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Please Do Not Create Yet Another Development Knowledge Portal

By Wayan Vota on August 22, 2019

international Development Knowledge Portal

The symptoms are familiar. You seem to hear about a new information portal or knowledge platform for international development being launched every week. You check it out and it seems impressive at first glance.

Nice graphics. Promising headings. Ambitious objectives. Cool tools. But as you click further you start to wonder:

  • How’s this different from that portal you heard about last week?
  • Or that big World Bank one (or was it UN) that’s been around for a few years?
  • Which one is more useful for me, and how are they different?
  • How can I make sure I’m getting the best information?
  • There’s so many out there, how can I make sense of them?
  • And which one would I recommend to country partners with a patchy internet connections?

The field of international development has seen an enormous number of knowledge portals, platforms, hubs, and websites to improve knowledge management across the sector. For example, a Google search reveals almost 5 million results on this subject. Even within specific development sectors there is a huge amount of overlap.

To provide one example of the portal proliferation syndrome, the Food Security Information Network identified over 51 key actors producing and sharing information on food and nutrition security on a variety of different platforms. Many of these different portals are providing the same information, reinforcing information overload.

Thankfully, Sarah Cummings, Nancy White, Michiel Schoenmakers, Victor van Reijswoud, Martine Koopman, Chris Zielinski, Cavin Mugarura, Ramin Assa and Srividya Harish have joined with the international development community to create a checklist for international development knowledge portal creation.

The checklist brings together the experience of experts and others who are developing and advising on portals as part of their daily work. Please use the checklist to question if you need to create yet another international development knowledge portal.

International Development Portal Creation Checklist

This guideline was developed in consultation with the Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) community. It is designed to provide guidance for development organizations who are considering setting up portals as a way to counteract portal proliferation syndrome.

The checklist covers what questions to consider before starting yet another portal, during the design phase and implementation, and technical standards and specifications. Please use it to question the need for your organization to create its own knowledge platform. Maybe, just maybe, its really not needed.

International Development Portal Creation Checklist

Before starting

Purpose Have a clear purpose. What is the portal trying to achieve? What is the Theory of change? (Why do you think this portal will fulfil the purpose?) This can be very simple.
No replication Be unique: Don’t duplicate what is already available from other knowledge portals. Be clear what niche it is filling and how it is different from other offerings.
Value-added Add value to already existing digital content by adding new resources, by making resources more accessible, combining content with other sources to make new content, or by explaining it in a way that its value is clearer. New content and greater accessibility add value.
Locally desired Make sure the end users want this resource. There are too many cases of outsiders starting unwanted websites.
Governance Develop governance based on knowledge management principles. This should include business governance that states who can use it, how and what but also information management rules that determine retention, archiving, workflows and search parameters.
Locally embedded Embed the sources appropriately in the local context both in terms of value proposition and creation, software and hardware choices.
Sustainable Plan for ongoing funding from donor commitment and a sustainable business model. Self-maintained hubs, such as KM4Dev, are extremely unusual and cannot be assumed.

Design Phase

Design with the user Know your users: Get to know the people you are designing for through conversation, observation and co-creation.
Design for scale Think beyond the pilot and make choices that will enable widespread adoption later, be affordable and usable by a whole country or region, rather than by a few pilot communities. It should be possible to take platforms beyond the core capability through the addition of additional functionalities.
Open standards Consider using Open Standards: An open approach to digital development can increase collaboration and avoid duplicating work that has already been done. Programs can maximise their resources — and ultimately their impact — through open standard, open data (following FAIR data principles), open source software and open innovation.
Privacy and security Take measures to minimise collection of and protect confidential information and identities of individuals represented in datasets from unauthorised access and manipulation by third parties. Be aware of and follow any applicable laws and policies.
Language Consider Translation: Most knowledge hubs are in English in international development, but other languages may be more accessible to the proposed target groups. Although Google translate can support this process, proper translation is desirable, although it does have cost and time-lag implications which might not be feasible.
Low- bandwidth Design for Low bandwidth: Portal should be viewable in low- bandwidth settings. Consider that flash graphics and pdf are problematic in the low-bandwidth situations of your users. This is not just a technical issue, but an ethical one.
Ease of use Make it simple to use for the different user groups – administrators and members – and it should be simple to add content, preferably in a decentralised manner.

Implementation Phase

Current Update content regularly. Out-of-date knowledge is at best useless and could be incorrect or wrong.
Owned Someone should own every page in the sense that someone is responsible for ongoing knowledge-based updating and extension over time
Collaborative Share information, insights, strategies and resources across projects, organisations and sectors, leading to increased efficiency and impact.
Realistic Keep realistic expectations of the amount digital interaction that can be built because the behaviour of digital interaction takes time to build
Analyzable Include knowledge-based analytics to measure traffic honestly and explicitly. Metrics available through most software will include unique and repeat visits; traffic sources which can be organic, referral direct or from social media; bounce rate; top pages; and conversion rate. Page views are not enough!
Face-to-face Online interaction on a hub/portal is easiest to start when it has roots in face-to-face interaction and the building of trust, although ability to meet F2F is a privilege which might not be feasible.

Technical standards and specifications

Open Source Use an open source software, such as WordPress and Drupal.
Platform Responsiveness Design for accessibility on all devices Phone, Tablet, Desktop The most important is that they are cross-platform (MS, OSX, Linux, Android and iOS) and that it works well on the mobile platform.
Accessible Section 508 compliance – a US Federal law that enforces a set of standards to ensure people with visual and hearing disabilities can access the web portal
Search experience Employ faceted search supported by controlled vocabularies to help users find information. Faceted search is a technique for accessing information organised according to a faceted classification system, allowing users to explore a collection of information by applying multiple filters. The facets filters show result numbers avoiding the frustrating feeling of ending up on a page saying “no content found’.
Geo-location Factor in geo-location as a potential visualisation tool when appropriate. This should be option as some users prefer to be anonymous for security reasons.
Security Refers to access control, secure access, database encryption, malware data prevention, mitigating DOS attacks, addressing OWASP top 10 risks.
Single sign-on No one wants to remember a new password to access the platform. Giving users an option to sign in with Google, Facebook, etc. helps (OAuth login).
Deployment management The modern practice for developing web portals involves instituting a version control system that involves, a staging, development and production environment is critical in release management
Backups Scheduled and automatic backups taking place outside the USA in areas, such as Europe, with privacy protection laws.
Error reporting A robust error reporting schema helps to identify errors in real time.
Speed and performance Part of ensuring a rich user experience is to make sure the web portal is fast, even for users with low bandwidth.

A final consideration is to make your knowledge platform mainly email-based interactions, instead of expecting everyone to visit an online platform. You can use Development Dgroups, Google Groups, or even Yahoo Groups to encourage participation by those in low bandwidth areas.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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