Friday, 18 January 2008

Introducing Interwise: 'Hello, can you hear me now?'

I am part of the steering group of the Capacity Development Initiative of ACT (a worldwide alliance of emergency aid agencies, which is composed of 10 people in 10 countries - ranging from India to Congo to Haiti. Last December the coordinating office of ACT in Geneva organised a teleconference. It was great - as was the Swisscom bill, which was 2000 euro for 2 hours of interaction. We need to have such a conference at least 4 times a year, so you will imagine that with our limited budget there won't be other traditional teleconferences.

Last Monday the steering group finally met for the first time in Geneva. ACT, becoming a bit nervous about future phone bills, approached ICCO to find out about our experience with alternatives for teleconferencing. Maarten Boers offered to help out with Interwise, of which ICCO has purchased a licence last year. We ended up doing a live conference of the steering group with Maarten sitting in Utrecht.

Interwise is based on a small piece of free software that every user needs to download. Only the conference organiser needs to buy a licence in order to book a virtual conference room, where up to 50 users anywhere in the world can log in for the conference. Of course it carries speech (as any telephone), but you can also use webcams, share powerpoints, send chat messages to all or some of the participants, and so on.

So, how was it received? A mixture of disbelief, and of eager acceptance. The first attempt to connect with Maarten failed which lead to statements like: 'just what I expected'. But when we discovered the right button for the volume control, everybody got excited: 'Hey! is that guy on the screen Maarten?' 'Are you sure this is at no cost?' 'Why doesn't everybody to this?'. Carlos from El Salvador and Arshinta from Indonesia had wireless access on their laptops in the room, and it took them less than 4 minutes to download the software, register their name, type in the unique conference URL, and enter the conference.

The challenge now is to ensure the others prepare their computers for our next Interwise try, mid-February. Any suggestions how we can do that are welcome!

Herman Brouwer