Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bigger databases or personal, curated collections - Mendeley and BDS KM

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?1

That quote used to be trotted out a lot in the early days of computers, as people worried about the impact of digital technology on learning and collaboration. It seems more relevant now as we struggle to keep our heads above water in the swollen rivers of information and communication swirling around us. We’ve moved very quickly from a situation where information was scarce to one where we have a surplus, a glut of information.

Part of the original brief for the Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) Knowledge Management (K)M project was to, ‘improve knowledge and information management of, and access to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s WSH information (by)
planning and designing a system to organize and annotate WSH resources and to make these resources readily available to grantees as well as to the public”. However, two key changes were made to the proposal following consultations with the grantees:
  1. Grantees were clear they didn’t need or want another mega-depository: the key issue for them was overload, an insupportable signal to noise ratio. They wanted to be able to know about new stuff (which led to the Curated Updates work described in the previous post) and be able to access the most useful as and when they needed it.
  2. While the Gates Foundation WSH material is important, grantees also wanted material from elsewhere to be included.
So the task was refined to, “provide a working prototype of a curated database of core WSH digital content, comprising both Gates Foundation and other information”, with the audience as Gates Foundation staff and grantees who would like easier and more organized access to useful information. In our research we drew on the deep WASH experience of Peter Feldman, whose notes and comment inform much of this blog, and Jaap Pels, a KM specialist with 11 years WASH experience in IRC.

On and offline – Agriknowledge and TEEAL lead the field

The first task was to review other information management libraries to assess their range of content and capabilities. Internally, the Gates Foundation’s Agriculture program emerged as a leader in this area. Agriculture has established two library systems – an online digital library (“Agriknowledge”), and an offline library designed for use in developing country contexts (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library or TEEAL). The online Agriknowledge library, built and managed by Cornell University, is primarily devoted to Gates Foundation-generated content, though they have recently started acquiring documents from Gates Foundation partners’ libraries as well. Agriknowledge can be searched by theme, country, language, and type of document. Currently there are about 600 documents in the repository. It is still evolving, and its managers anticipate instituting major platform changes in the future in terms of its administrative interface and other features.

TEEAL, in contrast, was developed to bring a wide range of agricultural and related science information to users who lack fast and reliable internet access. The library itself is a sealed hard drive unit which can be accessed from a subscriber’s computer. The ‘basic collection’ includes content from more than 275 research journals from 1993 to the present, and is updated (by flash drive) every year.

Mutiplying repositories

The Gates Foundation WSH program’s Transformative Technologies portfolio is currently using the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance ( website as a place to store and share its' own and partner research outputs. Currently there appear to be around 100 documents in this online platform, which is searchable by key words and sortable by title, publication year, and partner organization. These documents also can be accessed from the main SuSanA library, and it is possible to link to related discussions in the SuSanA forums area. In 2014 the main SuSanA library had over 1,700 documents. SuSanA continues to update various parts of its website, with funding support from the Gates Foundation.

Other prominent WASH sector organizations maintain online libraries, generally accessed through navigation from their home page. Examples include those of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), UNICEF, WHO, the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC), Akvopedia, the Community Led Total Sanitation Knowledge Hub, the CLTS Foundation, the USAID-supported WASHplus project, and others (mainly regionally or country-focused).

Each of these existing resource libraries has strengths and weaknesses. WSP’s site offers only content from its own projects (though it has over 1000 documents). WSSCC’s library has a wide range of content, and it is relatively easy to search its 1,800+ documents. SuSanA and CLTS Knowledge Hub have ‘deep’ content focused on a narrower range of subjects. Finding information in the WSH sector therefore may require visiting a number of sites and dealing with a range of different search platforms (summarized in the table below).

WASH Resource
Resource Type
Principal Subject Categories
Akvopedia Sanitation Portal
Wiki articles and links to references.
Sanitation technologies. Note that this is a Wiki, and not a library of published documents.
CLTS Know-ledge Hub
Mainly grey literature on CLTS, plus journal articles. >700 items.
CLTS is main focus, plus hand washing and some health-related topics. No sorted category on evaluations, notably.
Yes. There also is an automatic function that brings up ‘more like this’.
Mainly GIZ and SEI documents focused on sanitation technology.
-       Case Studies;
-       Research;
-       Training Materials;
-       Conference Materials
Yes (material is selected & organized by Susana managers)
UNICEF publications
Water, sanitation & hygiene. Can also access the “Evaluation and Research Database” and search by country, region, theme, or date. “Theme” only goes to WASH level.
Wide range of WHO and other UN body documents
Very detailed, covering over 5000 topics in the library (all of health sector).
WSP and WB documents only
-       Financing the Sector
-       Rural water supply and sanitation
-       Sanitation and hygiene
-       Strategic communications
-       Urban water supply and sanitation
-       Rural sanitation and hygiene
-       Domestic private sector participation
-       Poor-inclusive sector reform
-       Urban poor and small towns
-       Climate change impacts
-       Fragile states
Wide range of resource types; >1800 items.
3-level Sorting:
-       By resource type: E.g., Publications, Networks, Advocacy, People’s stories, etc.
-       Within these, by Language, Year, Region, Country, and Topic.
-       Within Topics (>30) are CLTS, San. Financing, Hand washing, and various others.
Yes (to some extent)

A searchable Dropbox

Grantees had strongly urged that WSH resource databases should
  1. Provide offline access to WSH resources, for two reasons:
    • There are still large areas and numbers of people who work in development who do not have reliable, affordable Internet access, both at home and at work.
    • Development people travel, go to workshops and visit projects: having access to a portable, searchable offline repository of relevant material is a key resource. Dropbox is a widely used solution but its contents can only be searched by filename.
  2. Build on an existing platform
Feldman’s work had shown the importance of classifying or tagging the material to enable rapid searching and sorting. We wanted to find ways to make the repository a living document, one with which grantees could interact, able to rate, edit, tag (classify) and add to the collection.

Jaap Pels led the investigation into platforms suitable for the trial information repository. Based on this research and input from our Advisory Group members, the Mendeley reference manager/social network rose to the top of the list.

Mendeley is a desktop and web program for collaborating online, managing and sharing research papers. It combines

  • Mendeley Desktop, a PDF and a reference management application (cross-platform on personal computers as well as phones and tablets)
  • Mendeley Web, an online social network for researchers.

Though aimed at a research audience and requiring a subscription, the platform showed good promise for several reasons:

  • It can be used online or offline (desktop version can automatically synch with the online library);
  • It's accessible from pads and smart phones;
  • It has Public or Private Groups. This feature means that a specific sub-set of ‘high value materials’ can uploaded and shared with a group of users, either public or only for an invited set of users, such as BDS grantees, as shown below. In practice this then becomes a shared library, as well as a platform for developing and maintaining social contacts

  • Meta-data from uploaded documents is automatically captured (although it generally requires some editing);
  • It's easily searchable by user-created tags, key words or other attributes;
  • Users also can access and search the entire Mendeley document database[4].
  • There are limited social functions, enabling people to find others with similar interests and interact

BDS grantees were very interested in the prototype and several are experimenting with it.

1  TS Elliot 
As a Wiki, this may be a group process 
3  Institutional Repository for Information Sharing.
[4 Mendeley reportedly has about 1.9 million members, and is home to 65 million documents (supposedly covering over 97% of all published research)..

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