eveloping and implementing the activities of GDRC's 15 programmes are in itself an exercise in good (and not so good!) information design. The experience has generated a number of lessons that were first shared on "Mosaic", GDRC's monthly newsletter. These are now presented below in a consolidated and easy-to-use manner.
Click on any of the titles for the text to be displayed below it. Click it again to close. Comments and suggestions are welcome! Please email them to the email listed nelow
The Quest: So What??
A key question that GDRC constantly asks is "So what?" It is not the confrontational 'So what?!?' , but the starting point for three very critical questions that leads the way to better action on the ground. These are (1) So what is happening? (2) So what does it mean to me? (3) So what do I do?
The answer to the first question builds the scenario, the second understand the impacts, and third suggests action to be undertaken. GDRC's 15 programmes keep these three simple, but important questions in mind when they are being developed.
How can GDRC provide information that is useful to its end-users - those that have to grapple with everyday decisions on the environment and sustainability? A set of three keywords guide GDRC's programme development: Localization; Contextualization; and Customization. Information (and the context within which that information is being provided) being provided to the user should enable the user to -
(a) localize it - i.e. scale it down to the level that it will be used.
(b) contextualize it - i.e. link it to the situation that in which it will be used
(c) customize it - i.e. manage it to satisfy the need for such information.
By doing so, the 'ownership' of information is ensured, and will better cater to the needs of the end-user at the level that he/she functions, and the decisions taken at that level.
Homogeneity and Heterogeneity
Homogeneity and heterogeneity are important aspects of information dissemination! Homogeneity is where we look for inspiration from within the community or target end-user to develop a particular policy or programme. Heterogeneity is where we look for inspiration and resources from OUTSIDE the community or target end-users to develop and implement a policy or programme. They are not two separate aspects -both homogeneity and heterogeneity go together, supporting and strengthening each other to ensure maximum benefit.
Hand-up, not Hand down
The UN Secretary General, in a speech, highlighted that what we need are more "hand-ups and not hand-downs" This is a critical message that calls for more information and knowledge that enables proper and relevant decision-making to be done. Local decisions need to be taken at the local level, by local people - not 'handed-down' from top.
How can awareness be built so that the right decision is taken at the right time, at the right level, by the right people? This question is constantly asked when different websites and online features are developed.
Cook Books v/s Nutrition Guides
One of the reasons that make GDRC popular among its users (based on feedback and queries received) is the format of the information it provides that facilitate and inspire local action. It does not provide prescriptive solutions (i.e. cook-books that provide step-by-step instructions to prepare a dish), but rather lays out a contextualizing big picture framework, within which different concepts and approaches can be tried (i.e. nutrition guides that provide indicators to what needs to be consumed).
Cities as Barometers of Progress
Much of GDRC's 15 programmes and its projects deal with problems and issues that are essentially urban in context. A majority of humanity now live in cities and urbanized areas - these have huge consequences, both positive and negative. Cities are growing due to the centrality of goods and services that it offers. But mismanaged growth has caused a drastic decline in the quality of living both in the residential and work fronts. Such a scenario has had ripple effects on a variety of sectors such as education, health, labour/job markets, and economic activities.
The growth and effect of an urban area should be seen not only in terms of its immediate boundaries, but also in terms of the resources necessary to sustain its population. Cities have, in effect, become a barometer of humankind's progress into the 21st century, whether this is an upward or downward trend. Focussing on urban areas helps us understand the cause-effect relationships, but also the beginnings of viable solutions.
Info in Three Clicks
With a lot of information being made available on the internet, it is increasingly becoming a critical source of information for a range of issues, themes and ideas. The pressure to 'push' information online, and the 'pull' of information by users, has lead to an unprecedented volume of information being made available online. But making information available online alone is not sufficient. Proper content management, including a logical sequence of knowledge discovery and understanding, is critical in making sure that users get the information they are seeking, and the way they want it.
This is the thinking that went into the setting up of GDRC's programme on Information Design. One key lesson learnt in the process of developing and maintaining GDRC has been "Info in three clicks" - the information that the user is seeking should be available within three clicks of the mouse. If not, then it is buried too deep within the website, and the user may leave the site out of frustration!
