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: