Over the past decade, cloud computing has become a well-established trend in the digital world. Defined as a computing model that relies on pooling a large number of networked servers to store and manage data, it allows small organizations and individuals to access a vast amount of processing power at low cost.
March 19, 2020
By Isabelle L’Heureux, Digital cultural development officer, Conseil québécois des arts médiatiques (CQAM), Regroupement des arts interdisciplinaires du Québec (RAIQ), and Le Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ). From an article published in the “Réseau art actuel” portal, February 18, 2020.
Over the past decade, cloud computing has become a well-established trend in the digital world. Defined as a computing model that relies on pooling a large number of networked servers to store and manage data, it allows small organizations and individuals to access a vast amount of processing power at low cost. In concrete terms: rather than working with software installed on computers (where everything is stored locally), users have access to a variety of tools through web applications (i.e., communication happens via a network of servers over the internet).
Cloud computing offers a wide range of services. The most relevant for artist-run centres and other cultural organizations usually relate to information storage and sharing services as well as office automation tools. As many of us are considering a transition toward cloud computing (more specifically, toward services that integrate office, messaging, and document management, such as Gsuite and Office 365), it seems relevant to review what this technology entails. This chapter is a useful resource for understanding what cloud computing services are all about and how they might be useful to artist-run centres. It will also help guide organizations in their choice of service provider and provide step-by-step instructions on how to implement the service within their workforce.
Free software or proprietary services
An interesting and perhaps little-known fact is that non-profit organizations have access to various Google and Microsoft products for free or at reduced rates through Techsoup Canada, a program that promotes access to digital technologies for non-profit organizations (NPOs). Gsuite and Office 365 have been widely adopted by companies, institutions, and organizations of all sizes. As a result, they offer various advantages in terms of ease of installation and use, low or no operating costs, interoperability with other systems and services, regular upgrades by development teams, reliable customer service, and a large user community.
That said, these services are offered by very powerful companies whose values and business models are often at odds with our own. However, free software, in the form of cloud computing services or self-hosting platforms, offers alternatives to these tech giants. Although they require greater investment in terms of operating costs (e.g., management of server space) and the expertise necessary for their implementation, free software alternatives are likely to be more in line with the ethics and self-management values of artist-run centres. For alternative storage services, check out Sync (Canadian-based cloud computing service). And for office suites and other platforms, options include Nextcloud (German-based, self-hosting), Framasoft (France), and Wikisuite (Quebec-based, self-hosting cloud computing service).
The pros and cons of integrated cloud computing services
This partial list of pros and cons will help you decide if transitioning to an integrated cloud computing service is right for your artist-run centre.
- Extends a computer’s useful life;
- Promotes collaboration among staff members and between organizations;
- Gives staff members better access to an organization’s documents and includes the ability to restrict access to sensitive information;
- Solves issues related to versioning and tracking changes;
- Facilitates remote working;
- Allows automatic backups;
- Potentially saves time and money.
- Internet connection must be reliable;
- Energy-intensive technology;
- Proprietary systems (in the cases of Google and Microsoft);
- Data is hosted abroad (on Google’s or Microsoft’s servers);
- Lack of transparency regarding the use of data from organizations registered with “free” services (Gsuite offers greater privacy than Google accounts for individuals);
- Time-consuming data export.
This article, from Techsoup Canada, provides further information about the advantages and disadvantages listed here.
Resources for transition planning
The CQAM and the RCAAQ, with the help of the Hub numérique de l’Estrie 0/1, has developed two essential tools to help guide cultural service organizations in their decision-making and planning processes as they transition to Gsuite.
Access these free tools here:
- Comparative table of Google and Microsoft services
- Implementation schedule (download PDF and .xlsx)
Certain companies also provide their own help resources. Google has clear, relevant, and well-organized information here. Microsoft offers start-up information in their FAQ section on this page and offers support services once you’ve registered your organization.
The transition to Google or Microsoft services can be made within a couple of months. Regular commitment is required to accomplish each step, but these can be carried out over a longer or shorter period. Transition time should be based on the availability of competent staff within your organization, access to technical support during installation, and the steepness of the learning curve.
Most people have the necessary skills to carry out this type of transition. Also, it is well known that the artist-run centre community is full of professionals who are highly skilled in project management, research, analysis, problem solving, and learning new tools.
Relying on small workforces of staff and volunteers, cultural organizations can accomplish a great deal, often with few means and resources. It’s a good idea—crucial even—to take the time to thoroughly assess your organization’s current and projected work load for this type of transition, the anticipated learning curve it implies, your available resources and expertise (both internal and external), and any other needs. It may also be helpful to keep an eye out for relevant training opportunities within your milieu.
Keep in mind that installing most of these products requires no prior programming or IT experience (this is especially the case with Google and Microsoft products). It’s more a question of following instructions and navigating the overall user-friendly interfaces to create and configure the accounts you want to set up. Having a clear vision of your organization’s current document management processes would be very helpful (for instance, do you have a classification plan and a file-retention schedule?). Part of the secret to success in this venture is being confident in one’s abilities. And if you have any questions, use that search engine or ask a seasoned colleague for advice.
Self-management and future developments
To end this chapter on an inspiring note, let’s look at two recent initiatives by artist-run centres who wanted greater control over their information and the tools they use every day.
Last fall, Studio XX transitioned to free, collaborative platforms thanks to the concerted efforts of a special committee assembled for this task. The platforms they chose are Nextcloud (a self-hosted productivity platform) and Mattermost (an instant messaging app similar to Slack). Studio XX created the ideal conditions for this endeavour: a serious commitment from staff and board members, the help of relevant experts in the field, and the integration of these new processes into the centre’s ongoing programming (Slow Tech). In this case, the coherence between Studio XX’s work methods and their values is clear. We look forward to asking them about their experiences.
Another interesting case is Film Reel (Integrated Arts Management System), an integrated arts management system developed by the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta and specifically made for artist-run media arts centres. The system is designed to support, over several modules, membership management, inventory and rentals, project management processes, event and workshop scheduling, and compiling grant reports. This system will likely meet the needs of many artist-run centres and small cultural organizations. In fact, the people behind Film Reel have expressed interest in further developing this service (providing updates, developing new modules, and making the service available in French) and increasing their user pool in the near future.
We hope this chapter has provided useful information and resources for artist-run centres that are considering migrating some of their workflows to the cloud. Despite its ethereal name, this technology has become firmly rooted in our material and socio-political realities.
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