1. Information artefacts
Welcome to this workspace which aims to explore the use of information artefacts in the development sector. ‘Information artefacts’ sounds rather a grand term but we have yet to come up with a better one. We are referring to all the forms, ICT based or not, in which information is expressed, received, stored, handled, searched for and found.
We think this is an area of study which is important for development practice for four reasons:
There is a problem The use of information artefacts within most development organisations verges on the dysfunctional. Much relevant academic research is not noticed; consultancy reports gather dust, only their summaries having been read; historic records of thought and action are lost in the system; electronic information is filed haphazardly in content management systems, shared drives or even on laptops with little thought to its long term use. Organisations which want to ‘listen to the poor’ often have few means of doing so – certainly in the languages or forms in which the poor might want to express themselves. IKM studies have suggested that information which results from the use of participative methodologies by development organisations is seldom documented, accessed and used by the organisation in any context other than the immediate one in which it was produced. Computer based management information systems, with their requirements for exact data, can also inhibit effective communication between organisations and their beneficiaries. Cumulatively, the poor handling of information affects the efficiency and effectiveness of development work. Inappropriate artefacts add to information overload on time pressured staff. What can be done better?
There are opportunities for innovation New technologies offer new possibilities for gathering, handling and using information. They offer new ways of analysing and communicating information. They can make it easier for people, including the populations intended to benefit from development interventions, to express themselves and for such expression to be disseminated. New opportunities for oral, visual and spatial expression are created. What are the developmental possibilities of these opportunities? How can they be realised? How can development organisations, often structured around the controlled disbursement of funds, use these tools to improve their own understanding and communication of the issues they exist to address? Can they learn how to listen and respond to the voices of those who they aim to support, however those voices are expressed?
There are practical choices which have to be made Every development organisation has had to re-organise the way it works in response to the opportunities and expectations created by the computerised information systems and the internet. Often these responses have been reactive, technically led and non-strategic. Similarly, organisations are currently faced with the very different communications patterns stimulated by Web2. In the coming years they will need to plan for and respond to the opportunities and threats offered by the semantic web. These are current or foreseeable choices: the time to research and reflect on their implications is now.
There are strategic implications of what is or is not done which need to be understood and debated. Artefacts are not simple tools. They place economic and technical demands on their users and, from the village well to the factory to the internet, often stimulate new forms of social organisation and interaction around them. Current informational developments reflect the dialectics of change in technical, cultural, social and economic domains. However much particular tools may be presented in terms of ‘inevitable technical progress’, we are in fact offered a wide choice of direction with none being inevitable. The choices ‘we’ make affect the momentum or lack of it of each of the various potential futures. This applies to ‘us’ as active human beings. It applies even more strongly to ‘us’ as decision makers in a multi-billion dollar area of global activity such as the development sector, with its large ICT and communications and research budgets. Core strategic questions relating to informational developments for organisations operating in the development sector include
- Is the purpose of your information strategy to strengthen the comparative advantages of your organisation in relation to other ‘competing’ development organisations or to be a factor for development in its own right? For example, collaborative approaches can, for example by the use of open source software, enable investment in information systems in one organisation to be available as an adaptable resource for reuse in others. Likewise information content can be structured so that people have to come via your website to find and use it or be made directly available to the wider development information environment in ways which most suit the end user.
- Are we simply led by whatever informational developments gain market share or commercial momentum in the global North? Or should the development sector be alert to informational developments and innovation wherever it takes place as part of (what should be) its mission to respect and build on multiple knowledges and cultural diversity?
These are the issues being explored by IKM Labs, [working group 2] of IKM. In particular the programme as a whole is determined that, in however small a way, its practice contributes to the wider good. Thus we will be developing a number of new features as we develop this web site, based on the open source Mediawiki, and are committed to sharing them with others. The programme is also engaged in a number of activities with developers and users of information artefacts in various parts of the South with the intention of learning from and publicising their practice. This workspace is the place where we will record our ideas and our work about information artefacts as they evolve. We do not want this to be an exclusive process and we make no claim to be the only people looking at these issues, although we are equally aware that there are not that many. We very much hope that the development of this space will enable us to make links with and solicit contributions and references from others working in this field or working with new information artefacts in other fields.
