My vision for data portability utopia

I’ve been following the conversation around the “collaboration wars.” Tit for tat comparisons between Microsoft Word and Google Docs. What’s the point?

I find it ironic that users yell and scream that they want one massive application that does everything including the kitchen sink, then scream “bloat! bloat!” when companies try and deliver exactly that.

We have choices, people. That’s good. Let’s celebrate the smaller, more streamlined applications that do a fantastic job at a few core tasks. It’s not about the application’s features, it’s about how they handle data. They must spend as much time worrying about how a user is going to bring existing data in and out as they do worrying about how the user will create and manage new information.

I’m tired of reading about how the data portability movement is all about social network profiles. It’s much more than that (I hope). You’ll sell me based on what you do with the data I feed in, and how easily you let me take that data out again…not on how tightly you hold on to me once I’m a customer. My “data” is not just the photos I upload or my friends’ birthdays and email addresses.

Case in point: We have our Call-on Congress event coming up in a couple of weeks, where we’re bringing in 40 advocates from all over the country for an advocacy training day and visits to Capitol Hill. We are prepping materials for folders for the advocates, as well as what they’ll bring with them to their Congressional meetings. I’m up here in New Jersey, the rest of the staff is in Virginia. The VA-based folks are writing the copy, it’s my job to do the formatting/layout, making sure all the documents look consistent.

Here’s what we’re doing to make sure all the documents are accurate and ready to go:

  • Each document starts as a Google Doc in our Google Apps, collaborated between folks within C3 to make sure the wording is right.
  • Once it is approved and ready for formatting, I get a task assigned to me in Salesforce letting me know. Even though other tools we use have task management features, Salesforce is our trusted system for assigning tasks between us so we stick with it.
  • If I haven’t already been collaborating on the document, the final version is shared with me in Google Docs.
  • I export the file to Word and if it’s just simple text, I leave it in Word to add logos, formatting, headers/footers, etc. Otherwise, I bring the text into InDesign for more complicated layouts.
  • I export the file to PDF. If I feel the team needs to review the layout (since the copy is already final), I’ll make the PDF editable/reviewable in Adobe Reader and post to our shared WebDAV server we only use for Acrobat comment layers. Otherwise, I just create a simple PDF and leave it at that.
  • We use Basecamp for project-related messaging and files. So I’ll post the final PDF there, either with a message letting folks know I think they need to review/comment on the PDF or I’ll post directly to the files area in a “Ready for binders” category I set up.
  • I mark the task complete in Salesforce, which lets folks see which documents still need my attention.
  • When the binders are ready for assembly, folks just have to view the “ready” file category in Basecamp and pull down the final documents for reproduction. Since the files are all PDF now, I don’t have to worry about font issues or the layout shifting around when it’s opened by someone else using the Word 2003 or 2007.

No files are emailed. No single tool would work as well as when we use them all in a clear, organized fashion. To me, it’s like trying to build a house with a swiss army knife. Even though you can use the end of a saw to bang something in, you’ll do a better job if you reach for a hammer.

Basecamp is handy for project milestones, messages and files, but the lack of WYSISYG in the Writeboards makes that part of the suite unusable for us. Google Docs is phenomenal for collaboration, but painful for formatting compared to desktop software.

Developers either have to spread their resources thin (and therefore charge more) trying to add features that duplicate what the competition does, or they can (and should) say, “hey, this is what we do really well…stick with us for that, and go use the other guys for what they do really well, and we’ll all concentrate on ways we can make it easy for you to move back and forth so you’ll be happy with both of us.”

That is why I’ve been so jazzed about the Convio/Salesforce connector. It’s not about the tool. It’s about the conversations I’ve had with both companies, and that is exactly the attitude they are both taking.


2 responses to “My vision for data portability utopia”

  1. We don’t use GoogleDocs, as our clients are not ready for them. We still make word documents. When we need to work on a documant with a client we attach it to a task in Wrike []. It’s our project management tool, that we use instead of Basecamp. This way we don’t need to work this dozens of different copies of one document. Wrike’s very convenient for this.

  2. Hi Judi,

    I’m a co-founder of and wanted to say thanks for your post. I completely agree that DataPortability is about much more than social networking profiles.

    If you look at Microsoft’s point of view (they are a member of, you can see that their viewpoint is similar to yours. Here are some relevant links:

    What you point out above are some key use cases for what we might want to call “portable collaboration” since “interoperability” may not be specific enough. This is a problem many of us have faced, especially if you co-workers and partners don’t work right next to you. I’m sure both Microsoft, Google and others are well aware of this and are investing resources into improving the situation.

    Your article helps add context to their work.