Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Global Open Knowledge Hub: building a dream machine-readable world

flickr_STARSFoundation_8594027679The word ‘open’ has long been bandied about in development circles. We have benefited in recent years from advocacy to increase open access to research articles, and open data shared by researchers or organisations. But open systems that enable websites to talk to each other (e.g. open application programming interface) have been a little harder to advance into greater use, simply because they are not built for non-technical users.

The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)  recently joined eight other partners that are part of the new, DFID-funded and The Institute of Development Studies led Global Open Knowledge Hub project to discuss several issues related to open systems. It was no surprise that all the partners spent quite a bit of time coming to their own understanding of an ‘open system’ and an ‘open hub’.

Put simply, the Global Open Knowledge Hub project will build an open system for sharing data between participating partners and with the wider world. As each of the participating partners offers knowledge services, there are thousands of research documents, articles and abstracts that are on our websites. To facilitate the sharing of these knowledge products, an open, web-based architecture will be built so that we can all just go to one place, i.e. the hub, and find high quality, diverse and relevant content on any chosen topic that is available from the partners.

To understand how the sharing works, step out of the human-readable world and step into the machine-readable world. If a machine can be programmed to search and read through the data, then the amount of data that can be processed starts to boggle the mind. The hub is a place where huge amounts of data in machine readable formats can be queried, accessed, used and combined with other data. If you are interested in climate change, one of the topics on which the hub project will focus, a huge amount of the research that exists on climate change, spread across continents, disciplines and sectors can be accessed in a matter of a few seconds. The sheer scale of it is awe inspiring. Think tons and tons of data, woven together in a kind of semantic web. This is what the web 3.0 world will look like.

All of this might sound like a grand vision. And as partners involved in pioneering work, we are aware that we need to get several things right for this vision to be realised:

Understand demand

As Edwards and Davies say in this paper, the current understanding of open data is primarily from the supply-side perspective. It’s not enough to just put out large quantities of data; we also need to get a better sense of the demand for the data. Who are our potential users? What kind of data would they need? What will they use it for? These are questions that need some serious investigation.

The IDS Knowledge Services Open Application Programming Interface is an example of a successful open system in the development sector. The Open Application Programming Interface (API) provides open access to tens of thousands of development research documents in its repository. According to Duncan Edwards, IT Innovations Manager at IDS, there is good demand for the IDS open API from both Northern and Southern development organisations.

But data has been accessed primarily via several applications – a mobile web application, regional document visualization application and a tag cloud generator. And these have been built to make the data accessible to non-technical users. So, we need more of this to happen to make the data in the hub more user-friendly and spur demand.

Get IT and content providers to work together 

These open systems are not made for the ‘non-techie’, average user. When I first looked at the Open API of a website, the programming language that came up on the screen did not make any sense to me. But there is clearly a lot that the system can throw up for generating useful content for those with the technical skills to use it. For this to happen, researchers and communicators would have to work alongside a technical team and play a more active role in the curation of data. This is the only way the potential of the system can be fully explored.

Map taxonomies

Research is often labeled according to the needs and interests of its user. So the same piece of research may be tagged as agriculture development, rural development or farmers.  In the machine-readable world, this becomes a crucial difference that prevents data on the same themes from linking to each other. The taxonomies we use to describe information change depending on the organisation, sector and country.

So for the hub, we need a system for classifying data, which maps these different languages to ensure that data on the same theme and topic can find each other and hang together.

Work out branding, attribution, licensing and copyright

How open can we be about sharing content? When our content gets used in some way e.g. featured on another website, will credit be given to the knowledge producer? If the knowledge service involves the production of summaries and abstracts of research articles, then it would be important to clarify with the original research producer on how they license others to re-use their content (e.g. creative commons).

Since research producers, knowledge service providers and funders often use web analytics as a metric for measuring success, organisations are often concerned that if their content is ‘open’, users may not ever visit their website. Thus they would be denied access to these important metrics. We need to therefore explore new ways of tracking how ‘open’ content is used beyond our own websites. Or we need to agree to share enough data so that users are directed to the originator’s website for full information.

The partners contributing to the Global Open Knowledge Hub are working through these issues. All the partners believe that development research has a crucial contribution to make to poverty reduction, but only if it is easily available and quickly accessible to users. So, what we are building together needs to become the prototype of what open systems should look like.

This blog post first appeared on The Institute of Development Studies’s Impact and Learning blog site.

Opening a window on climate change and disaster risk reduction

flickr_CIAT_7350704058Nature has provided us some stark recent reminders that our climate is changing, often towards the extremes. Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed the Philippines. The ‘polar vortex’ blanketed the United States in snow. While East Coasters in the United States may still feel some of the polar sting, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable that feel the sustained harms of climate change. In Maplecroft’s 2013 ranking of its Climate Change Vulnerability Index, the top 10 most vulnerable countries were also low- and lower-middle income. Because of its effects on the poor, actions related to climate change made two of Nancy Birdsall’s (@nancymbirdsall) list of the top ten development priorities for 2014.

Recognising and even prioritising a problem is one thing – and this is a big, complex and multi-causal, cross-border and prone-to-collective-action-failures problem. But right now, what we really lack is the evidence about the best way to help the most affected protect their environment as they can and adapt to changing climate conditions as needed.

Wealthy countries have consistently underprovided funds for addressing climate change, including investing in evidence about what works and why (though there is debate about whether this is a real or artificial scarcity of resources). In the face of resource scarcity, better evidence about works, where and why becomes all the more important, so that we can choose the interventions that are most effective and cost-effective in producing both environmental and human-welfare impacts among the poor and vulnerable at individual, community and national levels.

At present, there is an array of measures for addressing climate change and its harms, as laid out in this 3ie working paper as well as the Stern report on the economics of climate change. But as things stand, we seem to be long on choice but short on evidence.

In response, 3ie has opened a funding window focused on the theme of climate change and disaster risk reduction. Through this, 3ie will support and catalyse the generation of a critical, coherent body of evidence on two key responses to climate change: (1) the suite of activities under the auspices of REDD and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – which already includes the routine collection of Geographic Information System data and the machinery of Measurement, Recording and Verification systems – and (2) early warning mechanisms to reduce the risk of loss and damage from natural disasters.

Beyond the clear goals of understanding what works, where, when and why, 3ie has additional aims in opening this window. And these goals go beyond trying to answer questions about what works, where and why. First, we anticipate methodological innovations, as proposals for impact evaluations will need to be innovative to establish credible counterfactuals and to tease apart causal impacts in programmes with many moving parts.

Second, researchers will have to grapple with reasonable expectations about how long is needed to see the impacts of interest in REDD/REDD+ and early warning systems. Since these impacts might show only in the medium-term, or in the face of a disaster, making strong claims about impact will require careful planning and a coherent theory of change to produce convincing evidence on impacts.

And third, a wider variety of outcomes should be considered than just environmental, including those relating to economic, social and physical welfare. We need to better understand if programmes and policies can be designed in such a way to create complementarities between measures that reduce emissions and those that reduce poverty and improve human welfare. Rigorously addressing multiple outcomes and the relationships between them through careful designs funded in this thematic window will help decision-makers better understand what works, where and why for climate change, poverty reduction and improving human welfare.