Potential avenues of exploration
At the moment the possibilities for new information artefacts seem endless. However there can be quite a gap between what gets created and what actually gets adopted for widespread use. This of course is true of innovation in society in general but the process is perhaps even more difficult if the innovation is aimed at a specific set of skills. Within the development sector there has been no shortage of tool kits developed to assist with all sorts of organisational processes, such as project management, evaluation or knowledge management. Their take up and use however is generally patchy. Likewise there have been a number of initiatives where software developers, primarily users of FLOSS (Free, Libre or Open Source Software) have tried to offer their skills, sometimes at no cost, to the cause of development without the intended collaborations ever reaching their potential.
This experience should warn us, as we start these next explorations, that paying attention just to the artefact or tool is not enough. Just as important is the process of its development and by which it is adapted and used. It does not need to be a process in which an expert designer creates ‘a solution’. It may be more sustainable to build participative processes in which end-users reflect on their current practice and, perhaps in interaction with external agents with specialist skills, try to imagine improvements. IKM Labs is running a number of ‘Interaction Labs’ with various groups of development actors with specific informational needs to explore future possibilities and the processes by which they might be realised. We would be very interested to learn about the experience – good or bad - of others in trying to build collaborations between developers and users in the development sector.
Meanwhile in the workspace we need to look critically at each potential artefact. In particular we need to consider what aspect of reality in day to day development practice is the might the artefact improve and how could it do this? We also need to think critically about the cultural baggage which may be attached to any particular artefact. For example we have had some lively debate within the programme about Web 2. Compared with previous common tools, it clearly offers many more people access to easy to use tools with which to express themselves and communicate with others. On the other hand, it can be argued that, leaving aside issues of access to ICT, high volume instantaneous interaction it represents is not part of the cultural norms for many of the communities of the poor which the development sector is supposed to be empowering. Perhaps the development sector should prioritise investment in tools which are closer to people’s preferred patterns of communication – local language oral software for example – or which would make it easier for large and powerful organisations in the sector to listen to the opinions of the people on whose behalf they aim to act.
Over the coming months we will try both to explore the issues which lie behind choosing which atefacts to use in a development context and also to see what is being done and what new ideas are emerging. We will do the latter in part by looking at what IKM is doing but, more importantly, through building as comprehensive review as possible of experience elsewhere. We expect to develop material in each of the following areas
- Appropriate text formats
- Digital story telling
- Local content creation
- Means of expressing and listening to local voices
- Planning tools
- Spatial thinking
We hope the end result will be a unique resource of descriptions, debate, contacts and links which will be of value to anyone working in the development sector who is thinking of innovating in their use of artefacts. We hope also it can become a place of contact for those of us working in these areas. As stated in the introductory page, external contributions, regular or one-off are very welcome. Pleas contact Mike@ikmemergent.net
We are currently (Summer 2010) exploring the implications of the emerging semantic web, particularly linked data and visualisation, for how development related information can be connected, analysed and presented. This exploration involves both practical and policy issues and considers not just what may be done with new technologies but the implications of how it is done for other development processes – access to information, openness, inclusitivity etc. We are interested im making links with others pioneering this technology within the development sector and in jointly organising a workshop to look at how this sort of material is currently being used and what broader issues of development process such use may raise. We intend to jointly create a background paper for this workshop, the second version of which is available here
Reflections on work so far and challenges ahead (February 2012)
At the end of February 2012, the first phase of IKM Emergent comes to an end. There may be future stages and there will certainly be opportunities to paste new material and new references to this wiki, but this seems an appropriate moment to summarise where we have got to with the work on ‘information artefacts’, to reflect on what has happened, and to identify new and continuing challenges.
