Vyew: a long-distance collaboration tool

A couple of weeks ago, Secret Blogging Seminar asked about tools for facilitating collaboration between mathematicians separated by wide distances. I’ve been working for quite some time on a project with Akshay Venkatesh (in New York, now moving to California) and Craig Westerland (sometimes in Madison, but sometimes in Denmark, and now moving to Australia) so I have a little experience with this. And I really want to put in a strong word for Vyew.

The one thing that’s essential to a good math conversation is a blackboard on which all involved can write; and that simple thing is what Vyew provides. Each participant in a Vyew meeting has a page on their screen on which all parties can type or draw pictures with the trackpad; when you’re finished working for the day, Vyew saves all the pages you’ve drawn, and you can pick up later exactly where you left off. There’s nothing particularly fancy about Vyew, but it’s fast, it’s free, it’s easy to use, and it works. Akshay, Craig and I usually use Skype to transmit our voices while we draw on the Vyew board; I believe you can transmit voices within Vyew as well.

Vyew is, of course, a tool for having long-distance conversations about math, not for producing actual papers. When it comes to writing, I’m still locked in the Neolithic practice of e-mailing drafts back and forth, always keeping track of which author has “custody” of the most up-to-date file. Is it time for me to start learning about version control?

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4 thoughts on “Vyew: a long-distance collaboration tool

  1. It’s always time to learn about version control!

    Hmm, on a more serious note: maybe? Hard to say: I would guess merge conflicts would be a bit of a pain on collaborating on a paper, but I could be wrong. When two or three of you are working on a paper together and get the urge to work on it at the same time, how frequently are you working on the same parts, how frequently on the different parts?

    Don’t get me wrong, if I were cowriting a paper, sure I’d use version control. I’m just not sure whether or not it’s a reason to take the leap or not if you’re not already in the habit.

    Another question: do you ever want to find out about older versions of the paper, do you ever wonder how you phrased something a few weeks ago?

  2. Jordan: do you use Vyew with a tablet of some sort, or to you just write with a mouse?

    David commented: “I would guess merge conflicts would be a bit of a pain on collaborating on a paper, but I could be wrong.”

    I’ve used version control extensively with coauthors, and conflicts (when two people edit the same part of the paper) are very rare, occurring perhaps once per paper, if that. Usually, we send each other a quick emails “Starting work on Section 8” or “Committed version 21” which helps avoid this sort of thing.

    The thing I like about version control for collaborative papers is that it lowers the overhead of doing just a little work on the paper. And if you intend to edit just one paragraph but end up getting sucked in and doing more than that, so much the better. Also, seeing a stream of new versions from my collaborators encourages me to work on it too…

    This probably isn’t an issue for you, but the other area I find version control to be really helpful is when you have many files involved, e.g. lots of figures.

  3. John Cowan says:

    The problem with using the usual kinds of version control for this purpose is that I don’t know of any free sites that allow people to casually set up shared repositories with appropriate access controls for use over the Internet, and hosting your own Subversion or git repository would be a pain.

    One idea that comes to mind (plug, plug) is using Google Docs; it’s free, it provides an edit history, you can specify your collaborators and viewers. Everyone involved has to have a Google account, but that’s trivial to set up at http://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount (if you use GMail, you already have one).

    Since you are presumably working in LaTeX, you wouldn’t want to use the word processing facilities; you’d just paste the raw LaTeX into a doc and then copy it back to the clipboard and save it locally when you want to actually format the paper. Hey presto, everyone has a consistent view all the time, anyone can make changes at any time, all is simplicity.

    If you decide to try this out, let me know if you run into problems.

  4. Sometimes, you can even get (most of) the benefits of version control in collaborations even
    without using it; it is enough that one at least of the authors makes use of it (e.g., our paper with Chris and Christian…)

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