Disclaimer: AARNET were kind enough to provide a free Zoom account for the Govhack organisers to use this year – which is I think is worth about $10 per month. Apparently the free version works just as well but has a 40 minute time limit. This is a brief write up of my experience using it.
One of the jobs I have for Govhack is to wrangle the technology that we use to coordinate the communication between the various organisers – mainly the video conferencing tools.
In the past we have made a lot of use of Google Hangouts to do this. We liked the way it integrated with Google Calendar, it was mostly easy to use and it is free.
For about three months leading up to Govhack, we have a weekly meeting with some people meeting in at the Link Digital Office in Canberra, and the other people joining via video conference.
This year, we added another layer to the organisation with 11 sites running local Govhacks as part of the weekend of hacking. So each week after the national organiser meeting, we held a meeting for the organisers from each site.
We pretty quickly hit the 10 person limit on the free version of Google Hangouts – so it was opportune that I caught up with a contact at AARNET who suggested I look at Zoom – a new video conference system they were trialling, and finding to be quite good.
I ran a couple of small test calls with people and found the quality to be really good. There are a couple of key differences from Google Hangouts.
- up to 25 people in the meeting
- no need for an account (unless you are organising the meeting)
- uses a native client, not browser based
- option to dial in via phone
- no masks, funny effects or other extensions
- no option to broadcast (like hangouts on air)
We decided to give it a test with the national team, and pretty quickly determined that we’d replace Google Hangouts. The most striking improvement was with audio. Much clearer, and fewer problems with echo and echo cancellation. We also have a range of connection speeds between the people involved in these meetings. Zoom seemed to manage this a lot better – and the quality for people with good connections was excellent. Exceeding what we normally saw with Hangouts. For people with poor connections, the option to dial in via phone was really useful. If you can reliably access the audio of the meeting, you can still effectively participate in the meeting.
The AARNET instance of Zoom is running on hardware in their network – which might explain a good deal of the improvement. Improved latency and better contention rates. Its hard for me to say without going into a lot of testing that is not really my domain. I can say, that the experience was better all round.
Outside the quality of the calls – the experience of setting up meetings is also easy. There is a tradeoff in using Google Hangouts in the way it requires a Google Account for each person. Some people don’t have these, and if they aren’t tech savvy, it can be an obstacle that takes time to deal with.
When you create a Zoom meeting, either in the software client or website, it generates text that you can email to your meeting participants with simple instructions on how to join the meeting and a link to click. The text also includes the phone details to dial in. Pretty simple to use I think.
I created a weekly recurring meeting and shared the details with my team. All they had to do at the agreed time was click the link on their computer/device to trigger the client and then join the meeting.
As the meeting host, I have the option to mute participants and a few other controls. Its also possible to record the video of the meeting for later use (though we didn’t use this).
There are a few display options that you can choose during the meeting. There is a mode similar to Google Hangouts where the person speaking automatically fills the bulk of the screen. I preferred to use the gallery style view where all the people in the meeting are visible (as shown in the image above). This allows me to pick up on visual cues from everyone in the meeting – much as you might if you were in the same room.
I think there is still a place for other video chat / conference systems that I have used recently (Hangouts, Skype, Appear.in, Jabber) but is great to have another tool to choose. I think its going to be my first choice for organising groups and committees.