Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Why your knowledge-sharing portal will probably not save the world


One of the most common interventions that people attempt in order to support evidence-informed policy making is setting up an online portal/one-stop shop/knowledge sharing community. In some cases, these can be a wonderful resource. For example, Eldis is a an excellent source of information about development knowledge while Scidev is outstanding for keeping uptodate with science related to development.

However, for anyone who is thinking of setting up some sort of knowledge sharing portal, it is worth bearing in mind that these successes are definitely the exception not the rule. In fact the internet is littered with abandoned knowledge-sharing portals. Countless examples have been set up, fueled by excellent intentions and much enthusiasm, only to die a death a few years later.

If you are thinking about setting up some kind of portal, I would suggest you ask the following questions first:

1. Is lack of a portal the problem?

I have been asked to advise on numerous projects which aim to set up a repository of information for policy makers to access and use. In almost every case, they have failed for the simple reason that lack of information was not the major barrier that was preventing policy makers using information. For example, a few years ago a european NGO set up a knowledge sharing site in collaboration with an  African policy making institution. The site allowed policy makers to request information and then the NGO commissioned high quality evidence products from qualified academics. After persevering with this for a number of years the NGO had to abandon this project because they were not getting any requests for information and even when they proactively produced them, they were not used. If they had spent some time understanding the context they would not have fallen into that trap. In this case it was true that the institution was not making use of evidence but the reason for this was not that evidence was lacking. In fact there was a large amount of evidence available but what was missing was the demand for it – i.e. the incentive to make use of evidence and the skills to understand and incorporate research evidence into policy decisions.

2. Is someone else doing it already?

Don’t succumb to ‘portal proliferation syndrome’. If there are already similar resources, your efforts may be much better invested in supporting them rather than setting up a potential rival. Of course you may have a slightly different focus for your site than the ones that already exist but perhaps a bit of compromise might lead to better overall results. Remember that these sites absolutely rely on critical mass – reportedly only about 10% of members of any network will actually contribute to it. By dividing the potential audience between multiple relatively similar sites, you run the risk that none will thrive

3. Can it be hosted on facebook?

If you are setting up a site for people to interact with each other and they have to go to a site and enter a username and password before they can do that, it will almost certainly fail! The chances are that most of the people who you want to involve in your site are busy and they will just not find the time to do this. For this reason, it will have a much higher chance of success if it runs via a platform that people use already. Actually, the simplest way to do this is to use an email ‘listserve’ – for example the evidence-based policy in development network mainly functions via its email list because this allows people to interact using a tool that they have to open every day anyway. Similarly, facebook is very commonly used. You may feel that facebook does not offer all the bespoke features that they are looking for but, given the widespread popularity of facebook, your alternative platform would have to offer a LOT of benefits before it would really be a better option.

4. Whose one-stop shop is it?

A common argument is that setting up a one-stop will save people time since they will only need to go to one place to find everything they need. The problem is that this argument assumes that there is a large population of people who have similar ‘shopping lists’. So for example if you set up a one-stop shop about climate change adaptation in developing countries, your assumption is that there are many people who are interested in climate change adaptation in developing countries (and nothing else). In fact, many of the people who are interested in the products on your site will be interested in a slightly different, but overlapping theme; they might be interested in climate change in general, or climate change adaptation in all countries, or perhaps adaptations to a range of environmental shocks. Similarly, setting up a site which focusses on ‘development research’ or ‘development policy’ risks excluding a lot of information of interest to people in developing countries (as Enrique of onthinktanks has pointed out on numerous occasions, if you live in a developing country ‘development policy’ is just ‘policy’). Because we all have slightly different areas of interest, there is a strong risk that your ‘one-stop shop’ will become a ‘one-of-many-stops shop’ – which you have to admit is a bit less attractive!

All this reminds me of a question I was asked at the end of a conference talk I gave on evidence-informed policy making. A well-meaning individual asked why we didn’t just create a portal of all the knowledge of use to developing countries so that it could be easily found. I really struggled not to respond ‘yes, that’s a great idea, and we could give it a name, something like.. the in-ter-net?’. A bit facetious perhaps but it really is worth considering whether making your information available on an open-access repository and ensuring that it is search engine optimised might be a better option that the costly, time-consuming task of creating a new platform.

