OPINION: Imagining a smarter world – how to build the climate knowledge grid
Geoff Barnard, CDKN’s Senior Strategic Advisor for Knowledge Management, outlines the steps that need to be taken in the online climate knowledge marketplace to make life easier for information users.
Imagine a world where everyone making decisions on how best to respond to climate change had easy access to the information they need to make those choices. What would it look like and what would be needed to bring it about?
This may sound a naive question. Getting relevant climate information is not like clicking your smart phone app and looking up a train time. There is rarely a right or wrong answer in the same way. And access to information is not everything. Just by having it at your fingertips doesn’t mean it will be understood, that it will be acted upon, or that change will happen as a result.
But we do know that information access going to be crucial to anyone making choices that will affect, or be effected by, climate change. From farmers choosing which crop varieties to plant, to mayors of low-lying coastal towns deciding where to build, access to good information is clearly vital if sound decisions are to be made.
Despite big efforts in the past decade or two, we are still a long way from where we need to be. Ironically, we’ve moved from one bad place to another – from a situation where there was a dearth of climate information to one where there is now far more than most can handle. Many are drowning in the flood.
Huge numbers of case studies, research papers and guidance notes are being published every day, and new climate-related websites being launched every week (dubbed ‘portal proliferation syndrome’). Yes, there are important gaps still to fill. But the more immediate challenge is to find what’s relevant from amongst the mass of information already out there.
This is where knowledge brokers fit in. They sit between the producers of climate information and the intended users. They play a variety of value added intermediary roles: signposting what’s out there, synthesising it intelligently, translating complex concepts into more understandable language, offering a quality control function so users know what to trust, and connecting up various communities of actors so they can share ideas.
So what would information access look like in a more ideal world? This is a question that the Climate Knowledge Brokers (CKB) Group has been grappling with since it came together in 2011, most recently at a workshop hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton in early October.
A vision is starting to emerge and here’s my take on six of its main features:
- It starts with understanding what users really need. This is harder than it seems. When asked in surveys, people find it difficult to pin down their needs a very specific way. It’s easier to agree on what you don’t want: dense reports, impenetrable jargon, complicated website navigation, lack of material in your own language. This makes it all the more important for information providers to get close to their users, test out different formats, tailor their information to specific sub-groups, be a bit more humble and avoid the trap of thinking “we know what’s good for you”. 
- There is a well-functioning information marketplace. Rather than an out-of-town megastore, my mental image of an effective information marketplace is of a bustling city food market with a range of stalls offering a wide selection of fruit, vegetables, and other delicacies. There needs to be competition between stall holders, since that helps spur innovation and maintain a keen customer focus. But cooperation is also essential if that market is to work well. Information customers need to know what’s available, be reassured on quality standards, and be guided to the right stall for them. And there needs to be some mechanisms in place to orchestrate the combined efforts of the individual ‘stall holders’, so the marketplace as a whole thrives. 
- Information is connected up. No one market stall or website is going to have everything. So if one provider doesn’t have what you’re looking for, wouldn’t it be helpful if they pointed you to relevant material that is available elsewhere. With modern web technology there are now many ways of doing this; the trick is to be selective so users are not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that is out there. 
- Sharing is designed in. Effective information sharing doesn’t happen by accident. High levels of ‘shareability’ requires content to be available in portable formats that are designed for this, and not locked away in password-protected databases, or coded up with obscure description tags that no one else understands. These are the principles behind the Linked Open Data concept, and the new ‘Climate Tagger’ that has been developed by the CKB Group and is already in use on over 160 climate websites worldwide. 
- Stop reinventing the wheel. It’s amazing how often new information initiatives are launched without checking what’s already out there. What if it became the norm to scope out the territory first and consult with other players before you start building an elaborate new system? Having this kind of help can be crucial in avoiding mistakes and duplicating what others are doing, and also in finding clever ways to build on each other’s efforts instead of starting from scratch. 
