Using Google Docs drawing application to manage program selection for conference planning

Conference Planning with Google Docs

Planning is under way for the 2012 Canadian Association of Law Libraries annual meeting.  We’ll be meeting in Toronto in May and I’ve been working with some colleagues on the program planning.  Our planning has started to take on a decidedly Google flavor over time.

We started with a Google Sites wiki as a place to store ideas – a list of potential speakers, program ideas that started to bubble up, etc. – and that eventually grew to be a wiki for the entire conference planning committee.  When it came time to seek program submissions from the membership, we used a Google spreadsheet and form to gather that information.  The form was built using the wizard within Google Docs, so the form created the spreadsheet, rather than the other way around.

The online form was pretty nice.  It is limited in features – we couldn’t have active hyperlinks to past conferences or to our list of possible ideas, suggested by attendees at the prior conference – but was easy to use and fast.  We collected over 30 program ideas and, at the cut off date, were able to disable the form and switch over to the spreadsheet.

This is the weakest of the tools, as far as I’m concerned.  The spreadsheet cells sometimes held large chunks of text as the submitter added the description of what the program would cover.  Google Docs doesn’t allow you to scroll easily between cells, so if a cell extends off the page, you can’t see the bottom of it.  I thought about resizing the spreadsheet horizontally but in the end decided not to use the native spreadsheet.  Instead, I downloaded the data in Excel format, then created a Microsoft Word mail merge document that pulled in all of the information so that each program appeared on a separate page.  This was easier for me, and meant that there was something pretty easy to read when distributing it to the committee.

The selection process was a challenge, logistically.  Our committee is dispersed across Canada and I wanted to come up with a way to move through through the program selection efficiently but we would have to rely on phone and Web.  Personally, I struggled with how to visualize what my own preferences for programs would be, as the committee built consensus on final selections.  I ran across a post talking about the drawing application within Google Docs, and this turned out to be the solution for my problem.

Google Docs has a drawing function that I had never used, assuming it was a bit like a paint or image manipulation program.  The post I read talked about using it for mind mapping, though, and also discussed the collaborative aspects because it was within Docs.  I ended up popping open the drawing and creating a new one.

It was ideal.  I created a small rectangle for each program, coloring it as I went to flag whether I thought it applied to a particular law library environment (firm, government, etc.) or had other features that needed to be considered.  Then I dropped in rectangles for the program slots that needed to be filled.  With all of this in place, I selected all of the program rectangles and selected send to front so that they would sit on top of the program slot rectangles, all of which were black.

Using Google Docs drawing application to manage program selection for conference planning

Using Google Docs drawing application to manage program selection for conference planning

Now I could just slide the programs around and drop them in or out as I started to build out my personal grid.  In the end, this worked so well for me that I suggested it to the committee and we used it as a group.  Because you can share Google Docs with others, I shared this file and any of the committee members could move elements (program rectangles) around as well.  Even though we were spread around the country, we could do this in real-time over the Web.

Mostly.  A couple of our members had Microsoft Internet Explorer and some versions don’t support interactivity on Google Docs without installing the Google Chrome Frame application.  It is free but law libraries are often in business, firms, governments, and corporations that inhibit downloading of any additional software.  The other choice, installing Google Chrome, suffers from the same issue.  I installed it for IE8 on my machine and it fixed the problem, although I tend to use Chrome anyway.

The overall effort was successful, in that we were able to work through our list and complete our program grid in an hour.  Everyone was able to contribute verbally over the phone and we could share the visual over the Web.