Our first conclusion has to be that our plan to use the workspaces – this and the other ones – as spaces for the co-creation of knowledge have not been that successful. A number of people have contributed to different sections of this and other workspaces but, almost exclusively, a particular section has been developed by the person taking responsibility for it. We consider some of the workspaces to have fulfilled a useful role in being flexible but fairly permanent places for putting arguments, resources and references, but they have not been very dynamic. The programme as a whole, given the almost permanently on-line status of many of the participants has made less use of social media than might have been expected. Some of the programme meetings and workshops have been supported by rough and ready use of wikis for participants to collaborate before and during the event. Otherwise, and even then only to a limited extent, programme participants have preferred to post their comments on blogs
Most of the real co-creation of ideas and work has come through physical interaction at programme meetings and workshops, and through phone and e-mail discussion of ideas, draft papers etc. This has led to a larger body of ‘formal’ work, such as workshop reports and working papers, than had been anticipated. However, this has meant relatively less time and attention being given to the workspaces. As a result, a number of semi-formed connections and ideas which have come out of these other contacts but which have not been part of any formal publication have not been reported anywhere else. This post, then, is also an attempt to catch up.
Information Artefacts - Background
With respect to the subject of this workspace, ‘Information Artefacts’, we mentioned at the outset that we were not sure about the term. Colleagues from the natural sciences complained that an ‘artefact’ is some unwanted external presence – a speck of dust perhaps – which is interfering with what you are trying to study under the microscope and which can derail your findings. Other uses of the word, however, better communicate what we had in mind. For archaeologists, for example, perceive an artefact to have embedded within it characteristics of its use and purpose. Thus a farming implement or a cooking pot can contain information about the age or gender of the user, what was grown and eaten and, depending of the nature of its depiction or location, its links not just to daily life but to ritual and belief. The word ‘artefact’ thus implies a need for a richer understanding than ‘object’ and, whether or not this is the best word to use, we remain convinced of the need for a richer understanding of what is embedded in the way we try and communicate – of our use of ‘information artefacts’.
Our work on information artefacts has had several roots. One has been a concern that information is generally not as well managed as it might be across the development sector. Massive amounts of data, operational and research information and analysis are produced. However, even within a single organisation, it is hard to find summary information or metadata about what is available, search and navigation tools can be biased or imprecise and, even when its existence is known about, it may not be easily available, especially away from the headquarters ICT systems. Information exchange between organisations is even more problematic, whilst problems on the transfer of academic findings to the area of practice remain prevalent and deep-seated. The issue is not just that approaches to information management based on what information people, at all levels, need to do their job well, rather than based on what senior managers want or what fits the IT department’s continuous roll out plans, are very much the poor relation. It is also that, at a sector wide level, support for development information as a public good becomes progressively weaker. Reliable long term support for important development information platforms either at a global scale, such as ELDIS, or for a host or theme based and regional resource centres, becomes harder and harder to find.
Curiously, this runs counter to current professional approaches to ‘looking after’ knowledge in other domains. Across Europe, and even after the recession, care, attention, investment and status has been awarded to a host of exhibitions and galleries and museums attempting not only to protect, interpret and display historical artefacts but also many aspects of science and social change and their role in the modern world. It is notable too that nearly all such initiatives, however funded, are placed in the public domain and therefore contribute to the development of ‘knowledge commons’. Not coincidentally, these developments have coincided with vigorous exploration and debate of the art and skills required for being a curator of objects and ideas. There are many strands to this debate but an overarching one is a desire to re-think the role of curator in the modern age from being a somewhat worn guardian of dusty objects to someone alert to the highly dynamic permutations of ideas, information and artefacts, able to in some sense preserve and re-assemble fleeting connections, so that their knowledge content and potential historical significance remains available for study and reassessment. The lack of any similar processes in the domain of development knowledges is striking. It may in part be attributable to a belief that development budgets can best be defended in terms of their immediate ‘results’, rather than through longer-term, arguably more sustainable but possibly more nebulous efforts at development education. However, it is also possible that it derives from a lack of respect for the richness of development knowledges, their many historical and intellectual roots and their current potential for stimulating reflection on and understanding of human experiences and relationships, within and between societies and their diasporas, in an increasingly inter-connected world.
