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.