Education Research, and Practice
In attempting to develop the contents of many of GDRC's programme pages, its usefulness to the user with respect to education, research and practice is usually used as defining parameters. Building greater awareness (education), analyzing impact assessments (research) and facilitating continual action (practice) is key to ensure that the intended target audience benefit from the programme.
It is difficult indeed to make such categorizations, particularly with the overlap of needs and uses - practitioners can easily draw lessons from the research being done, educationists can tailor their courses with the work that practitioners are doing etc. Yet, it is a useful 'triad' that can help fill the gaps and mismatches in a programme.
Much has been said about the need to make programmes and projects relevant to the needs of the target community. In developing the contents of GDRC's programme pages, a constant mantra used is "Observe!" This may seem too simplistic, but when expanded, we realize that good observation skills help us in a number of ways - to be able to listen, to formulate a good discussion, to think systematically, and to take concrete action.
Understanding how a person or an organization at the local level takes decisions and acts on those decisions is a critical starting point for GDRC's work. We then need to work backwards and see what information is needed for that decision to be taken, and how and when it should be delivered. An underlying prerequisite for this is the ability to observe ....
Hop, Skip, and Side-step
With the Olympics just over, terminology related to the games is on everyone's lips, and GDRC is no exception!
Hop, skip and side step is a term usually used to illustrate dodging Efor example, of a company using a PR drive to obscure key issues and not take action on a critical environmental impact of its production process. For GDRC it has a completely opposite meaning! It is to provide critical information for decision-making that will enable entities at the local level, whether companies or communities, to hop, skip and side step over problems or obvious pitfalls, thereby avoiding or mitigating negative impacts of their activities.
In a modern world where online information access and transfer is extremely fast, coming up with appropriate and consensus solutions is just a hop and skip away, and you can also manage to side-step the problems as well!
Eat an Elephant Bit by Bit
There is a popular saying in South Africa - "Eat an elephant bit by bit" - when you have to eat an elephant, you cannot eat it in one gulp. You will have to eat it piece by piece, and digest it well. This applies very aptly to information delivery as well! Part of understanding the end user's information needs is to also understand how the information is used.
This means that we should not bombard the user with a lot of information (much of which will not be used anyway). It has to delivered in little bits in a timely and efficient manner - so that the right action or decision can be taken.
The Battle for Sustainability
Much of the resources on GDRC's websites, as well as the activities of its programmes and projects, have increasingly focused on the local dimension. This is especially true for the concept of sustainability. The battle for sustainability in the future will be fought in cities.
It will be awareness, understanding and action at the local level that will eventually lead to broader global sustainability.
This explains the subtle bias towards cities and urban settlements that runs through GDRC's programmes, as well as the focus on the ordinary man-on-the-street in the information sphere programmes.
Asking questions the right way is an art in itself. The ability to ask the right question properly is probably as difficult as finding the right answer. It is a skill that will help us learn new things and obtain new insights. Good questioning skills may be the world's most unsung talent.
Ask the right questions in the right way, and you'll engage people; do it differently, and you'll put them off. As an ancient Japanese saying goes, everyone is a teacher and has something new to teach us, if only we ask them! And asking them starts with a question!
Overhead as a joke during a public meeting, the term "1+1=11" illustrates a number of trends that we are looking in our current interconnected society. The causes and effects of a particular action - say drinking a cup of coffee - have implications that goes beyond perceptions limited by space and time. 1+1=11 highlights this issue, but also that simple single actions, taken by an individual on an everyday basis, can cumulatively have impacts that are felt globally.
1+1=11 has become a guiding term for GDRC in the way it presents information in its various features, and the interconnectedness of the issues involved. And emphasize the need for us to have the skills to see such linkages.
Don't be Afraid ...
This is the starting line of a short 3-line Japanese hyku that I wrote long time ago: "Don't be afraid / Of what you know / The unknown can be learnt." The meaning is clear - we should take into account what we already know, what we already have - and not on what we don't have or don't know. We can always learn what we don't know!
This is a very important lesson for GDRC - to respect what its visitors already know. And to build on it, layer by layer, with new information, new linkages, new connections to other topics!
