Monday, October 19, 2015

Four useful tools to monitor Twitter use and engagement

If you search on Google for “Twitter monitoring tools” you’ll probably get a lot of blog posts and resources with links to tools such SocialBro, Crowdbooster, TwitterCounter and many more. And of course don’t forget Twitter Analytics itself, available to all users for a little over one year now, that allows you to track engagement on your timeline activity and followers growth.

However, for most popular uses there are limitation in terms of free use and you’ll have to purchase a subscription to use all their features. And Twitter Analytics doesn’t give you all you may need in terms of tracking Twitter use and engagement. For example, you may need to track activity around a specific hashtag or Twitter account, around an event or an online campaign. Or to analyze the Twitter users in a specific list. Or to monitor the number of followers and growth of several accounts, some of which are created and managed by others.

For several of the projects I’ve been working on in recent months, I had to spend some time looking at possible solutions to these needs. After some researching, testing and experimenting, here are four useful tools that you can use to enrich your digital analytics around Twitter.

Keeping track of Twitter followers numbers 

Example dynamic followers count 
 While number of followers to a Twitter account may not be by itself very meaningful as a metric to track users’ engagement, it is still a quick, useful indicator of your ability to connect and expand your audience. Tracking Twitter followers numbers is easy when you have to look at the followers of just one Twitter account. But what if you need to monitor and aggregate the followers of several Twitter accounts, how can you easily do it?

After some searching and (several) failed tests with different solutions, I finally came across this excellent Google Script created by Sarah Marshall. After you setup and configure the Script, you’ll be able to automatically add Twitter followers numbers to a Google Spreadsheet, for as many Twitter account as you need.

This is a great tool to have a quick overview of the followers of different Twitter account at a glance. Moreover, Sarah has kept updating the Script, whenever Twitter has changed the way its API works.

Exporting Twitter lists 

TwExList is an excellent service to export a wide range of information from Twitter. For example, you can export information such as followers and following, tweets, mentions and favourites of your own Twitter account or of another user account. Likewise, you can export information around a Twitter list, regardless of whether you have created the list or not.

Example TwExList Excel export - click to enlarge the image

Very simple to use, in four easy steps TwExList offers you different options - from Excel and CSV to html - to export the data you’re interested.

Given the many different types of information that you can export using TwExList, there are many, many ways in which this tool can come in handy. For example, you can analyze your Twitter timeline posts, to see which one created more engagement (retweets and favorites); or you can inspect your followers - or the members of a list - to see influencers and active users . Finally, you can use this service to keep an eye on your ‘competitors’ and see how they are using Twitter, the kind of following they have and how they create and sustain engagement.

The service is free to test, limiting the export to the last 50 tweets in a list. Different pricing options are available from single to unlimited exports.

Monitoring Twitter engagement 

Two very useful tools you can use to measure engagement and track conversations on Twitter are Zapier and TAGS.

Zapier connects web services and apps to automate ‘actions’ between them on the basis of defined triggers. For example you can use Zapier to connect Twitter and Google Drive so that each new engagement action (mention, RT or reply) around a Twitter handle or around a hashtag is recorded and added as a new row in the connected spreadsheet. Amongst others, information that can be recorded includes: post link; user name and location, RT counts, etc...Pricing plans for Zapier start with a free account, for 3 Zaps and up to 100 records/month. Paid accounts start at $15/month for 10 Zaps and 3000 records/month.

Use Zapier to connect Twitter and Google Sheets - click to enlarge

A great alternative is TAGS, the free service developed by Martin Hawksey. TAGS (short for Twitter Archive Google Spreadsheet) is a Spreadsheet Template that users can easily copy and configure to suit their needs to track mentions and search terms on Twitter, and automate the collection of these results.

One of the things I love about this service is that, together with a worksheet collecting the various tweets, the spreadsheet template comes with a summary and dashboard sheet already built in, so you don’t have to worry about setting this up but can start focusing on the analysis of your results immediately.

Example of TAGS dashboard
Additionally, TAGS comes with two nice add-ons: a searchable, online archive of the tweets collected and an explorer to visualize the engagement and connections between different users.

Example of TAGS searchable archive - click for live version
While I’ve started using TAGS as part of the toolkit to monitor online engagement for social reporting around events, increasingly I’m recommending it as a good solution for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of a specific Twitter handle, or a particular hashtag or search term.

