Opening up the hub approach in Latin America

Click here to view and download a PDF version of the above Latin American ‘Appropriate Technology’ Knowledge Hub infographic.

By Mark Lewis, Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA) Programme Director

This is the story of how Practical Action Latin America has been inspired and supported by the Open Knowledge Hub project to develop a Latin American ‘Appropriate Technology’ Knowledge Hub.

Practical Action-Latin America has long sought to share development knowledge.  We target poor and vulnerable producers, businesses, extension services and policymakers, through our portals and knowledge services.  ‘Practical Answers’ is a service that responds one to one, with technical briefs and advice, to enquiries from poor producers from across the region. Our product portals – in quinoa, coffee, dairy products and others – give a wealth of information to all those in the value chains in Peru and beyond.  Our ELLA programme – Evidence and Lessons from Latin America – shares research knowledge across regions with African and Asian policymakers.

We are always looking to improve the range of knowledge that we can share, adapting as the digital world evolves year by year. So it was great to be asked in 2013 to tender to become a partner in IDS’s Open Knowledge Hub (OKhub) project, on the back of our experience with ELLA. To start with, we were slow to understand the breadth of the project. But under IDS leadership, it became clear that it had philosophical, managerial and technological dimensions which we all needed to address.

In 2014, we were immersed into the philosophy of Open Knowledge, the open sharing and re-use of data in all its forms, the licensing options, the opportunities and the risks.  We experienced the epistemological challenge of organising knowledge.  How could a diverse set of partners from the four corners of the world agree on the metadata fields, and any form of taxonomy? How can the quality of the shared knowledge be assured? And we were led through the latest widgets that would enable the easy mass transfer of knowledge objects between partners via the Hub.

We engaged and did our bit in this exciting project. We funnelled through all our English language ELLA output to the Hub, with plans for Practical Action Spanish language output too. We drew down other partners’ material from the Hub with plug-ins to our product portals.  But more than this, the OKhub project got us thinking: why not develop something similar in Latin America, to enhance our own knowledge work and that of our partners, at the same time feeding the global OKhub?

With the support of the OKhub project, in early 2015, we got a research consultancy underway to explore the status of Open Knowledge in Latin America, to map knowledge portals who shared our thematic interests, and to identify likely candidates for participating with us in a Spanish language Latin American hub.  Practical Action’s vision is to share knowledge that enables poor and vulnerable people to access technologies that are appropriate for their needs.  So we centred our portal mapping on three themes of specific interest to us – renewable energy, food and agriculture, climate change and disaster risk management – plus two themes of wider interest to the global OKhub – violence and conflict, and governance.

We reviewed some 400 possible partner sites (university centres, think tanks, development organisations, NGOs).  We mapped in detail 47 sites, looking at the quantity, perceived quality, range and type of knowledge products – reviewing altogether some 16 variables.  Then based on this work, we interviewed the 23 most promising candidate partners.  The results were interesting (see box).  Most were very interested in the OKhub approach, and were keen to explore a partnership with us.  We were also able to explore their quality control procedures that each maintains for the products they post, a lesson we had taken from the OKhub experience.

Latin American Portals’ and the OKhub Approach
• The Open agenda has gained good traction in Latin America, but Open Access is more common than commitment to all aspects of Openness (re-use, re-mixing and tweaking, for any purpose)

• As portals with a remit to disseminate knowledge, all the interviewed organisations were in principle committed to the Open agenda, and all provided Open Access

• About half used Creative Commons licenses

• Some fears were expressed about loss of control over their knowledge products, visits to their sites and their ‘business models’

• But they are very interested in technologies which allow them to keep their portals up-to-date, while reducing the high cost of portal maintenance

Out of this exercise, in the last half year, we have begun designing a Latin American ‘Appropriate Technology’ hub, with the support of the IDS OKhub project.  The design draws heavily on the OKhub approach, with IDS providing guidance in particular on the technical aspects of developing the hub.  Our webmaster Giannina Solari undertook a learning exchange visit to IDS in late 2015, to get some hands-on technical experience on developing a hub and comments that “… without that training visit to IDS, I would not have felt at all confident about developing the hub concept and dealing with our website developers in Peru. It was invaluable.”

In the first year of the proposed Latin American hub, we will focus thematically on renewable energy, with other technology themes to follow subsequently.  The objective now is to establish a ‘wholesale’ hub that allows this easy sharing of knowledge objects, between the six to eight renewable energy partners, and for others to draw down upon as well.  Our bigger concern is to provide a better range of knowledge to the specific target populations that each of the partners tries to reach – from disadvantaged people themselves to the policymakers who help shape their lives.

The details of the design will be worked through at a multi-partner workshop in Lima in late February. We will bring all the OKhub expertise to bear – two other regional experts who helped develop the OKhub project will participate. With a regionally limited, and initially more thematically focused, approach, maybe we can go further than the OKhub. Perhaps we might agree on a thematic taxonomy – we are reviewing existing indexing – or a taxonomy of types of knowledge object.  Both would allow a hub which is easier to use, to import and export data, both for the contributing partners and for other users.

For Practical Action, this has been a rich learning experience, and we are confident that this will help us provide better knowledge services, both directly to poor communities and in our quest to reach policymakers more effectively.  Alfonso Carrasco, Practical Action Latin America Director says “This has been a wonderful project for us. We have learnt a lot from IDS. We want to be a leading provider of knowledge on appropriate technologies in Latin America.  And these new, low maintenance, ways of sharing knowledge are going to really help us in our work, and that of our partners”.