Info Design Strategy
'Designing' information is a recurring theme in many past Mosaic newsletters - as it is a key lesson learnt in the development of GDRC's programmes, and particularly its web pages. The programme on Information Design was itself inspired by lessons learnt when developing GDRC's programmes in the late 1990s. What is the main message we want to share? Which medium we want to use? What resource are we to use? Who are the main end-users? How can information be presented for this purpose? And how can good information design facilitate this?
Good information design calls for the collation, packaging and display of information in such a way as to communicate and meet the needs of the user, for intended purposes. It uses effective design principles to understand the essence and meaning of the information. Information design, in fact, takes graphic design principles and applies and integrates it with text.
The Info Design Cycle
Packaging information properly so as to facilitate its contextualizing and customizing by the user to create tacit knowledge is an iterative cycle. Where is information available? Who has it? How can we match user needs with information available? What are the interlinakages between the different pieces of information? What enhancements can be envisaged to the info patterns? How can the products developed be improved further? How can the info products be delivered to the user?
These are some of the questions that are covered in the cycle. Ultimately, good information management is an aid to decision-making, of understanding what and how information is used, and developing a channel to deliver it to the user. Based on a user-needs assessment, information is collated and analyzed to build patterns. The iterative process is repeated by incorporating feedback and review it until it matches the needs of the user. This is the 'Information Design Cycle'
Recently, the daily average number of visitors to GDRC's website increased dramatically to recent average monthly figure of ±10,000 persons per day.
Why GDRC? What is the attractiveness of GDRC's info for its users/visitors? GDRC provides short documents that can easily be contextualized/localized to the situation of the user. By a prudent hierarchy of topics and sub-topics, it adds an additional layer of knowledge to the knowledge already existing with the user.
The information available in GDRC does not make you an expert, but it does make you aware of the interconnectedness and multidisciplinarity of issues - helping expand and network on related interested topics.
The Two Ends of a Telescope: Zooming in and out
In compiling the research output of its various programmes, GDRC has used the analogy of a telescope to present the various issues. In solving problems at the local level there is a clear need to provide a balanced picture of all the issues involved. Looking through the eyepiece of a telescope, we can see minute details of the view we are seeing - information presentation has to therefore zoom in by providing complete and balanced details.
While we look through the opposite end of a telescope, we see a picture in long perspective - that is information presentation has to zoom out, and so provide the 'big picture' both in space and in time. An interesting lesson in information design!
Lacks, Gaps, and Mismatches
In order to present an issue or a problem, or when evaluating a programme or project, GDRC developed a tool called the 'Lack, Gap and Mismatch Analysis' .
'Lack' (i.e. that which is not there) refers to a situation where the existing provisions made do not meet perceived needs of the target. Thus, the desired scenario does not exist or is not complete due to the 'lack' of certain necessities.
'Gap' (i.e. that which is insufficient) refers to a situation where the provisions made are those perceived by the target population, but are essentially insufficient or inadequate.
'Mismatch' (i.e. that which is not compatible) refers to a situation where the provisions made are incongruous to, and do not match the perceived desires/wants/needs of the target population.
The key to usefulness of the L-G-M tool lies in its simplicity, and adaptability for diagnosis and perception of a problem, and guiding corrective action.
In all its research and action, GDRC constantly keeps an image of the man-on-the-street ('MOTS') in developing its programmes and projects. This has been a useful way to make the work relevant and interesting! How will the activity or topic we are working on affect the MOTS? How will he perceive it? Is it in fact relevant to him at all?? How can we scale down the message we are disseminating to his level, so that he understands its importance? What will we have to do make him take action?
These questions drive the way in which information is presented within the pages of GDRC's programmes and its outputs. As frequently mentioned in earlier issues of GDRC Mosaic, it will small decisions and actions, taken on a daily basis by individuals and communities, that will cumulatively help to solve global problems.
Information Life Cycle
The 'life-cycle' approach, as applied to information management includes the planning stage; collection, creation and capture of information assets' organization of information for effective searching and sharing of information; disseminating information in a timely and accurate manner. Where is information available? Who has it? How can we match user needs with information available? What are the interlinakages between the different pieces of information? What enhancements can be envisaged to the info patterns? How can the products developed be improved further? How can the info products be delivered to the user?
