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FEATURE: Seeking a cure for portal proliferation syndrome

The symptoms are familiar.  You seem to hear about a new climate information portal or knowledge platform being launched every week.  You check it out and it seems impressive at first glance.  Nice graphics.  Promising headings. Ambitious objectives. Cool tools.

But as you click further you start to wonder.  How’s this different from that portal you heard about last week?  Or that big World Bank one (or was it UN) that’s been around for a few years?  Which one is more useful for me, and how are they different?  How can I make sure I’m getting the best information?  There’s so many out there, how can I make sense of them?  And which one would I recommend to my developing country partner with a patchy internet connection and not a lot of time to play with?

Let’s call it Portal Proliferation Syndrome or PPS, because along with this syndrome you tend to get APS (Acronym Proliferation Syndrome).  It’s widespread, and it’s becoming increasingly global as more countries start thinking about how to get to grips with climate change, and more organisations and donors pick up on the climate issue.

The thought process tends to go like this.

Step 1: Lack of information is clearly a problem, we all know that.

Step 2: Why don’t we set up an online portal that can act as a one-stop shop?

Step 3:  We can launch it at the next COP and it’ll make us look really good.

Step 4: We’ve got some funds this year we could use – it can’t cost much given all these free internet tools we keep hearing about.

Step 5:  Bingo – another portal is launched.

The causes of PPS are easy to understand.  But the side effects can be quite disabling.  With portals operating in isolation you get a lot of duplication of effort and reinvention of wheels.  Perpetuation of silo thinking is also a tendency with portals that don’t connect to each other.  It feels like the climate adaptation world is completely cut off from the climate mitigation world.  And where do wider development issues or carbon finance fit in?

This is wasting precious resources, and spreading them much too thin.  But, more importantly, it’s not helping those who really need good information on the huge challenges of climate and development now.

Is there a cure for PPS?  Possibly not.  The pressure to set up new initiatives seems to be almost irresistible.  It would take a brave project manager to go to his or her boss and say “You know that big grant we got to set up a new super-portal on X.  Well I’ve found that there’s an organisation doing a very similar job already.  We should give them our funding so they can do the job even better, and we can link to them.”

So is PPS treatable?  Judging from the Workshop held in Eschborn, Germany, last weekend the answer seems to be yes.

Twenty of the leading climate and development web initiatives got together to talk about how they could collaborate better.  The group included well-established players like the Adaptation Learning Mechanism, Eldis, and the World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal, as well as newer initiatives like ci-grasp and the Latin American Carbon Finance Portal, launched just two days earlier.  Other regional initiatives included Africa Adapt and the Asia and Pacific Adaptation Knowledge Platform.

Collaboration can happen at many levels.  Just knowing about each other is a start.  If you are aware of who’s out there, you’re less likely to duplicate exactly what they are doing.

Forming a community of practice to share experience is the next step.  We found we had a lot to talk about in Eschborn, not least around the question of how we get a better grip on what our users actually need from our sites, rather than what we think they need.  We decided to set up an informal Climate Knowledge Brokers Group to keep the momentum going.

Setting up a joint search facility is another relatively easy step these day, using free tools such as Google Custom Search.  If users can’t find what they need on your site, rather than throwing them to the mercy of a regular Google search you can set up a ‘custom search’ of sites you recommend.  REEEP in Vienna have taken this as stage further.  They have built REEGLE, an intelligent search tool that has a glossary built in to it, so users can check what those jargon terms actually mean and refine or widen their search.  In a partnership with CDKN, they have broadened their coverage so in addition to clean energy topics it now covers the whole territory of ‘climate compatible development’.  They offer a widget which means you can integrate a REEGLE search on your site.

Moving up the scale there are now a whole range of content sharing options like RSS feeds and APIs, which allow you to grab interesting content from another site and represent it to your users – rather than having to generate it yourself.  CDKN is taking this approach and already has feeds of material coming in from Eldis, IPS, and AlertNet.

Sharing your platform with other partners is one of the closest forms of collaboration.  This has been pioneered by WeAdapt who make their web platform available to partners to add their content, sign up their users, and put their own logo and branding across the top.  OpenEI plays a similar role within this energy sector.  This makes a lot of sense for initiatives that don’t have the resources to set up a clever web platform themselves, and it creates scope for information sharing between different communities that share the same platform.

These kinds of approaches can go a long way treating the worst effects of PPS.  We agreed that too much collaboration could actually be harmful since an element of competition is what keeps innovation moving on the web.  Constructive ‘Co-opetition’ is the word we adopted to describe what might be optimal.

So a treatment for PPS is on the way.  In the meantime, just check around before you start up your next climate portal so you don’t become the latest victim.

Geoff Barnard is Head of Knowledge Management at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and an Associate of Overseas Development Institute.

