Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Social media for information specialists: an open space at XIII IAALD World Congress

Social media can play an important role in enhancing information management for agriculture and rural development. This was confirmed when over 30 information managers participating in the XIII IAALD World Congress stayed behind after the official closing session to share questions and experiences about how to make the most of tools such as social bookmarking, and social networks services like IAALD on Facebook, MxIT, the mobile phone based South African social network or the social community generator Ning. However, participants were acutely aware that, with the exception of MxIT, these services emerged in bandwidth-rich countries so one group chose to focus on approaches to working in low-bandwidth environments.

The session, facilitated by the authors of this post, helped participants raise some burning questions, and let them exchange practical experiences and approaches for encouraging uptake, and enhancing effective use of social media tools.

Here are the key points from the thematic discussions:

1) How to measure impact, monitor and evaluate usage of social media so as to select the right mix

The conversation started with CIFOR‘s experience with the newly launched Facebook page for the Center. Our colleague mentioned that management is looking for growth and impact indicators, and was wondering how to set realistic expectations and what to measure. The number of friends or fans is increasing but at a slower speed than expected. The other participants had plenty of comments and suggestions for moving ahead. For example, it is good to set baseline indicators, but when monitoring an experimental use of new media and channels, it could be worth setting the baseline indicators on the basis of what happens over an initial period of observation.

The objective of the new Facebook page is reportedly to share in one place the Center’s news, updates, publications, videos and tweets, with people who are interested in forestry research. Some participants deemed this objective worth pursuing but perhaps generic. Experience has proven that what works well on Facebook are campaigns with a set timeline and specific objectives: people respond on a more personal level and the social network space somehow encourages mobilization.  That means it is also important from the outset to collect stories that illustrate how people are engaging in the space to help interpret and reinforce the quantitative data.

For an institution or a business, it is challenging to find a voice and the topics around which fans can be engaged at a more personal level. A couple of successful examples were mentioned:

  1. the Kew Gardens page where pictures and short reports on the flowers and plants over the seasons are attracting the attention and comments from people who actually love to visit the Gardens;
  2. The Mara Conservancy programme from the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya has a Facebook page, as well as an active Twitter account.
  3. MYMsta – the first social network on a mobile phone focusing on HIV prevention. This example, which reminds us of the importance of bringing mobile into the discussion, came through a response to a twitter posting with the question during the session. Also the hash tag #10tactics was suggested as a related source by another twitter follower.

How do you measure conversations? All agreed that it is difficult; apart from counting members or fans, engagement on social media starts a ripple effect for things that may be going on somewhere else. That’s also why it is difficult to directly monetize social media. But a recent example shows that retweets can pay off: the successful Malaria No More fund-raising campaign, launched on the occasion of the World Malaria Day, relied on RT2Give by Twitpay, a provider of social media payment services. The campaign has raised over $11,000 USD so far (read more about this initiative).

When deciding which social network or channel to build for your audience, the dynamic nature of social networks need to be considered. Communities born around specific topics can overlap and cross-fertilise, information gets remixed and local and group cultures emerge and evolve. In many cases organisations or campaigns wishing to work in social media do better by supporting and collaborating with such fluid user-generated communities.

A powerful example emerged in recent research into Social Media and HIV/Aids Communications.  HIV/AIDS self-support communities in Brazil such as Aids, DST … Conscientização have much more activity than equivalent organisational sites. This Orkut community also reminds us that beyond the usual suspects like Facebook, there are a variety of networks out there that function on their own dynamics and platforms, but there are no strict guidelines for measuring success. Social media specialists should keep track of emerging platforms, and also look to successful examples when designing engagement strategies.

On a related note, the group briefly addressed what happens when an open access platform turns to user fees, as was recently announced by the social network platform Ning. The communities currently using that system are now faced with the question of staying, and paying up, or relocating their established network to a new platform, which could be equally costly. The debate continues within the Ning user base. There is an open access Google document where people are sharing ideas.

Pier Andrea Pirani explains the power of social bookmarking

2) How to use social bookmarking tools as a channel to mobilise content across different web platforms, networks and communities?

“I’m using delicious to bookmark the publications my organisation produces, but then what? How can I disseminate this information?” asked one of the participants. After covering the basics of the system, to ensure that everyone understood social bookmarking and tagging in general, the group progressively covered (some of) the multiple ways you can make use of delicious to disseminate all kinds of information. Liv Ellingsen from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences presented her experience, where delicious is a key component of a well thought-through information system. Liv uses delicious to bookmark web resources related to Norwegian research on environment and development. Using the RSS feeds, she then re-publish this information on Eldis Community, on Twitter and in her Linkedin and Facebook profiles. Users can also subscribe to the RSS feed in a reader or as an email alert. This way, Liv uses one single tool to automatically disseminate content across multiple channels. This brings a great deal of efficiency in her work, and the possibility to target and reach potentially different users.

This “funky” (according to one participant) way of using delicious is a variation on the way the ‘old’ Euforic team started running their entire web site and subsites since the end of 2005. Delicious has enormous potential to generate creative and ‘funky’ uses for RSS feeds, but this is still not widely understood and should be further documented and disseminated.

The rest of the discussion touched on ways to share a common account, and how to build a list of resources between different users sharing a common tag, as in the example of the npk4dev tag. The conversation could have gone on much further, as the interest of the participants in knowing more and sharing there experiences and examples was really there.

Participants discuss low-bandwidth solutions for social media

3) Low-bandwidth social media solutions

How can we adapt social media tools such as blogs, to encourage access by users in developing countries, who are often frustrated by slow and irregular internet connections? The group focused on some challenges faced by International Food Policy Research Institute’s Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators database, which relies on information provided by developing country institutions, and aims to share the updated databases with the same partners. It was suggested that text-based email updates, such as those automatically generated by feedburner when a blog is updated, may help engage data users who less frequently check to see if a blog is updated, due perhaps to limited internet use, or because a graphics-heavy site takes too long to load. Mobile phones, which are cheap and simple to use, may also be a useful tool for both data collection and dissemination. For example, once the completed survey is available online, stakeholders in developing countries could be notified by SMS.

The participants also considered a number of strategies that made use of more traditional media, noting the massively important role that newspapers and radio play in most developing countries. It was also suggested that the database be made available offline, on a DVD or USB drive, and be made open access to allow for copying and sharing. For more tips visit Vanessa’s post on Low-bandwidth solutions for knowledge sharing emerging from the 2009 Share Fair.

Final thoughts…

The enormous potential of social media is still mostly untapped in the agriculture and rural development world, and the eager discussions hours after the Supagro doors had closed were a sign that agricultural information professionals want to embrace new knowledge sharing approaches, and learn from peer experiences. Overall, the IAALD Congress has helped us understand the diverse roles that information managers play; the better we understand each others’ work, the more effective we can be in our own.

How do you use social bookmarking, Facebook and low-bandwidth solutions for enhancing research and development? Please share your favourite examples in the comments!

This blog post was written collaboratively by Vanessa Meadu (ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins), Antonella Pastore (CGIAR ICT-KM Program), Pier Andrea Pirani (Euforic Services Ltd.). Special thanks for additional contributions to and Pete Cranston (Euforic Services Ltd.) and Denise Senmartin (IICD).