These are some of the questions that need to be asked in understanding the information life-cycle approach. Ultimately, the timeliness and currency of information - that enables the right decision to be taken at the right time at the right level by the right person - is key objective!
Not 1+2=3, but a+b=c
And another mathematical formula to illustrate the information design practices of GDRC. To a large extent the content and format of information provided by the GDRC facilitates the user's thinking and decision-making processes. A wide variety of information is available for different purposes and audiences. It is very critical, therefore, that the info provided should enable the user to localize and customize it to fit the purpose for which it is sought.
And hence the title of this piece. We need less of [1+2=3], i.e. whee info is fixed, specific/focused and linear, and more of [a+b=c]. i.e. where the user can put his/her own value to a and b and get as unique c. In other words, the user uses the info provided by localizing and customizing it to the scale and situation where it is to be used.
Cooking in an Microwave Oven
A microwave oven is a ubiquitous addition to the modern
kitchen enabling us to cook meals healthily and quickly.
A microwave oven uses radio waves of 2.5 gigahertz to
cook the food all around and evenly - targeting foods such
as water, fats and sugar, but leaving aside materials such
as plastic, glass or ceramics.
And that is the information management lesson provided
by an oven - that when we look at an issue we need to
look at it from different perspectives, and in a balanced,
even manner. Like an oven zapping radio waves at the
food from all angles, we need to penetrate the issue to
assess and evaluate it from different points of view.
Bon Appétit !!
Jazz and Information Design
A recent jazz concert provided an interesting opportunity to think of the lessons we can learn for information design! Listen carefully to jazz - a wide range of seemingly random and different music streams, sounds and instruments come together to make 'music'. AND so it should be for designing information products - where different pieces of information should be used in different ways to present an idea or create knowledge. The apparent randomness of jazz facilitates improvisation and on-the-fly music. The musicians sometimes invent new pieces as they go along, but creating seamless music.
AND so it should be for information design as well - a mixture of information provided should enable different impressions and inspirations in the user. Jazz uses different music beats in the same piece of music, but creating a composite whole that is pleasing and continuous. AND in information design, this is an important skill to be able to pay attention to different and sometimes out-of-sync streams of information to be able to build patterns of useful knowledge. And so the beat goes on!!
Information Literacy is defined as the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand. This is an important skill that each and everyone of us have to possess - something that has become apparent as GDRC developed over the years. The information explosion has meant that the information you want is out there - someone already has it.
What we need is a way to search for it, a way to understand, package and use it for our needs. How important is it compared to other skills and knowledge, particularly in this information age? How do we develop information literacy? What formal and informal skills can we use for this? Interesting questions - that we hope we can explore in GDRC's Learning Lab and its programmes.
The "left hand does not know what the right hand
is doing" Syndrome
This is a classic saying in Asia to illustrate a
lack of coordination and information sharing.
Sometimes, it is modified to say, "The left hand
does not WANT to know what the right hand is
doing ... "
A rather negative lesson, but one worth keeping
in mind so that coordination can happen. In some
cases, for example in disaster management, good
coordination can mean life or death. Coordination can be institutional, financial,
operational or capacities - but is especially
true for information needed to take action, on
who is doing what and where, for how long and
Developing GDRCs content has brought up an
interesting lesson - When we look at problems we
tend to look at only the facile or visible aspects
and label them as "problems." Slums or squatter
settlements are a classic "problem" that is always
mentioned in improving urban environments. But is
it a really a "problem? What is the real problem with respect
to slums? What problems lie behind this visible,
tangible "problem" - lack of political will? Vested
private interests? Land management policies? Or a
combination of these?
There will always be problems behind the visible problems and to find a lasting sustainable solution,
we need to find out what these are to attack the
root causes and reasons of the end problem.
And similarly we need to find solutions that can
generate more solutions - one action that fosters,
supports and enables more action to be taken, by
a wider range of stakeholders.
Meta Information [Information on Information]
Meta-information is information about information,
i.e. who has produced it, when, what format is the
information in, and so on. In the web language, meta-information is presented in the form of HTML tags that provide information
on the document itself, such as author,
description, keywords, date created etc.