What other tools do you use to support and complement your Twitter Analytics?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Social learning for farming systems – Insights from Africa RISING in Ethiopia

Gezahegne Kebede briefs fodder activity on his farm (by Africa Rising
With collaborative, adaptive learning approaches, researchers and stakeholders can tackle complexity and uncertainty together. Social learning refers to processes where people with different “knowledges” about a problem — scientists and farmers, for example — tap into their collective wisdom, try new practices and learn from cycles of acting and reflecting together. The dialogue, action and feedback loops allow participants to track unfolding changes and transform how they approach problems over time
This quote is from a briefing note by the Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) initiative of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) involving as key partners the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) program.

In May 2015 two members of the CCSL team were invited by ILRI to explore the question of whether and how research to sustainably intensify farming systems can benefit from these kinds of collaborative and iterative social learning processes. The exploration was undertaken through a review of literature and interviews with scientists from the Ethiopia Africa RISING team. The aim was also to contribute some ideas on what could be done to strengthen social learning in the program.

Africa RISING (Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation) in Ethiopia is led by ILRI in a partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, other CGIAR centers (IWMI, ICARDA, ICRAF, CIAT, ICRISAT, CIP, CIMMYT) and many local partners. It works in eight Kebeles (local administrative areas) in four regions – Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, and Tigray.


Interviews with several CGIAR staff suggest that many of the features that one would look for in a social learning approach are in place in the Ethiopia Highlands project. Attitudes towards social learning are positive and understandings of what makes learning social are relevant. Definitions of social learning offered by staff included:
  • multiple and diverse stakeholder engagement
  • collaborative generation of knowledge
  • human-centred learning
  • participation of stakeholders
  • personally-transformative experiences of learning, including for researchers and communities
  • coherent group learning
  • freedom to learn from each other
In discussing examples, staff mentioned several learning methods which are relevant to iterative (feedback looped) learning including:
  • Multi-stakeholder innovation platforms (12 in operation meeting twice a year)
  • Stakeholder exchanges between program sites
  • Farmer field days
  • Farmer research groups
  • Staff blogs and photo journals
  • Annual learning reviews
  • Social baseline mapping
It is too early in the process of Africa RISING implementation to expect to hear about significant examples of change happening at scale, although we noted that scaling up to watershed levels is planned.

During interviews with two of the participants conversation turned to the earlier RIPPLE project, since they had been involved it it. There are fascinating cross-overs – and examples of social learning – between the two projects. Both projects have at their core a series of collaborative, networked learning processes and platforms. And over RIPPLE’s five years, there is evidence of the kind of iterative learning leading to change at scale. For example, over time, discussions that started around specific water installations widened to address the impact of tapping springs for water supply on traditional multi-use practices and then further extended to include other stakeholders and ministries on wider natural resource management issues such as how to address the drying up of streams and reforestation.

Challenges to social learning

The interviews surfaced two potentially significant challenges. First, the innovation platforms method has come up against process constraints related to the particular political economy of Ethiopia. This is most evident in the risk of bureaucratic capture of the dialogue space when government actors act as platform chairs / facilitators but do not encourage formal or informal group formation or discussion beyond exciting governance arrangements. Second, the annual learning reviews within Africa RISING have been face to face events that do not include the perspectives of all actors in the program (other approaches like most significant change stories are being used to try and widen the learning) and they do not provide strong enough incentives to act on lessons that emerge.

Options to strengthen social learning

Some steps to to strengthen social learning within the project include:
  1. Facilitation training for innovation platform chairs and the introduction of co-chairing to enhance the quality and representativeness of dialogue
  2. Comparative learning across Africa RISING projects on the relationship between the differing political economy contexts and the selection / efficacy of learning instruments (e.g. Multi-Stakeholder / Innovation Platforms)
  3. Remote participation of other actors and scientists in Annual Learning Reviews
  4. Team reflection on which values, beliefs and behaviours that frame the inclusion / exclusion of disciplines within Africa RISING (e.g. Value Chains, Political Science)
  5. Monitoring the extent to which beneficiaries define future research questions to support a wider basket of innovation options.
  6. Social Network Analysis at treatment and control sites to assess and monitor how learning is affecting relationships between stakeholders or influencing institutions within and beyond the project
  7. Increasing stakeholder exchanges across program sites to improve social learning at scale
  8. Post-implementation reviews of comparator social learning experiences and other projects in Ethiopia to inform Africa RISING

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Using a self hosted Wordpress site for project communication

When we’re asked to set up a blog to support projects, most of the time the choice is a simple free installation at However, once we’d identified the functions that we wanted to support with technology in our KM activities for the BDS program, we quickly realized we would need more functionality and features than the ones available on a free WordPress blog. So we opted for a self-hosted version at - and made use of the dozens of plugins that are available to expand your WordPress blog into a rich, complex website.

