This is the Connections column originally prepared for the (missing) summer 1999 edition of the newsletter of the Family Practice/Primary Care Working Group of AMIA. It has been included with the 1999-2000 edition.
The story this summer is the eGroups project. After 3-4 years of experimenting with various collaboration environments, the combination of the eGroup and the FP/PCWG web site seems to work.
Our failed experiments included various bulletin board services (BBS); they all run into the classic notification/activity problem. Very few people will visit a BBS to check for messages, particularly when activity is low. In my experience BBS work when participants are very strongly motivated to use them, when they serve a huge audience (Internet newsgroups), or when they're part of a very strong community (pre-Web community-based bulletin boards).
On the other hand, we have had some success with our web site for sharing basic news and information, and for disseminating results of our annual meetings. It's a good place to store reference information. Even so, it is not used as well as it could be to communicate information to members. Even now, years into the Net era, most FP/PCWG executives and members are just starting to fit the web into their daily routine. We all have to be reminded that the FP/PCWG web site is a repository for work completed, and a place to describe work that is in progress.
So we failed with the bulletin boards and forums, and we had some success with the Web. We needed something that would "push" information out to willing subscribers, so they could react to it rather than have to seek it out. The alternatives were not great. "Push" web pages could work, but that technology was hindered by mismarketing and proprietary implementations. Forum notification services might do the trick, but these are not yet well developed and generally worked best with an integrated web/email client. Classic email lists work best, but they're very hard to maintain, costly, and generally require a server to handle archives.
Happily, entrepreneurs have filled the void. eGroups are advertising supported secure private email lists, with automated web archiving, security, membership controls, group calendars, file archives, and a database tool. The FP/PCWG administrative committee, and anyone else interested in working on group projects, are members of the fppcwg-admin eGroup. Anyone interested in joining this eGroup should visit our eGroup web page, and then email me a request to join at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a low volume and small membership group, it does not replace the AMIA fp/pcwg list to which all working group members belong. Similar eGroups can be easily set up to support major projects of the FP/PCWG. What we still lack is the ability to share calendars across multiple eGroups, and any Palm/WinCE calendar synching tools. This may come to the eGroups, or we might use a different collaborative calendaring solution.
The eGroups supplement, but don't replace, our public web pages. From the main FP/PCWG page there are links to the News & Events page (organized by time and committee), the Communication Committee and eGroups pages, newsletters, and the Projects page. The projects page includes links to to our past meetings and mini-symposia materials and products.
As we run up to AMIA 99 we'll be working with the eGroups and web pages to notify members of scheduled activities, and to coordinate projects. This will be an interesting test of whether the eGroups facility will work to support real-world collaborative efforts.