Not that stimulating thought and understanding is the main end in itself. Shared understanding, between organisations providing resources and other organisations or communities applying those resources in order to change lives, is essential if development interventions are to have any chance of success. Part of this ‘understanding’ needs to come through clarification and negotiation of goals but another part must come from the successful communication of meaning. In this context, the role of information artefacts as containers of meaning is crucial. Equally important is the understanding that how people read meaning from artefacts varies substantially according to culture, education, professional habits and a whole host of factors. Thus information artefacts, however we may strive to design them to be universal, are never neutral. It makes no sense to assume that even a well educated audience will perceive the same meaning in a log frame analysis (a pervasive planning tool in the development sector) or even a clearly written academic paper, as will be perceived by others steeped in their use. By the same token, meanings embedded in a dance or a story, may be misconstrued or missed entirely by an audience not brought up within the language of that medium.
Information Artefacts and Development
Failure to communicate damages development, however it is conceived. Even those who see it as purely a task for technical experts should recognise that the capacity of those experts is severely diminished if they lack knowledge of the realities that they plan to transform or if their own plans and intentions are not well understood by the societies in which their interventions need to work. Of course external methods and their associated information artefacts may be employed in this process, and people trained to use them, but such employment does not always have the desired results. This use of external means may be seen as an imposition and generate resistance. It may, as Tina Wallace has documented, distort local work processes so that ‘learning to play the system’ becomes a more valued skill than other learning of direct societal benefit. It may simply not be the best method of communication and organisation for that particular task in that particular place. In any case the choice of which methods and artefacts should be used should be properly examined and not made simply on the basis of the convenience of the controlling organisation.
IKM, however, would also see a far more positive reason to investigate the range of information artefacts available in any particular context. It has always understood development as primarily a process of supporting endogenous change in ways which benefit local societies, especially their poorer or more marginalised social groups, but which may also contribute to the enrichment of human culture at a global level. Such a process may benefit significantly from many types of external input but these need to be translated – often in terms of their means of expression as well as in language – so that they have meaning at local level. At the same time the development and use of endogenous information artefacts may create new knowledge which has wider meaning. Development in this understanding, whilst it may focus its resources on particular groups and purposes, is a process of mutual learning. We do not see ‘development’ as bringing the world up to some mythical European or North American ‘ideal’ but of creating over time a new world in which societies everywhere achieve reasonable levels of well being and interact with each other, on the basis, wherever possible, of equity, mutual respect and collaboration. In this context, privileging one set of methods or artefacts for establishing meaning over others is counterproductive.
We have also argued throughout that all knowledge exchange takes place in a local context, whether that context be New York City or the most remote village. IKM as a programme, has therefore been interested in looking at the use of information artefacts, whatever their cultural or geographic source. Within its remit of looking towards future challenges of information and knowledge management in development, especially within our understanding of the term, IKM has been particularly interested in means of expression and comprehension which allow the multiple knowledges and multiple intelligences, which we see as unavoidable and welcome, if often unacknowledged, features of the development landscape. We see creating conditions for constructive and collaborative dialogue between such knowledges and intelligences as central to any successful development future.
This conclusion reinforces IKM’s view of the importance of translation in the widest sense of the word. In practical terms this has largely taken the form of support for Wangui wa Goro’s work on developing ideas and practice of ‘traducture’ in the development setting. This extends the idea of translation to facilitate mutual understanding across boundaries be they of power, gender, class or culture. The translation of meaning embedded within information artefacts may well fall within the scope of this new practice.
Before moving on to describe those key areas where we hope to see more reflection and exploration, it is worth highlighting a couple of examples of the use of information artefacts we have come across during the life of the programme
• ‘Artefacts’ like dance, music and theatre are, whilst retaining their artistic interest, used primarily as facilitators of dialogue, collaboration and mutual sense making in the work of ‘Vozes de Campo in the state of Para in the North of Brazil. This is a collaboration between Dan Baron and Manoela da Souza and a group of rural educators who have been working to develop a new pedagogy oriented to the human needs of students, planning to live in remote rural communities as opposed to the supposed needs of the market. (See Harvest in Times of Drought, book and CD, written in both Portuguese and English).