There are tons of posts out there on the pros and cons of self hosted solutions, and step by step guides to installation and hosting. There’re also an awful lot of resources about essential WordPress plugins you should be using on your site. So we won’t cover any of these topics in this post. Instead, we’ll be looking at 3 plugins that we’re using to expand the BDS KM site beyond its core blogging functionality.

Custom taxonomy and categories 

The first function of the bdskm site is to act as publishing platform for the selection of monthly curated updates about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). We wanted these updates to be properly categorized, according to type of resources, geographical and thematic coverage. And we wanted to make it easy for our curator to apply these categories, by choosing from a list or drop down menu. So we needed something that goes beyond the (useful but rigid) standard combination of WordPress tags and categories.

Installing the plugin WCK - Custom Fields and Custom Post Types Creator allows you to create additional taxonomies for your website. Most importantly, you can do so without having to touch any piece of code.

In our case, we defined three custom taxonomies for type of resources, geographical and thematic coverage. These can be easily selected by authors when they post new content on the site.

Further, we reflected this custom taxonomies in the front end of the site. Adding the plugin in Search and Filter, we could expand the search functionality, allowing users to filter and display content for each of the categories included in our new taxonomies.

Five stars rating widget 

Another key specification for the Curated Updates part of the website was the introduction of a simple content rating system. We wanted to give readers the possibility to assess and rate the content published monthly on the site, through a rating or start system. This had to be as easy as possible for readers, meaning no login should have been required for them to cast their vote on a specific article. 

The Rating-Widget Star Ratings WordPress plugin allows to you to embed and display star ratings after each post or page on your WordPress website. You can customize style, theme and colors, fonts etc. of the ratings. You can also display the 'Top Rated' content as a widget on your site sidebar or footer.

The plugin comes with a free version and several possible upgrade option. In this case we purchased the Professional version (8 USD/month) which, among other features, gives you a very useful dashboard to monitor ratings. All data can be also exported in a zip file.

Private content area 

The last and third functionality we wanted to add to the bdskm site is the creation of a private content area, accessible only to the core group of project participants. In our plan, this would allow for a more intimate interaction and dialogue between project participants, where they would share their reflections about learning from the project, and how they are learning about the way they learn.

There are many ways in which a private content area can be created on WordPress, and several plugins do this job. After some research and a little more testing, eventually we opted for using the User Access Manager plugin.

With this plugin, you can create user groups and specify what site content each group has access to. User accounts are created via the WordPress dashboard, and they are added to a specific group. As a convention, we set up the users accounts with their email as login name and use a standard password that they could change after their first login. Using their account details, users could access any restricted content page or post.

While we use a dozen other plugins on the bdskm website, the three illustrated above here demonstrate how flexible and scalable WordPress is, and how much you can do with it. With WordPress it is really easy to make the site do what you need it to, even without being a programmer or webmaster.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Social Learning: A way to improve research-for-development programmes?

"Talking up the most risky ways to engage with power during social learning processes wasn’t such a stupid idea for a session after all." This was the two of us weeks after leading an energising discussion on Social Learning at theAgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The Share Fair was convened by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and attracted around 60 people from across CGIAR and beyond. The ambition was to showcase, test and assess a set of promising ‘process improvements’ known to make (agricultural) research and development activities, programs, and institutes more effective, efficient, collaborative and where collective learning takes center stage.

Social Learning at the Share Fair

The Social Learning session that we ran at the Share Fair had the ambition to explore processes that can move agriculture and rural development work onto the third transformational social learning loop and to dig into the opportunities and risks of doing so.

Many of the issues that prevent development from reaching its potential have a lot to do with how we learn, and how we learn together to transform the development/research ecosystems in which we work and live.

This is particularly true of wicked problems such as chronic poverty and climate change. Social learning is a complex and fascinating approach that puts the due emphasis on this transformational learning that involves the whole ecosystem around us.

