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ERCIM W4G workshop on CSCW and the Web

7-9 February 1996

Computer Supported Collaborative Working (CSCW) has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years. It is a very wide field. Computers can and do support working in a variety of ways. What is important is that the CSCW application should support the requirements of co-operative work, whether that be through allowing authors to share documents, improved communication facilities, project management, access to information etc.

The ERCIM W4G workshop was held at GMD, Sankt Augustin, Germany, and attracted over forty participants from around Europe. It looked at the ways in which co-operative working was being supported using the World Wide Web (WWW). A previous workshop, organised by W3C also looked at Collaboration and the WWW (

During the three days, papers describing fourteen different systems and projects were given. These represented a range of approaches to using the WWW to aid collaborative working. The workshop was opened by Thomas Christaller of GMD-FIT, and the keynote speech given by Wolfgang Prinz, also of GMD, who is currently working on the POLITeam project, a project to support the co-operation between the distributed governmental functions in Bonn and Berlin.

There were a number of reasons for using the WWW given: WWW also has a number of significant drawbacks, stemming mainly from the fact that it was simply not designed with CSCW in mind, and the protocols behind it do not therefore readily lend themselves to it. In particular a number of presenters mentioned the lack of implementation of the PUT method as a problem, and of course the lack of security when implementing such methods. WWW also does not directly support multimedia, relying on helper applications.

Sample systems

The systems and software demonstrated during the Workshop displayed a range of approaches to supporting different aspects of co-operative work. For example, Chris Brown of Nottingham University presented his group's work on visualising large scale hypermedia databases, in this case WWW. This system provides a 3D view of WWW pages, showing the links between pages and most importantly where other users are in relation to them. This awareness of other users with similar interests is the first step in collaboration. One implementation of this is the Internet Foyer. The 3D users see not only other 3D users, but also '2D' users (i.e. users of standard WWW browsers), and through a video image texture mapped on to a virtual window, real people in the real foyer.

A number of the systems were asynchronous, and provided different levels of collaborative editing of documents. The DReSS system, presented by Paul de Bra of Eindhoven University of Technology, allows users to add documents to a WWW server in a controlled way, without needing an account on the system. Documents are edited locally, and then uploaded to the server. It uses standard WWW authentication procedures, and the user suppliers the local pathname and URL. Once on the server the documents may be edited/deleted by users with appropriate permissions. This system is particularly aimed at producing large hyper documents, where authors create individual pages which may be linked together.

Futplex, also developed at Eindhoven provides a greater level of granularity, with documents edited at the paragraph level, and access rights can be ascribed to individual paragraphs within a document. A feature of this system is that it also provides an index of updated pages since the user last logged on. This kind of system might be useful in creating discussions, starting with an existing large document, and adding comments to sections of it.

The Zeno system, presented by Thomas Gordon of GMD, was designed to tackle a different problem. This is a mediation service being developed in GEOMED, a project to allow distributed access to Graphical Information System (GIS) databases, a shared workspace and the mediation facilities, to improve city and regional planning services. The mediation facilities will structure messages and provided an issue-based information system for context sensitive retrieval of messages. The documents used in the ZENO system are not stored as HTML, but in its own extension of HTML, and the server is implemented in JAVA. The shared workspace part of GEOMED will be based on another system presented at the workshop, called BSCW. The BSCW server is an extension to the NCSA WWW server, and basic access is through a standard WWW browser. A sample workspace has been set up at:

AlephWeb, developed at Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, looked at another aspect of collaborative working, the need to index the large amount of information available on-line. It is a CSCW Trader, and AlephWeb servers co-operate to provide a common search engine. Index information is held on each server, which communicate s its information with other servers.

It can be seen that the WWW can be used to provide a basis for a wide range of CSCW applications, and the great interest shown suggests that its benefits outweigh the technological problems. For full details of all the papers presented at the workshop, and links to many of the systems and software see:

Sue Cunningham
SIMA Multimedia Support Officer
Computer Graphics Unit
Manchester Computing
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: +44 161 275 6803
Fax: +44 161 275 6040