• A video about the social damage caused by stigmatising some women as witches, made by Kailash Baariya and colleagues in the Anandi organisation in rural Gujarat, in India, were not intended as stand alone pieces but as a way of introducing and enabling a community discussion about a highly sensitive issue. Even the video was the result of an iterative process in which several versions of the script had been played our as live drama and then discussed by thyeir respective audiences.
These examples have a number of characteristics in common. They both use ‘information artefacts’ – if that word can be applied to dance – as a means to a (developmental) end. Any appreciation of their artistic content which does not understand that purpose would miss the point. They both involve learning to use relatively new technologies – sound recording and CD production in Brazil, digital video in India. Both can be informative and stimulating for a range of audiences beyond the ones originally intended. Both, we would argue, are highly innovative: innovation cannot be seen as the preserve of the rich.
Towards Linked Open Information and a Semantic Web
We've been exploring how linked open data and the semantic web may impact on knowledge management in development.
The Exploring Linked Open Data Workspace includes notes on the pilot projects we have undertaken.
linkedinfo.ikmemergent.net is an interactive presentation of learning from our work on Linked Data, developed as part of a touch-screen information console display for the ICT4D conference.
The Linked Open Information Workshop Report presents learning from a workshop held in Oxford in November 2010.
The IKM Discussion Note Linked Open Information for Development: what it is and why it matters provides an overview of linked data issues, and their relevance to development.
The IKM Background Paper Semantic IKM? Context and possible directions for IKM’s engagement with emerging web technologies formed an input into the 2010 workshop.
Video Introduction of IKM Vines
Hand in hand with growing interest in data, and the development of technologies to work with large quantities of data, we’ve seen a growth in interest in, and tools for, data visualisation. From infographics in newspapers, to interactive displays of complex data, such as the famous bubble-chart visualisations of global developed by Hans Rosling’s team at the Gapminder Foundation, the visualisation of data has the power to generate new insights, and to affect how we understand key issues.
There are various types of and reasons for visualisation. Firstly, visualisation as statistical graphics, where the purpose of visualisation is to take advantage of our capacity to process visual information and to spot patterns in visual material. Creating statistical graphics involves information reduction: selecting which variables will be plotted from a dataset, and how they will be represented. Spatial information systems (see below) offer another form of visualisation. More generally, we can understand visualisation as communication, where graphics are used to non-verbally express certain facts or views about the world. Icons, colours, size, shape and motion are all carefully selected to convey a message.
Quite apart from the long history of humans using visual images in order to communicate, the scale and complexity of ‘big data’ and the massive development of computational techniques are both driving a rapid expansion of the use of visualisation to represent and communicate knowledge. It is becoming pervasive, but what this means is little reflected upon or understood. It has long been understood that it is as easy to lie using images as using words but how, if at all, is an honest visual representation of information different from a written one? Steve Woolgar, making the keynote opening address at the ‘Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation’ conference at the Oxford Internet Institute in March 2011, warned the audience not to be seduced by the grandiose concepts of visualisation but to study it in real life: to ‘historicise’ it - that is see it within an historical context; to ‘gerundise’ - that is to understand it as being and doing; and to ‘ethnographise’ it - to emphasise its cultural specificity. ‘What’ he asked, ‘are the ordinary everyday, mundane practices which members of strange tribes use to constitute what they regard as the visual?’ Explicit in the question, was the assertion that the understanding of the visual will not be the same from one society to the next, a somewhat central point to the communication of information about development, yet one which has attracted virtually no attention or study.