Learning is an explicit objective of many process orientated approaches to doing agricultural development better (e.g. participation, action research, innovation systems, communities of practice, etc) and social learning shares many features with them. How to make more effective and creative the many processes we are part of in our work was the central theme of the ShareFair.

By imagining the worst case and honestly sharing personal examples, the practitioners in the Social Learning session sprung some great tips for engaging safely with power as designers and facilitators of agricultural learning processes that promote transformational change:
  • Collaboratively map stakeholders and information flows
  • Identify powerful actors and relationships
  • Engage power strategically
  • Make power relations transparent
  • Ensure ownership
  • Choose the right people to influence
  • Identify safe windows to challenge power
  • Have an exit strategy
  • Work with social scientists
  • Write proposals grounded in political analysis

Learning within much of research for development can often feel too limited to questions within the scope of pre-determined goals about efficiency (i.e. asking Are we doing things right?) and effectiveness (i.e. asking Are we doing the right things).

Social learning expands learning to potentially challenge the institutional arrangements (e.g. values, beliefs, governance) that set goals by asking How do we decide what is right?.

This third loop of learning can support transformational change, but in the process and outcome of doing so often engages with power (i.e. those organisations, groups and individuals who benefit most from existing institutional arrangements).

As process designers and facilitators supporting transformational change gathering in Addis, we hoped we could share knowledge and build capacities for navigating the opportunities and risks of challenging institutions when using social learning approaches. We weren't disappointed – as the practical tips for engaging safely with power above demonstrate. We need to be good at this for ourselves, but moreover for the co-learners we encourage to engage in change through social learning.

And if you really want to deliver a project that has zero influence on power structures through your learning activities just try:
  • Ignoring culture and social structures
  • Designing remotely and on your own
  • Assuming science is neutral and decision making is rational
  • Believing everyone shares common goals

Engaged and interactive participants at the AgKnowledge Share Fair really made the experience fun and invigorating. Photo: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu
[First published on the CCAFS news blog]

Monday, July 20, 2015

Three tools to support communication and learning in a KM project

One of the projects that has kept us busy over the past 15 months is the support and facilitation of KM activities in the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) programme. The project has different components and activities and, from its inception, we looked at how technology could support communication and learning in and around the project. This blog post will provide a quick overview of three of the tools that we’ve been using in this KM project.
BDSKM blog - click to enlarge

3 simple principles for technology selection 

But before we go into technology, here are some of the principles that guided our selection of possible digital tools:

  1. Know your audience. We engaged with grantees in the early stage of the project, to understand their current behaviours in terms of information, knowledge sharing and communication. 
  2. Tools follow functions. In one early meeting in the process, grantees defined specific KM activities they were interested in. From this, we mapped out a series of possible tools to be used, selecting the most appropriate and accessible. 
  3. Private and public spaces. While we tend to favour the creation of ‘open’, public online spaces there was a specific need in this project for two kinds of spaces. The first is a more protected space, to enable people to share tentative or critical ideas that they would not like necessarily to share in a more open space. At the same time we wanted other spaces that are more public, to be able to interact and engage with a larger online audience. 

Tech overview

To support and enable communication and learning, we opted for a simple, straightforward digital system using 3 tools:

  • A Wordpress blog - Publicly available at, this simple blog is the digital home for the project. It offers different online spaces, such as the Curated Updates, which are openly accessible for anyone on the Internet. Other pages, such as the KM Talks and its subpages, are private, only accessible to the core project participants. In these private pages, participants share their reflections about learning from the project, and learning about the way they learn
  • A Dgroup community - With membership by invitation only, it includes again just the closer circle of participants directly involved with the project and the KM support team. The Dgroup is key in supporting different types of communications in the project: from informal information sharing between group members, to facilitated and focused e-discussion on specific questions, to reflections and learning stories emerging from other activities in the project. 
  • A Mailchimp newsletter - The newsletter is sent on a monthly basis, presenting the content that is published in the Curated Updates section of the blog. Initially sent to the core group of project participants, its membership has grown beyond this reduced number of recipient to reach about 160 WASH professionals, a good indicator of the relevance and value of this service, as reported in a previous blog post. 
Around this core, simple toolkit, we also made use of other supporting technology such as Adobe Connect for online webinars, Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive to collaborate on documents and share files and folders, Skype and Google Hangout for live meetings.

In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at the Wordpress blog, why we opted for an installed version of the software instead of using its free option and the core plugin we’re using to expand the functionality and features of the blog.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How to encourage engagement in virtual meetings?

