12 January 2006

Long Distance Collaboration

For those who have engaged in such an affair, I'm curious how you make it work well. I've been working with John Langford recently, drawing out and exploiting connections between structured prediction and reinforcement learning. I'm visiting family in Chicago now and will be going to TTI tomorrow to visit. Up until this visit, we've talked mostly over email, less over phone and even less in person (some at ICML and NIPS 2005). But the rate of information transfer in such collaboration is significantly less than if John had an office down the hall from me. How do people make this work?

  1. Site visits. This is/was the defacto standard in business for ages, before the internet came. People also tended to collaborate less and in business there is perhaps less of a push for collaboration rather than subcontracting. While undoubtedly the best method for interacting, there is significant overhead in terms of cost, travel time, etc., especially in different continents.
  2. Telephone. Another good business standard; unfortunately, I'm really a white-board kind of guy, and it's really hard to draw on someone else's white board. Talking about math and referencing papers is also difficult over the phone. Large time differences can also be a nuisance (I recall talking to Yee Whye at about midnight my time because of the time difference to Singapore).
  3. E-mail. This seems to be what is used most: it is cheap and doesn't suffer from the time difference, though replies are delayed. It enables you to think more about a topic before replying, but cuts down on often-constructive back-and-forth discussion (since that would take too long). The medium is also limited: typing math into email is ugly for anything complex, and you still can't draw on someone else's white board. Twice in my life I've attached .eps figures, but this is highly ineffective.
So, what do other people do? Is there any hope? It seems that email could theoretically be retrofitted to fix a lot of the problems I have with it (multiple media, drawing, math, etc.), but does such technology exist currently?

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