- Start to think long term. The climate information challenge is not a temporary problem; it’s going to be with us for decades. So why are so many information initiatives set up with such short-term time horizons, shoestring budgets, and funding that only lasts a year or two? If we’re going to get this right we need a much more strategic and long-term approach, and be prepared to invest accordingly. New funding mechanisms are needed, and a more joined-up approach from funders, which could be a real game changer if it could be achieved. 
It’s hard to find a perfect metaphor for what this new climate information world would look like. The concept of a ‘climate knowledge grid’ goes some way in describing it – and takes us beyond the cosy image of the city food market. It’s a metaphor the CKB Group is trying out, and is keen to get reactions to.
Imagine if producers, brokers, and users of climate information were connected together in an intelligent way that matches supply with demand, transforms complex data into advice that can be understood and used by city mayors and farmers, and can flow both ways so lessons learned on the ground can be fed back up the wires. That would be rather akin to a modern electricity supply grid – but transmitting information rather than electricity.
This might sound a bit too techy for some. But like the power network, getting information flowing is not just about engineering and cables. It’s also about the people behind the system, the agreements and trust needed to ensure systems inter-connect, and the long-term resourcing that guarantees the reliability of the overall system.
It’s a big vision and it’s still some way off. But we need to be thinking in these terms if we’re going to stop tinkering and really address the climate information challenge.
Readers are encouraged to add their thoughts via the comment facility on what a more effective climate information world would look like, and how this vision can be achieved.
 An integrated study of user needs across four well-known knowledge platforms led by IISD provides a good starting point. Among other things it found that even in today’s increasingly online world, the human touch is still what people value most when it comes to real knowledge exchange. So initiatives that combine the power of online databases and search engines with face-to-face interactions are likely to hit the spot best.
 The CKB Group has made considerable strides in creating mechanisms to ensure the climate information market works better. For example:
- The Climate Knowledge Navigator, developed by IDS, signposts users to the most relevant sources from among over 100 climate knowledge platforms – rather like a directory of what stalls are open for business in a food market.
- The Reegle search tool goes to the next level down and provides an intelligent Google search of hundreds of recommended climate websites – a bit like a smart guide to every type of fruit and vegetable in the market. Starting out as a clean energy search, this has been expanded so it covered all aspects of climate change – helping to break down the knowledge silos that persist in the climate world.
- A bit like an elected management group for a food market, a ‘Coordination Hub’ has recently been set up to support the work and ambitions of the CKB Group. Managed by REEEP, it is specifically tasked with supporting the CKB community, championing the work of knowledge brokers, and leading its capacity building efforts.
 The scope for connecting up climate information is well demonstrated on the weADAPT website. This pulls in downscaled weather data and climate predictions from the Climate Information Portal, based in Cape Town, and puts it on the same map alongside geo-tagged case studies of adaptation approaches, and content from other sources.
 The Climate Tagger is the new name for a specialist web tool developed by REEEP, the Reegle API, that automatically ‘tags’ web content with keywords taken from a specially-created multi-lingual thesaurus of key climate terms. As a result, that content becomes much easier to identify and share, since it can be recognised by others using a set of terms that is fast becoming an industry standard.
 Helping other knowledge brokers get started has become one of the trademark strengths of the CKB Group. Its popular ‘Knowledge Clinic’ sessions have proved an excellent way for new initiatives (the ‘patients’) to get focused advice from other experienced knowledge brokers (who take on the role of ‘doctors’). The Green Growth Knowledge Platform, and the Climate Smart Planning Platform, are just two of the initiatives that have benefitted from this kind of input so far.
 Getting funders to understand the need for long-term investment in climate information work, and then collaborating more effectively in supporting it, is critical. Far too often, promising initiatives fizzle out through under-resourcing and short-term funding cycles. Even the most well-established and highly regarded climate information services face regular funding crises, jeopardising years of investment and careful work building up a user community.