Google Calendar and iCal, sync calendars, team calendars

Way back in 2001 I was introduced to TeamSoft’s ‘Team Agenda’ which was the calendering application of choice for the large team of 50+ people I was working with. It was lovely – I ran my own calendar, could check other people’s availability, ind free slots for groups to meet, know where resources were, who was using which room, and so on. And then along came Mac OSX and iCal.

With a far sexier interface, iCal promised to be the next best thing since… well, since Team Agenda. But it wasn’t. Not even close, unfortunately. At the same time, mobile phones were becoming the de facto standard too, and we needed a calendering application that did it all – team collaboration, phone integration and looked sexy. And by then, it also needed to integrate with iCal!

It seemed a little bit too much to get it all, and we tried several possible alternatives. The rather excellent Oracle Collaboration Suite (pretty sophisticated, way too complex for simple stuff) and even PHP iCal (which worked well, to a point).

Just recently I have been trying Google calendars and synchronising them both ways with iCal. That is, I can enter a date in Google online and it appears in my iCal, and I can enter a date in iCal and it appears in Google online. Doing this is actually very simple indeed!

You first need t export your ical calendar from iCal (use File/Export…) and you will get a .ics file in the location you choose. All you then do is import that into Google calendars and you’ll get a copy into Google. But the story doesn’t end there. So ar, all you have done is make an online copy, but the two are not yet linked.

You next need to download a small application called ‘Calaboration’ which you’ll find here – find the download link on the right of the page. What this does is link your mac to Google and let you know which calendars are available for synchronising. Simply quit iCal itself, and check the calendar in your google account that you’d like to link with. Re-starting iCal then takes a little longer as the information is passed back, but when done, your online Google calendar will appear in your iCal desktop client.

The downside is that your original calendar is also there – you now have two versions. Just delete the original.

What this is doing is using the Google calendar engine as the synchronising tool – you can add events in your desktop and they will appear online, and of course you can go the other way too. This is particularly useful if you need to share your calendar with other people. Simply go to the online calendar, go to the settings and set the sharing for it as you want. Other people using Macs can then use Callaboration to do what you have done, but they will also see your calendar in the list of those available.

The biggest issue so far is not the method of sharing or the permissions, but the way different people like to work. For example, I prefer to split all of my work based activities into different calendars and use different colours to visually differentiate them so that at a glance I can see which work events are coming up. In iCal, without sharing anything, I simply set up a calendar group, call it ‘Work’ (or something equally unimaginative) and set up my calendars within that. Other people, however, may only use a single calendar to put all of their activities into. The problem is that I actually run about 8 different calendars in my calendar group, but Google calendars doesn’t handle groups at all. Instead, I need to now have 8 separate calendars in Google, but worse… so do all my work colleagues if they want to see what I am doing!

What I am waiting for is a neat way to group my calendars for others to import as a single ical file. That is possible if I manually export my calendar group each time, but that’s no good when in a busy workplace the calendars are changing all the time. Right now, colleagues can add events to my diary, I can add to theirs, we all see what is necessary to keep the company up to date, but we have to compromise on the user interface slightly.

It’s a shame Google can’t yet handle groups. The sooner they do, the better life will become! At Cleveratom we have already been using Google mail, calendars, and other apps for some time. The collaboration tools will make such a difference to small team working, they just need to come along soon!

National Express Versus Virgin Trains

Today I was treated to a journey to Leeds on a National Express train. The thing is, I booked the tickets through the Virgin web site, and half expected to travel on a Virgin train. It turns out that Virgin don’t ‘fly’ out of Kings Cross, and so it was that I ended up on what I now consider to be the wrong train entirely.

A Virgin train ride (in First Class) includes access to the lounge area at the stations (unless it is Euston, which at the time of writing is undergoing refurbishment), all food, all drink (including alcohol) and a pendolino train with free wifi (no need to register). More subtle benefits of Virgin include more pleasant announcements and less of them, too, but more informative, somehow.

Compare and contrast that with National Express…

No lounge access unless you pay full fare (so no advance single ticket holders allowed), no food included, trains that lean unexpectedly as if on an adverse camber, wifi that is slow as slow can be (and frequently drops out), and needs you to divulge too much personal info for my liking. On top of that the announcements are at many decibels more than they need to be, and repeated at least three times at every station. Something about needing to have a ticket and if it’s the wrong ticket having to pay full fare to get the right ticket… ad infinitum.