Anyway, if you are not yet convinced, I strongly recommend you read this to find out some more questions to consider before setting up a portal.

14 thoughts on “Why your knowledge-sharing portal will probably not save the world

  1. I think a website, however large, is a bit like a public garden or park. Leave it alone and it will either wither or turn into a jungle. It needs regular care in order to remove the weeds and nourish the new growth that you are after. People need to know about it otherwise there is no point in having it there. Twitter is currently the big driver of internet traffic towards a website though not clear how it is being used around the globe on different policy issues. There is an art to everything of course and that includes getting people to see what you do without them realising it. A bit like the hidden adverts that used to be placed in films to register subliminal purchasing habits, now seen more overtly as various props i.e. cut to image of well known soft drink sitting on table.

    • Not sure Twitter is actually the big driver – unless ODI is an aberration. It still accounts for less than 1% of traffic to the ODI site – less, in fact, than Facebook. Google is still the big one in terms of driving traffic, and in fact, Twitter is more about consumption on site. Click-through rates are relatively low, I understand.

  2. I agree with you Kirsty. Creating access links or portals of research evidence is no longer an issue but research utilisation is now the problem., that is, how can we promote the uptake of research evidence in policymaking; what incentives should be put in place to promote this.

    I have gone to EIPM workshops and meetings where participants come up with proposals of setting up knowledge sharing portals BUT my biggest questions has been what capacity building gaps are being addressed? Personally, I think there is need for organisations or individuals to undertake outcome mapping( problem to be addressed, who are the primary and secondary beneficiaries) before setting up any knowledge portals.

  3. 100% agreed! This chimes completely with what I’ve been telling people at ODI for many, many years (and is, I believe, one of the reasons CDKN wrote about portal proliferation syndrome).

    One problem is that the aid research industry seems to be hard-wired to create online portals for every new project – it is seen as an essential part of any bid. I recently persuaded DFID to forego a new portal on a large project ODI is running with them, and use existing channels and technologies instead (following both the ‘being there’ and ‘reusing the wheel’ components of ODI’s online strategy – ). Though they saw the obvious advantages of this approach, it was a shame that the tender was setup in such a way that developing a portal website was pretty much a must.

    Digital Manager, ODI

  4. I am interested in your comment “lack of information was not the major barrier that was preventing policy makers using information”. Clearly, research shows that portals are not the way most policy makers access information – nor is any form of social networking, in case readers were thinking about electronic alternatives. However, what about practitioners… there are ideas that get passed along, even with their evaluations, crossing the globe and being adapted to other cultures. If the information is not electronically available, how does that cross-fertilisation occur? I would be very curious to understand more about how people access information in their field or other fields of development for adaptation and use outside of policy advocacy.

  5. Excellent post! Many years ago (Facebook was still just on the East Coast), when looking at research in the Caucasus, we were tempted to go down the route that you described. Let’s create THE portal for Caucasus research. Bring existing Yahoo! Groups into a forum-format! Build it and they will come! Fortunately we realized that the existing systems worked just fine, and that we would have built a digital junkyard.

    One good question that helped us was the “three-minute rule”: what will people do three minutes before they come to your website, and what will they do the three minutes afterwards? This highlighted to us that we better be the place to go to for ONE thing (quality data), rather than trying to do everything and thus competing with the Internet itself…

    Couldn’t agree more with what Nick is saying above.


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  7. The other option for Facebook, which I use a lot to set up category discussions – the ability to build a custom-designed repository right into Facebook. The fact that this is allowed should make it even easier to build a knowledge base where people are already.

    Kudos for pointing out the lack of demand. Perhaps we shouldn’t be putting the cart before the horse. Put resources into creating the demand. This results in a win-win for all involved.

  8. tmsruge: we have used Facebook for all sorts of work things, but not for category discussions and repositories. Can you highlight some examples? It sounds very interesting.

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