Virtual meetings are here to stay. Increasingly, organizations in our sectors are promoting the use of online web conferencing and web gathering tools to organize learning events, team and project meetings, information sharing sessions, etc. Budget cuts, the increasing availability of technology solution, and the way we are more and more working in decentralized, virtual teams, all ask for online meetings that are well designed, facilitated, and engaging.
webinar by Jules on Flickr

So how to make this happen? What are the options and techniques to make a virtual meeting more productive, participatory and engaging?

To explore this questions, yesterday I joined a webinar organized by CORE Group and the Knowledge Management Task Force of the TOPS FSN Network. Even if it was late at night for me, I was very happy I joined the event. Both the conversations that emerged, and the way the event was designed, were a great learning experience.

Virtual meetings are… 

Even if I joined the meeting few minutes after it started, I immediately knew I was in the right place. A slide in the middle of the screen was asking me “When you think about virtual meetings, what’s the one word and feeling that comes to your mid?”. And the answers I was hearing from the other 20 plus KM and communication professionals that were in the room, they all resonated well with me.

Virtual meetings can be unpredictable. For as much as we may like virtual meetings, there’s always the possibility of a technical failure. Your keynote and presenter may be late or not show up, or you may have a lower attendance that you had expected. Users may not be familiar with the conferencing platform, making it more difficult for them to engage with the technology and the other participants in the event.

Virtual meetings can also be very demanding, with a lot that goes into preparing and delivering, in terms of time and manpower. You need at least one producer, a chat host, a note taker and an MC. Sometimes these roles can overlap, but it works better if the various tasks are split between different people.

On the other hand, virtual meetings are a necessary, and they’ll be even more in the future. And they allow a great deal of experimentation in the way you bring people together to interact online. 

Engaging participants to speak up 

We were brought into separate breakout rooms according to the answers we had provided to a pre-event survey. While one group discussed how to create engaging content for webinars and online meetings, in the room I was assigned to, we looked at options to stimulate participants using their microphones. Different techniques and approaches can be used to make this happen:

  • Users’ need to know how to open their microphone, so sending some pre-webinar information on how this work may bring you a long way when they have to start interacting. 
  • There’s a clear and understandable sense of ‘fear’ when talking to a group of strangers online that you don’t know and can’t see. So creating trust amongst participants and a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable with is very important. 
  • The use of breakout rooms is an excellent way to create safer and more intimate spaces for conversation, where participants may be less afraid to contribute their opinions. 
  • Also a progression through different means of communication can help in building trust. You start with introductions via chat, then move into breakout rooms, and then in plenary. 
  • If you want participants to contribute, have clear, open ended questions they can relate to and engage with. 
  • Most important, don’t be afraid of silence. There’s often a few seconds where nobody wants to speak, that awkward, short but long moment of silence. If you’re the facilitator, let it be. Eventually someone will take the floor. 

Preparation, design and facilitation are the key to success 

The webinar was very practical and participatory from the very beginning. The organizers had gathered our inputs before the meetings, and this info was used in defining the questions we addressed in plenary and in the the breakout rooms.They also made great use of the conferencing technology (Adobe Connect - the platform we use ourselves for online and blended meetings), using polls, chats, different meeting layouts and progressing swiftly through various techniques and tools in facilitating the session. Moreover, they made attendees take responsibilities for facilitating parts of the session and reporting back to the whole group.

It’s true that the participants make the webinar, and a webinar is good only as the participants engage with it. But what yesterday's webinar demonstrated to me once more is that investment in preparation, event design and good facilitation techniques are the things that will make or break your next virtual meeting.

I’d love to hear what are your obstacles in producing and facilitating virtual meetings, and what you’ve learned from your own experience. Have something to share? Please drop a line in the comments below here!

Monday, June 01, 2015

Agknowledge Share Fair - Recordings of virtual and blended sessions

As I wrote in my last post, we recently supported 4 sessions from the Agknowledge Share Fair in Addis with options for remote participation.

If you hadn't have the chance to attend the event in Addis or online, here's where you can watch the recordings of the sessions we supported.

Note, the videos are mostly unedited so use the navigation on the left end side of the Adobe Connect recording playback to skip through the different parts of the video.

As you'll see, it's not an easy job to combine onsite and online facilitation and ensure participation and engagement. But with practice, experience and the desire to experiment, a lot can be achieved to create participatory, blended meetings.