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Tim Kent- Project Manager, KnowledgePoint

The HIF KnowledgePoint project has been running for three months, and, as a result of our HIF grant, we have been able to increase dramatically our rate of progress towards collaborative knowledge-sharing for technical support.  Here is a brief overview of progress so far…

Stage 1: Understanding the landscape

The first stage of our work sought to gather views on KnowledgePoint from stakeholders, and then to match those perspectives to a review of existing technology.

Interviews with a range of stakeholders revealed high demand and well-considered, specific ideas on how sharing technical information could potentially be improved through innovative processes.

One of the interesting aspects of the exercise was discovering how clearly people envision such a system.  Few of the interviewees had any direct experience of developing knowledge-sharing processes, but the quality of feedback really showed how much innovative thinking there is in our networks and how much can be learned from speaking to potential users.

Of course, not all of the opinions were consistent between respondents, but it was fascinating to find many threads of commonality running through the interviews.  Stakeholders differentiated by geography, management experience and sector were providing cohesive perspectives on what such a system should do.

Originally, the consortium for KnowledgePoint was brought together through different organisations seeking a solution to the same problem.  This first stage of the project has allowed us to take an even wider view and we have found many more people seeking just such a solution, and who want to help improve the way technical assistance is provided in the sector.  The result is more detailed understanding of how such a system could work, and a richer collaboration.

The second element of this stage was a review of the existing technology.  What became clear is that our seeking a solution to sharing information is part of a much wider movement.

The web has proved fantastically successful in amassing information, and search engines such as Google allow for rapid exploration of that information.  But it demands a certain amount of expertise from the enquirer.

By way of analogy, I remember asking a teacher at school how to spell a word, and being told to look it up in the dictionary.  “But where is it in the dictionary?” I asked.  In the same way, search engines, arguably the previous decade’s main solution for exploring our accumulated information sources, are best suited for those who already have at least an inkling of what the answer might be.

Many of the latest movements in web technology over the past two or three years centre around providing individuals with the ability to interact to seek an answer: a richer result, this suggests, can be achieved by helping people to help others to find the information they are looking for.

One key, shared result from the stakeholder interviews and the technology review is this recognition of the centrality of promoting human-human interaction rather than human-‘computer’ or human-knowledge base interaction.  It is as though such technology, as it improves, can take the role of enabler rather than determinant.

Stage 2: Bringing it together

The processes and technical requirements implied by the interviews and research in Stage 1 were amalgamated into a draft specification.  The specification in turn was reformulated as a mockup, a graphical draft of how the system could work before any development begins.

These outputs were then discussed at our forum on 7 October 2011, which included sixteen participants from a range of organisations.  They represented a huge diversity of experience including specialists such as Hydrogeologists Without Borders, the research centre CEHE at Surrey University, ITC experts, technical advisors and many others.

The forum discussion and group work brought a lot of interesting feedback and discussion on the KnowledgePoint project.  One of the key findings was how responsive the process must be to context.

Providing technical support through KnowledgePoint must take into account the challenge of imperfect knowledge of an enquirer’s environment.  Has the enquirer provided all the relevant information?  Have key observations that have safety implications been missed?  How can we assess the expertise of the enquirer in implementing a solution?

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Rather than address such issues individually, the challenge from the perspective of innovation is finding as few solutions as possible to answer as many problems as possible.  As discussed, those solutions may centre on how people are helped to interact.

Another challenge is that many of the existing web-based applications suffer from selection bias as representative examples.  Even the most successful knowledge-sharing applications represent a small percentage of all potential users, though their total number of users is high.  All users have chosen to log on and sign up to these sites.  Conversely, to really make an impact in the sector KnowledgePoint needs to appeal across the board, to a high percentage of practitioners and other stakeholders.  This high take-up rate is a big challenge. How successfully the process works in practice remains to be seen.

And yet, the great opportunity that we have with the invention-stage HIF project is to find out what does and what doesn’t work.  Innovation is of course part creative leap, and part process of elimination; it needs as much as anything else an opportunity for experimentation, and we will be using the remainder of the phase to explore, refine and put our ideas to the test as much as we possibly can.

Coming soon

The next challenge is to finalise our plans for building and testing a prototype process and supporting platform.

The open forum held on 7 October 2011 at WaterAid’s headquarters provided excellent discussions about how KnowledgePoint could be developed.  A range of facilitation activities has been summarised in documentary as well as video formats.  Presentations have been recorded as video screenshots and are available online.  These will be made more widely available.

Difficulties have been encountered that will be familiar to anyone in the sector.  These include the large geographic spread of stakeholders and team members, and the intensive, often social nature of innovation does make these challenges keenly felt.  To-date, however, no obstacles have been faced that cast significant doubt on successfully achieving our goals.

But the project stages completed so far have primarily focussed on gathering and processing evidence and feedback.  We look forward to giving more updates soon as we enter the critical build stage of our project.  The development so far has been exciting and inspiring, but we know that the hard work is only just beginning.

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