Given that advanced tickets on Virgin cost the same, and you get so much more, and working on the assumption that VIrgin trains also make a profit (which they may not, of course), how can National Express justify their level of service?

Now don’t get me wrong – the staff on NX (!) are pleasant and polite… but so are they on Virgin. And it may be that I’ve been particularly unfortunate in that each NX journey (East Coast) I’ve taken has been spectacularly similar. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that NX are overpriced, underserviced and not particularly the best experience of rail travel.

BBC Blast 2009, learning off the back of a lorry

The concept for the main truck
The concept for the main truck

One of the most delightful projects I’ve been involved in recently has been the redesign and recommissioning of the BBC Blast touring vehicles. In October 2008 Cleveratom were asked to put together a proposal and we were frtunate enough to be asked to undertake the work. This has been a huge undertaking, but ultimately incredibly rewarding. Starting off by reviewing the Blast trucks both from our experiences of them as facilitators in 2006, and by visiting them in Salford we were able to detail the various shortcomings and strengths, and work on how to improve the experience for young people.

Much of what I have been involved in has been the physical layout of the main truck, amending the spaces and changing the orientation and mechanics of what is possible. One of the more subtle changes was a realignment of the internal partitions to provide more versatile spaces. What we had noticed before was that the main workshop room was used as a throughfare and the constant interruptions were a real disadvantage. Additionally, the small circular tables being fixed in four locations really restricted the way the room could be used. By moving the main partition wall across the truck to reduce the workshop space, we removed the ‘corridor’ that was actually dead space. By rotating the space ninety degrees we re-orientated it so that the door in to the room became part of the back of the space instead of being at the front left. However, we also wanted to change the flow of people through that truck and introduced a small ‘porch’ which had access directly into the edit suite from the outside instead of having to go into the main workshop. This immediately calmed the flow of bodies in and out of the main area. We then moved the studio wall to enlarge the third space and this has had a massive impact.

The edit suite originally had the main server cabinet in it which considerably restricted what could be done in the room. By moving that out into the main workshop area, and positioning it as part of a large ‘storage wall’ concept we created a physical and virtual store in one place. This freed up the edit suite and has introduced incredible amounts of room in what was once a fairly claustrophobic facility. There is now a door through from the edit room into the studio, too. Previously, to get from one to the other you would have had to go through the main workshop. Now, that space is protected and can be a much calmer area.

Storage was a major consideration and much of the time in redesigning has been spent on creating storage where there was none before. The storage wall has been developed and will hold every last wire, connector, tripod and camera that is needed on the truck. In the studio space a new set of cupboards have been created and these are superior in every way to the previous ones.

Lastly, the main truck operates in two modes now – with three spaces as described, or with just two. The studio wall can be folded back to add to the main workshop space if necessary.

There are two other vehicles joining the tour this year. The first is a ‘Discovery’ space where visitors can drop in and sample some of the activities they

The Discovery vehicle concept drawing
The Discovery vehicle concept drawing

will be able to undertake in the mainĀ  workshops. This vehicle also houses the tour office but must fold up into a major storage unit for hauling the kit to each location. This has been one of the biggest challenges – to provide an exciting and dynamic space for the young people and visitors, but to give as much storage for the tour paraphanalia as possible. I think we reached a suitable solution!

The third vehicle is an outreach van, which will visit schools and communities ahead of the main tour. It is a much smaller unit but has the capability to deliver as many workshops albeit for fewer numbers of people. The idea is for it to stir up the interest ahead of the main visit, and I think this will be a very busy bus indeed!

There are literally hundreds of other changes this year, far too many to list here for you. The flight cases that are now the main welcome desk (a great idea by Tony Kavanagh) and the new tables and chairs provided by MJF, the mood lighting, the rear projection windows… the technical infrastructure we have specified that should provide ample opportunity for creativity and much, much more!

The 'Advance' vehicle - a smaller truck for outreach work
The 'Advance' vehicle - a smaller truck for outreach work

You can get a feel for the space in these images, taken recently just as the last fit was being completed in White City:

I hope that as the tour progresses many people will be able to enjoy and experience the BBC Blast programme. It’s a winner!