This concept is something we can use in the wider
world of information design too! Information
overload is a reality that we face on a daily basis,
requiring us to re-skill ourselves with new ideas
and skills that will help us be more efficient
And one skill that can be adopted from this very
phenomenon is to develop a meta-information system
for our daily lives so that we can access, process
and use information efficiently!
Keeping the Forests and the Trees in View
Much of GDRC's programmatic work has been shaped by adopting the well known saying, "Missing the forests for the trees" - which highlights the common mistake of looking too much into the details (the 'trees'), but ignoring the context and the big picture to which it is linked (the 'forest').
A key lesson learnt at GDRC is to keep the balance between the 'trees' and the 'forest'. It is important to help individuals contextualize their professional boundaries (and for organizations, their programme and project boundaries) - i.e. the trees - within a larger developmental perspective - i.e. the forests.
This approach is based on the belief that a bridge has to be built between those who have the information and the knowledge, and those that need it to solve the problems they face locally. Adopting this forest of knowledge to suit different trees is the key strategy used by GDRC - and hence its operating slogan - "Keeping the Forests and the Trees in View"!
Good Information Packaging
The value of knowledge can be realized only when it is disseminated and shared - and used. What different design formats can be used to present and package information?
Over the years, GDRC has collected more than 160 such formats. Some focus on the format of presentation, and some on the content of the message. Some use graphics to deliver the message, some use text. Some present the message in listed points or in summary/abstract format, some in descriptive/verbose format. Some formats are temporal, short-term or long- term, others atemporal. Some formats are specifically developed for online dissemination environments, others offline - still others are appropriate for both environments.
Asking different types of questions will help build the 'big' picture ...
In order to better understand any issue we are studying, it is necessary to look at it from all angles - so that a thorough assessment can be made.
So it is useful to keep the 'question starters' what, when, where, which, why, who, how, whether - in mind when gathering information on an issue.
There are many ways to make sure that comprehensive information is collected - and this is one fun way to ask questions (and maybe confuse the issue even more!).
New Wine in Old Bottles
Turning the saying "Old wine in new bottles" on its head, information management at the GDRC has learnt the importance of "New wine in old bottles".
This means that it becomes increasingly important for us to be able to see old issues from new perspectives. Or provide new information, skills and lessons for old problems people are still grappling with. It also means new ways of doing things to solve old shortcomings.
Making the 'A-ha' happen!
Information becomes knowledge only when it is linked to something the user already knows E
Packaging information properly so as to facilitate its contextualizing and customizing by the user to create tacit knowledge is an iterative cycle.
In the information cycle, based on a user-needs assessment, information is collated and analyzed to build patterns. The iterative process is repeated by incorporating feedback and review it until it matches the needs of the user.
The information cycle is an aid to decision-making, of understanding what and how information is used by the target users, and developing a channel to deliver it to the user.
It should make the 'a-ha' - a spark of insight and inspiration - happen for the user so that the right decision can be taken at the right level at the right time.
Bird in Hand and Two in the Bush
Knowledge - the spark of insight and understanding - is created when information is added to what the user already knows. Hence the key to knowledge creation is understanding what the user already has (i.e. the bird-in-the-handE as a first step, in order to be able to satisfy his/her information needs.
This goes together in providing access to pertinent and timely/useful information (i.e. the two-in-a- bushE. The information should add an additional layer of knowledge building on what the user already has E
Jack of all Trades, and Master of Quite-a-Few
With more and more information being made available on the internet, and with its increased access by users, it has become a priority to rethink information delivery processes.
How does the user use information and for what purposes? How do we deliver information to better suit the needs of the user? How do we facilitate the construction of knowledge in the user's mind?
For this to happen, we need a Jack-of-all-Trades (i.e. a person who can understand and appreciate all the problems and issues involved - the big picture - with which he or she performs), but also someone who is Master-of-Quite-a-Few (i.e. a person who is well versed in his/her speciality and is also able to articulate it vis-a-vis the big picture), in order to address the myriad challenges of sustainability.
The 200-page Manual
Information designers all over face the same dilemma - that of the "200-page Manual" How can you distill a fat 200-page document into different product types so that different stakeholders can adopt and use it?