The Climate and Development Knowledge Brokers Workshop was held in Eschborn, Germany, from 3-5 June 2011 and was co-hosted by GIZ and PIK-Potsdam.  To find out more about the initiatives that took part, and follow the outcomes of the workshop, see the shared space created on the OpenEI platform.

Other initiatives present included:

Actualidad Ambiental

Africa Adaptation Programme

Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre

Climate Finance Options

Climate Funds Update

Climate Prep


Ecosystems Marketplace



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14 responses to “FEATURE: Seeking a cure for portal proliferation syndrome”

  1. Peter Ballantyne says:

    Nice post Geoff. Good to see the climate change people getting around to collaborating across portals.

    Here’s an older article ‘Cooperation on the Web: trends and practice in the development sector’ on the same topic:

    I don’t think there can ever be too much cooperation is a business that sometimes calls itself ‘development cooperation’!

  2. Geoff Barnard says:

    Thanks Peter – you and Chris Addison have been way ahead on this issue for years. Do you agree that treatment for PPS is more realistic than cure?

    And is there an open access version of your article somewhere we can link to?

  3. Tom Downing says:


    We discussed exactly these issues at the outset of CDKN! It seems they have not actually progressed all that far. Instead of a high level brokering group (sort of a one-stop-shop assistant?) I propose:

    * Build on the nacent weADAPT efforts to empower a community that contributes their knowledge. What we need to know is just emerging from the chaos of top-down protocols and portals!

    * Use the semantic web to build a distributed knowledge base, and most essentially to link contributions wherever they occur, not dissimilar to reeegle although their approach appears quite different (and attributes the classical definition of adaptation to the International Plant Protection Convention 😉 A formal ontology is long over-due!

    * Users and uses are far more varied than portals, and often lost in the chaos of news streams, portal alerts, best practice guides and the like. The discipline of use cases is sorely lacking in portal design, I’ve not as yet seen formal user lab testing as a standard for quality assurance!

    Which possibly lays out a strategy for the next generation of services that provide measurable value to end-users?


    Global Climate Adaptation Partnership

  4. Nick Scott says:

    I think the other side of this, for organisations wanting to communicate, is that not opening up another portal, but using existing ones or collaborating on them, will actually make it easier to achieve online communications with impact. We’ve been talking about this at ODI for quite a while – ‘being there’ communications – where we go to the audience to communicate with them, rather than expecting them to come to us (either our corporate website or our newly created flashy new portal). Reaching audiences online is hard, and we’re making it harder by spreading ourselves so thin and not working together. So it is great to see these initiatives from CDKN, and I hope we see more newly-founded and funded organisations taking this approach (disclaimer: I contributed to initial discussions on CDKN’s approach so it isn’t very surprising that I’m in favour!)

  5. Becca Madsen says:

    Great article! I’d also love to see this addressed from the funder side of the equation. Funders want their dollars to count, and they think that the best result is something new and sexy, something that hasn’t been tried before… thus the irresistible urge for portals portals portals. Effective collaboration takes time and should be a worthy funding target.

    • Geoff Barnard says:

      Good point. I think the field is wide open for a funder, or small consortium of funders, to really get behind the development of the ‘knowledge infrastructure’ on climate and development.

      This will require a combination of vision, willingness to listen to what’s needed, and understanding of what it takes to nurture fledgling initiatives. While a chequebook is obviously a key attribute, this may be an area where spending smaller sums of money sensitively and over the longer term is what’s most helpful.

      Any funders out there interested in chipping in to this conversation? What challenges do you face in supporting knowledge sharing initiatives, and what advice would you have for us?


  6. Randall Kemp says:

    A mixed-method approach is a useful way to go. Such an adventure would include aggregating from other sources via direct input (e.g., RSS), automated resource discovery via semantic aids (e.g., ontologies), manual additions of resources to a portal by the gardener/maintainer/manager/steward, and self-published updates from the community.

    As well, some element of a unique twist to a portal helps identify its contribution to the conversation. The uniqueness might be a specialty within the issue area not covered deeply elsewhere or an innovative widget for managing the information.

    • Geoff Barnard says:

      Thanks for the input Randall.

      I like the metaphor of the ‘gardener’ of a space which is pulling content in from other sources, and adding a particular twist or flavour to it to make it distinct. Like with gardens, there’s a balance to be struck between regimented order, and 1000 flowers blooming chaos. No doubt the trick of a successful gardener is to find a balance that makes sense to their visitors so they feel at home, and enlighten, rather than overwhelmed.

      Enjoyed checking out the iScale site ( – looks like you’ve been in this business for a while.

  7. Jose Levy says:

    Geoff, pertinent comments, which translate faithfully our feelings and dreams on the occasion of the Eschborn workshop. We should gather the courage to put these ideas into practice, even if slowly. Like you said, it will be a challenge and a few mountains will need to be removed.

