The Challenge of Collaborative Editing in Government



March 30, 2011

I've actively encouraged NGOs to use Google Docs for real-time collaborative editing. They have a really great suite of tools which really should make emailing Word Documents between editors a thing of the past.  There have been a limited number of tools that allowed for this type of process, however we've been experimenting with a great open source tool called Etherpad which will make this process much more common, especially within government agencies. 

We've been using this interface at iEtherpad now and have been quite impressed by it's ease of use.  It's simpler than Google Docs, but has a few features that make it easier to use & collaborate with others. Etherpad allows you to create simple public scratch pads on the fly or set up private workspaces for your team (and all for free). 

Because this is open source, we've investigated implementing this within our server environment and even within Drupal. The Drupal module for Etherpad integration.  We've forked this to start working on a Drupal 7 version of this Etherpad module.

All of this requires some upgrades to the server to run the core Etherpad code. Fortunately there is good support for Etherpad in Debian.  We have only begun working with this code, but see that there is so much potential for the communities we work with.  


Many government agency aren't able to use Google's tools, however, if agencies were to set up an internal Etherpad it would be possible to provide a single, central application for collaborative development within a secured network.  It would be great to see an set up to provide a single interactive work space for government departments.  If this is set up through Drupal it would be possible to set up private groups & workspaces for different teams & initiatives.  It can take a lot of political will to organize a central tool like this, but it's great to know that the technical challenges are getting easier. In the mean time teams that need this type of tool may have the tech resources inhouse to set this up.  

I haven't done an accessibility review of Etherpad and do think that there is room for enhancement here.  Fortunately, it is a space where government could make enhancements to the project.  

I got word after posting this that there is an internal Etherpad pilot server accessible from all departments on the internal Government of Canada network which was available at - although it isn't a supported service yet, government staff should be encouraged to try it. Hopefully it will receive the official support that is required to have it be a full "production" service which is available to all government staff.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.