves to be the most tricky to facilitate is discussion, especially informal discussion, or the ‘watercooler’ discussions as people like to call them. In the past the term ‘watercooler moment’ referred to a controversial event in a television programme that people would discuss at work the next day. These discussions took place next to the drinks dispenser or watercooler. Being able to discuss those exciting TV moments in a group has slowly disappeared as an activity due to changes in television watching (the rise of streaming services and playback TV), but the need to chat hasn’t. Every organisation continues to need a watercooler.

Prior to my joining the Open Knowledge Foundation they had tried out other IRC chat services. Most had faded by the time I started. People do use things like Twitter and Google Plus but these tend to support discussion with external people, not internal colleagues They’d been trying for some time to answer the question: how do you create a chat space internally?

The current service of choice is Grove.io. Grove is an IRC server that has rich functionality. It gives you archives of your chat history, search, user accounts, channel access management tools, GitHub integration. You can also chose to use the web client or a desktop app, and get notified when someone mentions you by name.


At the Open Knowledge Foundation we have quite a few ‘chat rooms’, some for work team chat, some for cross-team chat for example on community or tech, and we have a watercooler room. The watercooler room has the byline ‘100% social chat. No work stuff’. I’d have to say that this isn’t always the case primarily because the boundaries between work and pleasure are pretty blurred for many of us. This is partly because most of us work for an organisation that is fighting for a cause we passionately believe in: the opening up of knowledge. Politics, technology and the state of the world are fair game. However there are cat pictures, silly web links and lunch dates on there too! The quality of the conversation aside encouraging informal chat remains difficult – people are busy and prioritise work activities. Unfortunately, as many of us know, the bonds created by ‘just having a chat’ are those that build better working relationships.

After our last all-staff meet up the subject of social chat came up (again). Suggestions were made that we use a more feature rich platform for our non-work related communications (Diaspora or an inhouse tumblr were mentioned). There seemed to be a reluctance to change platform, but people were all up for social chatting.

So the question isn’t how do you create a chat space internally? It is how do you get people to use a chat space and share a side of themselves that isn’t work facing? Or how do you get people to take their eye off work even for a minute in a virtual organization?

OK, so here are a couple of things that bright sparks at the Open Knowledge Foundation have been doing. One of our team is a DJ on the side and he shares Spotify playlists with us most Fridays. These playlists are great and get us talking. We even ended up with a staff-playlist at our face-to-face event.

Someone else has started a form of virtual Chinese whispers called ‘Eat poop, you cat’ (don’t ask!), which requires people to draw a picture for a sentence. The sentence gets passes along a virtual queue of people and there is lots of silliness involved. We are almost ready to complete our first game, the results hold be interesting and hopefully funny!

We also had a virtual Christmas party in Google hangouts with virtual party hats and real Christmas carols.

These activities can result in more chat on Grove.io and actually give us a much needed break from work.

So what activities and services are you using to make sure that the watercooler remains an important destination?

Children and Technology

Happy New Year to you all!!

I hope you had a great Christmas holiday. We had a lovely time, though it did seem to be very tech laden 2 weeks despite my best efforts to get us all away from computers and gadgets.

My children are really starting to get in to technology now. My youngest son (age 6) got Minecraft for Christmas and so we spent a lot of time trying to work out what was going on!? My husband received 2 Raspberry Pis (bad present co-ordination!) – maybe these offered too much of a busman’s holiday for him because he spent the entire week hiding from the PC and doing Sudoko puzzles…

…it is possible to enjoy yourself without technology over Christmas

…it is possible to enjoy yourself over Christmas without technology.

Anyway, a post Christmas lunch discussion with the in-laws got me thinking about how I really feel about the relationship between my children and technology. So apologies that this post doesn’t directly relate to remote working but I hope some of you find it useful and/or interesting.

My children don’t have a huge amount of technical kit of their own, they share a Wii and the two girls (aged 9 and 11) have an iPod touch each. They all have access to a PC, though we monitor use. They also see laptops, iPads and Macs in action (i.e. they can have a go but don’t own them).