You cannot, for example, take a 200-page manual on environmental management to a city mayor and ask him to improve the city environment. He actually needs only a single sheet of paper with bullet points - enough to take a decision. A bureaucrat, on the other hand, needs just a little bit more - enough to make sure it is relevant, and confirms to city laws and policies/strategies. And a city engineer, of course, needs the full document and maybe more - to fully implement it.
So the basic 200-page document, in different forms, has helped different people for different purposes. This lies at the core of GDRC's capacity building policy, explained in the following page: http://www.gdrc.org/about/cb-policy.html
Formatting Information (INFORMAT)
Information has to be 'formatted' properly if it is to be trusted and used for the purposes it was intended. The Learning Lab of GDRC calls this the "INFORMAT" approach. It essentially looks at the following six components: - Legitimacy: Delivering appropriate and timely information that reflects the mandate and objectives for which it was collected.
- Complementarity: Complementing existing global and international efforts in knowledge dissemination, and intrapolating its relevance at the micro level.
- Subsidiarity: Adopting a decentralized system of information collation. Ensuring, as a result, that users understand its use and limitation.
- Transparency: Key for INFORMAT to work is ensuring that information is available freely for all purposes and users.
- Continuity: Committing to ensure currency and accuracy of information made available, in a sustained manner.
- Economy: Collating, packaging and disseminating information that is, to the extent possible, in scale to the need, use and analyses of the problems being faced.
Shoulders of Giants
As with doing any research, we always have to
start with, and build on, whatever info is
already there and the user already has ...
Based on queries received from visitors to GDRC's
programme websites, it is clear that the
information they found on the website helped
them do their work (whether a report, a project,
or a speech) better.
And so the metaphor, "Standing on the Shoulder
of Giants" - implying an individual who improves
his/her intellectual pursuits by appreciating
and using the work done by other people in the
Turning the metaphor around - what information
can be provided to users who can then use it
to build on and improve the work they are doing?
This is an important question that has guided
the design of GDRC's web pages!
The Grandmother Syndrome
A commuication haiku:
Cannot explain your work
To your grandmother?
Then its useless.
How do you explain a complex subject such as climate change to your grandmother? Thinking about strategic communications, and the need to target the right stakeholders, at the right level at the right time, the "grandmother" becomes a metaphor for better local action:
She has been there a long time [HISTORY]
She likes grand kids [FUTURE]
She is concerned about her family [LOCAL]
She's boss of daily life [APPLICABILITY]
She's wise and can look at different viewpoints [BALANCE]
She knows you well [STAKEHOLDER ANALYSIS]
She likes things simple [COMMUNICATION]
The Ultimate End-User: A Kid!
With more and more emphasis on producing information and 'pushing' it out for consumption, a clearer understanding of what is needed by the user is becoming increasingly important.
Presenting information in a way that the user can understand becomes very critical. An excellent example is that of a kid. In fact a kind, a young child, can be considered as an ultimate ennd-user of the information:
Using a kid as an end-user of your information has two meanings firstly, it means that there is a need to explain what you are disseminating easily so that even a kid can understand; secondly, kids are our future anyway!
It may not be directly relevant to a kid - but the message should be easy enough so that even a kid can understand. And if we change the behaviour of a kid towards sustainability, we are on our way to change the family's behaviour too!
Another Man's Shoes
Developing GDRC's content has always been an exercise of understanding how different types of users use the same set of data/information, for different purposes and objectives.
This has called for, as the saying goes, 'putting yourself in another man's shoes'. It may smell, but is an important part of responding to users informational needs.
Being in another man's shoes is about having, or being able, to use information to build alternative scenarios - so that it takes into account different aspects of the situation or problem. And so that viable solutions can be found.
It also means looking at different viewpoints/priorities of different stakeholders - and matching information to their goals and objectives - using the same dataset. A 200-page manual to a engineer becomes a 10-page set of instructions to a bureaucrat and a one-page decision-making criteria for a politician.
Ultimately, it means taking advantage of the strengths and reducing the weaknesses of the involved stakeholders using targeted information. A businessman will look at the market and technology aspects of a problem, a community group may look at the lifestyle implications of the same problem, and a city mayor may look at its governance and management aspects - each focusing on their respective and relative strengths.
Click on any of the title for the text to be displayed below it. Click it again to close. Comments and suggestions are welcome! Please email them to GDRC's coordinator at -