In fact the study of visualisation as a phenomenon appears very fragmented. There is a general work about seeing (for example by John Berger or Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros); interest in art in its capacity to support academic or scientific work (Sabine Wildevuur or Gradcam; a long history of thought and experimentation in information design (beautifully described in the work of Edward Tufte), understanding of visual language (Horn); the use of visuals to summarise complex arguments(RSA Animate of, for IKM, Roberta Faulhaber); and a mass of work on computer generated visualisations. It is really unclear if people think there is any cumulative relationship between these phenomenon - a generalised trend towards understanding the world in visual terms - or whether these are essentially distinct and separate processes. What is the case, to an astonsihing degree, is that this fascinating and often brilliant illustrated literature appears to inhabit a monocultural world. Even John Gage's masterly 'Colour and Culture' gets little further East than Istambul.
A completely separate area of work has been 'development communication' which focuses on how best to communicate at grass roots. Works like Helping Healthworkers Learn (Werner and Bower) or Picture Supported Communication in Africa (Volker Hoffman) take care to embed their practice in the cultures in which they operate but it is geared explicitly towards development practice rather than any more profound exchanges, although Hoffman does provide some theoretical background to his examples.
It seems clear that if visual images and visual languages are going to be increasingly used in the modern world, there is a yawning gap in understanding what that means in cultural terms. Not only may, yet again, the language of development become alien to those who are supposed to benefit but the potential value of culturally located techniques being recognised, supported and harnessed to cultural and economic empowerment may be missed.
The limited degree of IKM's own experiments with the visual can be seen here
Another form of visualisation is that of geographical information systems (GIS), with numerous ways of plotting data and other information onto maps and using the visual results for analysis and planning. In an example of how similar technology can be applied in very different ways, the use of GIS in the development sector ranges from the highly technical, plotting data derived from satellite sensing , to the highly social process of participatory spatial information management . More than other forms of visualisation, maps lay claim to 'objective truth', whilst what they show - property, national boundaries etc. - can be highly contested. As Katherine Harmon says in her introduction to 'The Map as Art ', " Traditional Maps assert 'This is how the world is', and expect the reader to agree. Artists maps countermand that complicity, saying 'This is my vision, and I encourage you to construct your own' (p11)". We would argue that in development terms, a map, however technically advanced, is always only one of many perspectives on a given location. Indeed the process of identifying different perspectives and seeking to negotiate their resolution can be enormously productive as can be seen in many examples of participatory spatial planning or in Participatory Learning and Action Special Issue no 54
Local Language and Orality
One of IKM's main conclusions is that development needs to take place in the language of the lives of the people who are being affected. Failure to do this means that they have been excluded from participating in their own futures and the chances of any 'development' thus imposed being of lasting value are minimal. Amazingly, this is very seldom done. The Catholic Church and the US Peace corps are among the few organisations that invest in this level of preparation.
Technology may now be able to help, or at least to lower the costs. A number of individuals and organisations have worked to enable local language presence on the internet over many years. Many of those involved with African Languages are collaborating in the African Network for Localisation. Links to those working on ICT applications for the Quechua language in South America can be found on the Global Voices Peru site.
Of course many languages have only recently acquired a written form and many of their speakers may be illiterate. This limits the impact both of projects based on web enabling local language in written form and many mobile 'local content' services which rely on SMS functions. However for some time it has been possible to record, store, search and access speech in English and there is no technical barrier to do this in other languages. Suppliers offer phonetics based software capable of handling speech at a cost of about US$150,000 a language. Apparently, as a spin off from post 9/11 intellignece work, the US Department of Homeland Security has acquired such software in a number of African languages, although these have not been made publicly available. However, the potential clearly exists for applications which could range from the educational to the highly functional - the recording of business deals and associated accounts for example. It is possible to envision a combination of modern technology with deep rooted oral competences meaning that literacy would no longer be a requirement for full particpation inthe modern world. However, and despite the fact we have been looking for people with whome to collaborate on these issues since the beginning of the programme, it is only recnelty that there are a few signs of life in theis area - most notable the Web Foundation's /voices Voices project. Equally interesting, as the Foundation's Stephane Boyera explains is the possiblity of creating hyperlinks from voice to other web urls using Voice XML