Virtual Water Cooler keeps LTER Information Managers in the loop

The LTER Information Managers have been showing up at the Virtual Water Cooler (VWC). The VWC sessions are informal meetings of the Information Management Committee (IMC) using video teleconferencing (VTC). The sessions encourage information sharing, discussion, and collaboration among participants. The main focus has been to improve communications while advancing IMC network-wide projects (i.e., working group meetings, specific project discussions, current issues, etc.). The session schedule and a library of notes from past sessions are available online at

In June 2007, the LTER Network Office (LNO) provided each site information manager with desktop VTC systems-a Logitech camera, Polycom PVX software, and a site license. These desktop systems work in conjunction with a Polycom bridge system, hosted by LNO, and allow all information managers to participate. The intent of these systems was to promote VTC technology for holding working group meetings across the network and to save on travel time and costs. In June 2008, the IMC decided to actively take advantage of this technology and the notion of a ...Virtual Water Cooler' was born.

Currently, VWC sessions are held monthly with special sessions added as needed. Session topics are centered on network and working group activities. The schedule has been set in advance with a list of potential future updates being continually updated based on current happenings or suggested topics. Topics are typically brainstormed in Information Manager Executive Committee (IMEXEC) meetings, but any information manager can suggest a topic. The frequency of the sessions has led to some informal VTC etiquette or "best practices" among participants, like the role of the moderator, introduction of participants, assignment of a note taker, hand signals to alert moderator of desire to talk, and muting while listening.

VWC sessions are held on two consecutive days at different time slots to enable maximum participation. Generally, half of the sites participate in each topical session (see figure 1). Participation has never reached maximum capacity but the IMC would benefit by increased attendance. Most sites are able to participate by VTC; however some sites have not been able to negotiate their firewall, but connect via telephone.

VTC Discussion Topic Site Participation
General discussion about using VTC technology; etiquette and best practices
Information Management Executive Committee (IMEXEC) Activities
Network Information Systems Advisory Committee (NISAC) Activities
Geographic Information System (GIS) Working Group Activities
LNO Activities
Controlled Vocabulary Working Group Activities
EcoTrends Update
LTER Cyber-Infrastructure Assessment and Needs Survey
Data Access Issues as reported by the LTER Coordinating Committee (CC)
Planning ASM Workshops for September 2009
ILTER update
Data Access Server (DAS) Update
Governance Working Group Activities
Controlled Vocabulary Working Group Update

Figure 1: List of Virtual Water Cooler sessions with total number of sites represented at each topical session. Note, some sites have multiple people that participate, but this chart lists only the number of sites that participated. Sites include the 26 LTER sites and the LNO.

In addition to using the VTC technology to increase communication between the information managers, the group has been using Doodle, a free online coordination tool, to sign up for sessions and Dimdim, a free web service that allows media communication in real time (e.g., sharing a PowerPoint presentation). The IMC uses Drupal, an open-source content management system, as their website platform to make it easy for members to add, edit, and share VTC information and notes.

The IMC has been bold in experimenting with various technologies to increase the effectiveness of communication across the sites. Overall, gatherings at the VWC have been successful in disseminating knowledge as demonstrated by the ability of the IMC to facilitate a more focused annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last September. The sessions enabled IMC members to come to the annual meeting better prepared as they were more aware of the status of these activities, thus less time was wasted on general updates. As the next annual meeting approaches, the IMC is again poised to run frequent VTC sessions as a means of preparation to assure an efficient and effective meeting.

See you around the water cooler!

Suzanne Remillard is H.J. Andrews' Information Manager