My two girls tend to use their iPods to play games, make movies and listen to music. It is purely a leisure tool, and while they are a lot more computer savvy than my parents they aren’t doing anything ground breaking with their kit. I’d like my children to be rounded individuals who are lucky enough to experience lots of different aspects of life. Although they aren’t very outdoorsy they are pretty in to sport (dance, swimming, tae-kwondo), reading, art, playing, and music. However technology is an important part of life these days so there is no point in running away from it. Both my husband and I work in a tech world and I’d like my children to have good technical skills – these will help them whatever career they choose.

So basically I’d like to my children to use the time they spend on technical devices in a more productive way. Time to move on from Angry birds and in to a good understanding of how technology and computer programming works.

Scratch Cat

Scratch Cat

Last year my oldest started looking at Scratch. Created by MIT it allows children (or adults) to create interactive stories, games, and animations and share them. It does this through teaching the basics of object orientated programming – so children start to learn the concepts behind software. It’s a great tool.

Over Christmas I also stumbled upon Learn an hour of code: “a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science education by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color“. Over a week in December last year they tried to encourage everyone in the US, from children to OAPs, to spend an hour coding. The site offers some amazing resources including links to a whole set of hour-long tutorials. My children loved the games on Tynker.com. There are also great tutorials available using Light-bot and API Inventor.

I thought it might be useful if I listed some of the other tools we’ve tried out recently or have on our to-do list. I’d also like to mention some great initiatives that have sprung up looking at getting children into programming and beyond.

Kids programming tools

I discovered quite a lot a few of these tools while at the Mozilla Festival last year, here’s a post I wrote about education at MozFest.

  • Scratch: As mentioned before, a great starter tool with some really good tutorials.
  • Chrunchzilla: Has tools for younger kids and teenagers, helps by offering interactive tutorials where kids and adults can play with code, experiment, build, and learn.
  • Robotmind: By programming a robot, students learn about logic, computer science and robotics.
  • Minecraft.edu: Site looking at how Minecraft can be used in schools.
  • Mozilla tools including Thimble (helps you write html), Xray Goggles (grab tool that allows you to hide elements of a web page) and Popcorn Maker (allows editing of video). Hackosaurus has lots of ideas on how to use the tools.
  • Isla: a programming language for children, by Marie Rose Cook, beginner-friendly.
  • Squeakland eToys: An educational tool for teaching children powerful ideas in compelling ways.
  • Waterbear: Based on Scratch but for a variety of different programming languages.
  • Ruby for kids: As it says – a way for kids to learn Ruby!
  • Microsoft Small basic: Some of the examples are a bit complex but there is a nice curriculum to follow if needed


From Chrunchzilla

I can also recommend Computer Science unplugged that has a heap of free printable activities that teach computing concepts. We had a go at the binary puzzles over the holiday.

Wikipedia has a list of programming languages simple enough to be used by children – I haven’t tried any of these yet…

Kids programming initiatives

Here are some other code for kids initiatives (quite a few of these ideas came from a discussion that took place on the OKFN discuss list related to gender bias in technology and open data for kids):

  • Make Things Do Stuff: The Mozilla campaign and website aimed at mobilising the next generation of digital makers through kid-friendly events and actions.
  • TechEU: A site that looks at all the learn-to-code initiatives and other noteworthy computer programming education projects across Europe.
  • Code Club: A nationwide (UK) network of free volunteer-led after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11 – unfortunately none near me :-(
  • Prewired: Recently launched club for kids in Edinburgh, inspired by the Young Rewired State Festival of Code.
  • Logo: Foundation to encourage children’s computer skills, US based.
  • Young Rewired State: An independent global network of kids aged 18 and under who have taught themselves to program computers, not really for beginners.
  • Jugend Hackt: Aspin-off of Young Rewired State, organized by OKF Germany – in German.
  • Hackidemia: A global network that designs workshops and kits enabling kids to use curiosity, play, and empathy to solve global challenges. It tends to be more hardware and is beginner-friendly.
  • Hive Learning Network: A New York based learning lab that engages youth around innovation, digital media and web-making – lots of projects and resources.
  • CoderDojo: The open source, volunteer led, global movement of free coding clubs for young people. Utilises dojos as a location.
  • Dwengo: Spin-off of a student group, focuses on promoting learning (adults and children) about microcontrollers / robots.
  • Forum voor Informaticawetenschappen a platform in Flanders started by (mostly) teachers wanting to improve the level of IT-education at school – in Flemish.

