Collaborate, Create, Communicate

CGMap and Ongoing Research: what’s up with projects in the CGIAR – Part 1 of 2

If I had to wish something bad to my worst enemy, I’d wish they get caught in the definition of project as an information object. I’d get rid of them in a snap, sending them astray into a maze of definitions, schemas, standards or lack thereof.

Why so cynical, you may ask… well, because we have sort of been through that with CGMap and Ongoing Research. A story told many times already (just check our CGMap project page for the track record on this topic), but perhaps still worth telling. The more so now that we have two CGIAR project information systems, and one may wonder why two, if only to get one together is such a big adventure.

To try to answer this question, and perhaps a few more burning ones, this two-part post addresses the complementarity and differences of CGMap and Ongoing Research, and puts forward an informed opinion on the future of both. It reports on reflections that have arisen in several conversations with people interested in contributing to Ongoing Research or adopting its project model. An informal discussion with some CGIAR information managers at the IAALD Congress in Montpellier last month was the spur for consolidating these reflections, in the hope of fostering additional discussions and clarifying the way forward. On a parallel track, and intrinsically in sync, Evelyn Katingi, CGIAR Collective Action, who coordinates the contributions, held a seminar on Ongoing Research at the ILRI APM in Addis back in April which conveyed very similar insights.

CGMap, or when a common project definition first became operational

When back in 2007 the first real endeavour was being made to define a project information system for the CGIAR (not so elegantly abbreviated in PIS), the only common ground in the CG was the project as defined in the Medium Term Plan, supported by guidelines and a core, mandatory business process as the stick to shepherd everybody in the same direction.

A year later, we had EasyMTP and CGMap where the project was this large, comfortable umbrella under which a Center’s activities would be aggregated, mapped to, described in a logical framework. How close to reality this description was has always been subject to interpretation, depending on how much one knew of the specific modus operandi of a Center or a Program.

The CGMap factsheet: aggregating project information from multiple sources

Still, forced as it was, that definition has worked fine to provide the means of aggregation and analysis across the CG System. It has helped create a technical framework of information standards for the first time. In real business life, it has helped in monitoring and evaluation processes, and has been the basis of performance measurements.

New process = new definition?

What’s going to happen to that definition now that the CGIAR is turning towards Mega Programs? By simply providing a structured information framework, the common project definition currently used in CGMap has the potential of helping the CGIAR maintain the record and flow from existing activity plans to the new activities defined in the Strategy and Results Framework and Mega Programs. It may go beyond the purpose of providing an institutional memory archive of how things used to be done, by following and adapting to a new process. Will it also lead to a new definition? Too early to say, but the information standards already in place may help transforming an existing definition into a new commonly agreed one.

CGMap in a Triple A perspective

If preserving value in terms of business process is guesswork, as information managers, can the Triple A Framework help us unearth the value of CGMap and its common project definition?

The three A’s of the Framework designed by ICT-KM stand for:

  • availability: can I find it on the Web? is it stored in open digital formats using public standards so anyone can find it?
  • accessibility: is it publicly available online? can it be queried, viewed and obtained in full? can I put my hands on it?
  • applicability: is it easy to adapt, transform, apply and re-used by others?

Let’s try looking at CGMap from a Triple A perspective: how does it serve the purposes of availability, accessibility and applicability of project information?

There are not many doubts about CGMap support to availability of project information. Completeness, quality and coverage of the project plans of the CGIAR have been fully achieved from year 1, although some Centers used EasyMTP and some did not. From year 2, all Centers and Programs were using the system to submit their research plans, and the coverage of the metadata needed for analysis soared to 97%.

What about accessibility? With the data stored in a structured way, the project can be queried, analysed, searched, both in full and in pieces. We are still making efforts to grant maximum accessibility to the project information database with the home page redesign and the continuous monitoring of submission to search engines. Project information is available and accessible in different sizes and formats, instead of just hefty PDFs with no metadata attached.

Applicability is the far end, tricky to define and assess. Potentially, project information in CGMap can be adapted and reused. We are working on RSS feeds for export and syndication and embeddable maps for reuse in different systems, but perhaps we should limit ourselves to what we have designed the system for: to allow anybody interested in the CGIAR work to find information about plans. A communication purpose, at the end of the day, isn’t it?

Does CGMap work for communication purposes? Anecdotal evidence says it has in some cases, but most of the rich, descriptive information in the MTP projects has been appreciated by the CGIAR insiders, those in the ‘know’ of how the CG works.

Why has this happened? Because for all the slicing, dicing and repackaging you may do, if content is generated for a specific audience, it will be useful only for that audience. As simple as that. The MTP project was defined and its information generated for one purpose: to have the research agenda approved and funded by bodies who were in charge of approving plans and budgets. Insiders, at the end of the day. If you go to a bar to meet your nightclubbing friends, you’ll end up talking about your favourite djs and genres, throwing around buzzwords that no passer-by is going to catch or understand.

In conclusion, the Triple A Framework is a useful way to unearth the value of the common project definition and the information system based on it, and as an information evaluation tool, it is encouraging us to preserve the value of this common definition and look into ways to transform it and make it evolve in the future.

However, if we look at this public body of information from a communication perspective, we remain in need of a place and a way to show what the CGIAR is doing. This is where Ongoing Research gets into the picture, the subject of Part 2.

Until then, feel free to drop a comment.