  8. Thanks for sharing these interesting insights for those of us not present in the workshop, Geoff. In addition, like all websites, portals need to create or find a niche for them to be relevant (I just found out CDKN mentioned that here

    I manage Climate-Eval (, a community of practice whose domain is the evaluation of climate change and development initiatives. It is hosted by the GEF Evaluation Office. I’d be happy to learn more about your future steps and possible ways to work together.

  9. Vanessa says:

    Dear Geoff

    I’m really happy to know that others feel the same way. Thanks for putting into words the sinking feeling I get whenever someone suggests we build a new portal, or I come across yet another one (just this morning in fact). I agree that we should work together, and look forward to some collaboration between the CGIAR Climate program and CDKN.


  10. Thanks Geoff for bringing on board this issue of PPS.

    My thinking is that the cure of PPS could be best addressed by donors and the treatment by all of us. We already experienced the example of the Africa Adaptation Research Centres initiative, the Platform for exchange between African research scientists and policy-makers on climate change adaptation to be set by CORAF (West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development) and AfricaAdapt, all 3 initiatives receiving financial support inter alia from IDRC. We’ve just finished a workshop where under the guidelines of IDRC, we all recognized the need to avoid duplication of web portals to ensure we are not wasting our efforts and resources. So, the AfricaAdapt Platform ( was suggested to host all knowledge and information generated by the 3 initiatives for wider sharing.

    Another thing to remark is that we do not have only a proliferation of portals in the climate change community. We also have proliferation of concepts very often meaning the same things. I understand that having new concepts is an indicator of progress in ideas and our understanding of issues around climate change, but the problem lies in the fact that each organization is bragging about its own terminologies and wants to be referred to as the owner.

    On the other hand at UN level, LDCs are complaining with the proliferation of Plans and other country documents like NAPAs, NAPs, NCs, NAMAs, NAPD, PRSPs, etc. LDCs have hardly time to understand one document when another one is proposed!

    So, in short I think this is all about the CLIMATE BUSINESS and it is important to ensure that the climate funds are actually reaching those who need them and used properly.

    • Geoff Barnard says:

      Thanks Moussa
      I like your comment that knowledge brokers can treat the syndrome, but only donors can cure it. And glad to hear AfricaAdapt is being suggested as a platform that others can join.

      Your point about CPS (Concept Proliferation Syndrome) is spot on. Everything is proliferating (EPS) so no wonder it’s so confusing – for researchers and knowledge specialists, let alone the ‘humble’ decision maker or practitioner trying to make sense of it all.

      Some would argue this is how innovation works – by natural selection and the survival of the fittest – whether it be ideas, concepts, terminology or knowledge platforms. It’s certainly true that top down masterplans don’t have a great track record.

      But to me this underlines the importance of knowledge brokers in a proliferating world. The more complex the world out there, the more valuable it is to have a trusted guide. And if those guides are collaborating in a creative way, then that sounds to me like progress!

  11. Geoffs description of the 5 steps to creating portal captures well the problem of a lot of knowledge based work: it can be characterised as having clearly defined solution eg a portal to an ill-defined problem eg lack of knowledge sharing.

    Portals are one tool for achieving a purpose – however sometimes they become the default tool for any purpose. As various people commented here, portals are quite attractive to fund, at least initially, once built they are less attractive to maintain, the virtual equivalent of big development infrastructure projects of the 1970s?

    That’s not to say they can never be a good option, a few years ago I wrote this note “10 portal pitfalls and how to avoid them” aimed at anyone thinking of creating a portal – essentially the message is to make sure that it really is the tool for the job, not to underestimate the ongoing work involved and in keeping with the theme of this blog – don’t design in isolation, work with others wherever possible.

    Deeper interrogation of the purpose of knowledge brokering seems to reveal that what knowledge brokers have in common is a commitment to enabling knowledge from multiple sources to be used for decision making and change – they share an assumption that this will enable better decisions whether at policy, practice or community levels. Within this overarching ambition there are a range of different purposes – from increasing access to information, helping people make sense of information and knowledge, changing the way that decisions are made so they draw on different sources of knowledge, to creating environments in which evidence based decisions can be made. Different purposes imply different kinds of action and activity from documenting case studies to matchmaking between different stakeholders. The broad range of functions that are required for effective knowledge brokering suggests it makes sense to be sharing responsibilities between knowledge brokers across that spectrum rather than duplicating efforts in one part of it. This was the feeling at Eshborne.

    The issues around prupose and functions of knoweldge brokers are explored further in a forthcoming survey of a discussion last year on the Knowledge Brokers’ Forum. The Knowledge Brokers’ Forum hosts discussions among a really interesting group of people interested in the theory and practice of knoweldge brokering, more at