ICT-KM of the CGIAR

Collaborate, Create, Communicate

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

Those of you who are more familiar with our work know – hopefully – that we at ICT-KM manage two project information systems for the CGIAR: CGMap and Ongoing Research. See previous post in this 2-part series for the story behind CGMap, and this one for background on Ongoing Research.

Along the positive feedback we have received about Ongoing Research in particular, we still have a recurrent issue with CGMap and Ongoing Research: their positioning, differences and value still remain unclear to most.

With the intention of clarifying the complementarity and differences between the two approaches, here is a concise brochure that we have first circulated at the IAALD Congress last month. View it here (click on the Menu icon and click on View Fullscreen for optimal viewing) or download it (high resolution PDF 7MB).

In a nutshell, CGMap and Ongoing Research provide two complementary views of CGIAR research information, but with a different focus. While CGMap’s medium-term research plans provide the official umbrellas under which projects in the field are going to be implemented, Ongoing Research contains information about the research projects through which these plans are being implemented. CGMap focuses on Center and Program research plans over three-year terms, and Ongoing Research focuses on who is doing what now, where and with whom. For example:

  • if you are looking for the three-year research plan and the specific deliverables to which a Center has committed for a specific year, you would need to use CGMap;
  • if you are looking for an overview of who is doing what in climate change in Ethiopia, you would need to use Ongoing Research.

The use of CGMap and Ongoing Research is then complementary, as they make project information available and accessible through different lenses. How are they applicable, where by applicable we mean in communication terms the audience they are intended to serve?

Complementarity implies differences. The most important one is that the two systems address two quite different types of audience:

  1. CGMap information stems for the medium term plan process, which is an internal process to the CG. While the medium term plan documents have always been public, their audience is mostly made of insiders, people who understand the methodology used, the fields of research, and the ultimate purpose of justifying the request for funding that the Centers and Programs used to submit to the CG Secretariat. CGMap and its underlying common project definition have made it possible for users to search, analyse and look through years of plans on a few selected criteria. A big step forward if compared to leafing through twenty documents at a time, only to be able to aggregate and compare across the projects.
  2. On a different front, Ongoing Research is oriented to a more general audience interested in agricultural research, which may or may not include those who know how the CGIAR works.

Last but not least, there are some intrinsic differences in the information and the ways it is collected and maintained in the two systems that eventually coincide with the four core design principles of Ongoing Research.

Ongoing Research is based on four simple principles:

  1. Thematic and geographical aggregation: putting CGIAR research on a map implies representing research work collectively,  through the lens of themes and geography. CGMap takes care of the institutional level (MTPs are browsable/searchable by Center and Program) and the very analytical level (outputs and targets).
  2. The ‘now’ factor: Ongoing Research displays current research activities, which calls for a system where contributions are always open. It is not and will never be based on a common deadline for all, like CGMap is. CGMap is (and soon we’ll have to use the past tense) updated once a year. It is inevitable that at some point a disconnection with reality is going to happen. With Ongoing Research, the project evolution can be updated at any time.
  3. A lean definition of project, with just the basic metadata that describe who (the scientists) is doing what (the project described in the overview) where (countries) and in what field of agricultural research (the research area and the keywords). All the rest is entrusted to the power of the network, which is the next point;
  4. Relying on networks: the metadata are turned into predefined queries in Google, so whatever is out there can be found; the other is the possibility of contacting the principal investigator. The human networks have a role in the backend as well where existing contributors can share the editing rights, hence the maintenance of the project information with colleagues.

These four principles make Ongoing Research different from CGMap and intrinsically more effectively oriented to communications, for the specific reason that the information is entered into Ongoing Research for reasons that are not internal business.

A point often raised particularly by information managers is about the sustainability of the data entry and maintenance process in Ongoing Research: entering data ad hoc is not a sustainable process because it is not linked directly to any core business process which by itself aims to maintain project information over time.

Alternatively, a frequent comment is that the information required by Ongoing Research already exists in Intranet-based systems for project or grants management.

So why aren’t we working on interoperability and project information exchange standards from inside outwards? Because:

  1. Ongoing Research is a project finder, not a project manager system (credit: Ben Hack).
  2. Internal management systems should stay where they are and keep serving internal audiences. See what is happening with CGMap: its value is not in potentially supporting the evolution of the Mega Programs and the decision making processes associated to it.
  3. Sustainability could best be sought in the reuse of the information entered in Ongoing Research. Using the system to collect the data and send it out via RSS feeds so that Centers and Programs can slice and dice it at their will to populate their Web sites (collective credits to at least 3 people).
  4. A lean project definition should be ‘embedded’ in principle and practice in any project management system if it’s true that reuse and sustainability are important. So instead of adapting information for internal use to public uses, let’s work the other way around by making sure that since inception a basic set of metadata is created and maintained for public use. This has deep implications in the semantic definitions for descriptors. An example: Region, usually intended as a geographical agglomerate of countries, for which standard definitions are available, is considered the subject of research, hence a non-geographical concept.

If there’s a core business process that Ongoing Research should be aligned with is public information and communications, instead of project management. The implications and uses are different, and it would be a big step forward in transparency if project information collected by project staff since inception would include a core set of data for public communications, instead of adapting information for insiders.

Conclusions

The first post in this short series looked at the current state of CGMap from three points of view: standard definitions, Triple A Framework and communications. This second and last post looked at how Ongoing Research serves a communication purpose in substantially different ways than CGMap does. Where does this leave us with project information systems in the CGIAR? Two key points emerge from this analysis:

1. That both existing systems need to evolve according to their own designed purposes: decision support for CGMap, communications and networking for Ongoing Research;

2. That making a project information system sustainable cannot ignore the context of use: anchoring such a system in core business processes and reuse of information are key to sustainability, but the project definition should include a core of information for public use right from the start.