A better way to capture team meetings

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With Google's Hangouts on Air, you can skip the live note-taking and share a richly annotated recording instead

I've seen a variety of methods for capturing the sense of a meeting. In order of decreasing likelihood (because increasing effort):

  • Annotated recording: The deluxe solution, a retrospective scribe annotates audio or video of the meeting.
  • Recording: An audio or video recording is made available for playback.
  • Retrospective scribe: A designated scribe refines notes taken during the meeting.
  • Live scribe: A designated scribe takes notes during the meeting.
  • None: People leave and go back to work.

Team meetings typically sink to the bottom of this list. It's impractical to do more than scribble some notes and send an email. Or is it?

This week I implemented the deluxe solution for a routine team meeting. We're a distributed team, and Google Hangouts are the usual way we get together. The mix of videoconferencing, screen sharing, and integrated calendaring makes it a wonderfully effective solution. But there's no built-in mechanism to capture and share the recording.

A related technology, Hangouts on Air, streams live and records to YouTube. Although I've used it a few times, when I've been invited to public on-air presentations, I never thought of it as appropriate for something as small and intimate as a team meeting. But Hypothesis, the Web annotation startup I joined recently, does business in a very public way. Our product is open source, our IRC channel is public, and our development and design forums are public. When it came time for a design meeting I thought: Why not use Hangouts on Air?

Streaming live to a public YouTube URL was more exposure than we needed or wanted, but you can target an unlisted URL that can be shared within a team or more widely to others by invitation. I did that. To people in the meeting it was like any other Hangout. But it enabled me, the designated scribe, to participate without the distraction of note-taking and to create a deluxe recap of the meeting when it was over.

The meeting took an hour. I then spent about 20 minutes scrubbing around in the video to the key interactions I wanted to capture and summarizing them. As a bonus I captured timestamped URLs using YouTube's Get Video URL at Current Time feature, and appended them to each section of the summary I wrote.

The video links were icing on the cake. I'm pretty sure nobody who read my summary used them, except to verify they really were links to the summarized part of the meeting. But the fact is they worked, and I got them almost for free as a by-product of reviewing the meeting in order to summarize it.

A couple of topics in the meeting weren't immediately relevant but will be in the future. The audio track isn't searchable (more on that in a future column), but my textual summary is, which makes the corresponding video segments discoverable.

I won't do this every time. Even for us, some meetings ought not to be available at an unlisted but otherwise accessible YouTube URL. And 20 minutes of post-processing is more than I'll want to invest in many cases. But it's a wonderful capability.

To appreciate how easy it is to use, consider a comparable mechanism in another domain: local government. I've lived in two cities that use a popular service, Granicus, to record public meetings. Recently I was a retrospective scribe for a city council meeting and found the process of annotating the video with timestamped commentary to be much harder than what I've described here.

Google's technology is the best way to do this, but it shouldn't be the only way. Unlisted YouTube videos, for example, are more discoverable than you might think. And annotations made against a YouTube video won't transfer to the same video delivered in another format.

Emerging specs for Web annotation envision standard ways to annotate not only text but also images, audio, and video. As enterprise-grade tools emerge for capturing and annotating meetings, I hope they'll interoperate in standard ways. I also hope they'll be as easy to use as Hangouts on Air.

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