So have you got any ideas you could add?

Small-scale Cyber Security

There’s been a lot in the press recently about matters of ‘national security': think PRISM, Edward Snowden and release of release of NSA material. In fact I saw a great session on ‘Open Data Lessons from the US Shutdown’ at MozFest which covered the culture shift in the intelligence community from targeted surveillance to dragnet programs. All very interesting matters for debate, but here we are talking security on a slightly smaller scale.

elvisElvis Donnelly has written a guest post on what small businesses and people working from home need to know about their own cyber security. Elvis is a father of two who works from home and lives with his wife. He is a voracious reader and likes to keep abreast of current affairs on personal finance, technology and innovation, and takes a keen interest in environmental issues. In his spare time, he loves taking on home improvement projects and considers himself a closet chef.

When the website of Novice to Advanced Marketing Systems (NAMS) was hacked, the small business had to shut down for six weeks and lose $75,000 in the process and recovery was not easy. NAMS owner David Perdew felt this attack was a “personal violation”. But there is nothing personal when hackers target small businesses. Why? Many small businesses have an online presence that runs on limited IT resources and are often the target of phishing attacks by scamsters, especially those looking to steal financial information of customers. Not just that, stealing passwords, theft of funds or intellectual property and paying up huge fines for not protecting customer information are some of the ways in which your business can be at risk, according to Forbes. Safeguarding your website against cyber-attacks should be the number one priority of a small business owner.

In a 2012 National Small Business Cyber security Study, jointly carried out by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and Symantec, even though 73 per cent of small businesses reported that the internet is absolutely vital to their business’ growth, 88 per cent of small business have no official internet security plan in place. Symantec also reported that a huge chunk of cyber-attacks are directed at small businesses. As a small business owner, you know much capital has been invested in your business. It’s important you also know that it can all vanish in a matter of seconds. Beware, cyber-attacks are increasing!

by Lulu Höller, Flickr

by Lulu Höller, Flickr

A Quick Guide to Staying Cyber Safe

Cyber-attacks do not come with a warning, as seen in the case of NAMS. Why compromise the security of your business with a shaky security plan? Here are a few pointers on what a small business owner can do to improve cyber security.

Train your employees

All employees, irrespective of their designation, should be trained to maintain a secure online system. Infecting a computer with a USB stick or downloading files with malicious content are some of the ways in which security can be breached. Employees must be trained to quickly identify content that can harm a computer as well as given a hacker’s dictionary to understand hacking ploys like phishing, social engineering or know what a Trojan horse is. The National Cyber Security Alliance has some training resources for small business owners wanting to educate employees in cyber security.

Secure your computer systems

Monitor all online activity and make sure malicious content is blocked before it enters the system. Incorporate appropriate firewall settings that will help prevent third party users from accessing your data. Password-protect all computers, online accounts and databases- never leave a computer unattended. Take back-ups of all data. Securing your systems and assets help in lowering your risk of an attack. Limit the access of sensitive information to employees. If your company has a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, make sure you follow steps to ensure these devices do not make your systems vulnerable to an attack.

Get insured for data breach

Insuring your business can go a long way in reducing the risks associated with your business. While many small business owners purchase liability coverage for property, few opt for coverage related to data breach. With cyber-attacks increasing by the hour, insuring your business’ data is absolutely essential, especially if online financial transaction form a bulk of money transfers. Check with your insurer how you can incorporate coverage for data breach in your business insurance policy.

While an insurance plan is a strong safety net that can help a small business reduce the losses that accompany a data breach, it’s best to avoid such incidents by putting in place security systems to prevent such an attack. A report by The Hartford suggests that businesses should develop computer security tools to secure their systems from hackers, especially in the current mobile-oriented business platforms. In David Perdew’s words: “No computer is foolproof“, but understanding how you can be cyber safe can help lessen the risk of an attack to a huge extent. Make sure you are secure today!

Editor’s note: I’ve written posts about approaches to password protection (I now use Lastpass) and have advocated in the past for personal data management. I’d also like to hear from people who have had experiences of losing data in the cloud – I read this post recently on how someone had their entire account deleted by Box.com!