During the recent World Congress of Agroforestry (WCA2009) in Nairobi, Kenya, the Congress reporting team plunged headlong into social media in a bid to maximize the event’s communications, which was achieved via the Congress blog, the @icraf Twitter account, pictures on Flickr and bookmarks on Del.icio.us.

Much energy and care went into the blog, which the team used for reporting on keynote sessions, announcing presentations and updates as they became available, highlighting the main articles published in the media and in other blogs about the Congress, and publishing the occasional opinion piece on what was being discussed in the sessions.

It was a challenge having to set up a reporting process in a few days, especially since there was so much more going on during the Congress, but the energy and motivation of the people involved helped with this unprecedented task.

However, the real challenge was getting started on Twitter. First, we had to get the team organized into ‘shifts’. We were lucky to have two volunteers joining us, enabling us to cover the keynote sessions. Second, we tried to keep an eye on how word was spreading about the Congress themes and speakers. And that’s when we found another ‘twitterer’ who was sharing info bits containing the Congress’ WCA2009 hashtag.

Curious and excited, Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF) and I tracked down our fellow twitterer and discovered it was Tom Vandenbosch, Programme Coordinator in the Training Unit at ICRAF. A scientist on Twitter? Yes. And much more, as you’ll find out from the following conversation we had with him.

Tom Vandenbosch (ICRAF)

Tom Vandenbosch (ICRAF)

[Antonella – AP]. Tom, who did you have in mind when you were tweeting from the WCA?
[Tom – TV].
Nobody in particular, because I have a few followers. It was more about taking notes and bookmarking interesting things for myself.

[AP]. How long have you been on Twitter?
[TV].
I haven’t had my personal account for a long time. I’m doing a PhD in e-learning, and as part of my studies, I have been testing many social media tools under different names.

[AP]. Did you follow the @icraf tweets?
[TV].
Yes, I followed them from the sessions. But honestly, I think it was overwhelming to have a sort of play-by-play report of what was being presented. Just the key facts emerging from the sessions would have been okay. People are following so many Twitter accounts, so it’s a bit of overloading. On another front, it helped me discover that it’s possible to have RSS feeds for hashtag searches on Twitter, so you can follow the conversations on a given topic with a RSS reader as well. Moreover, I think it’s good that we have the Twitter account labelled ICRAF, it’s short and handy to quote in re-tweets and replies.

[AP]. Do you think that tweets from the various sessions added any value to your Congress experience?
[TV].
It added a lot of value, especially because there were many things going on at the same time. They made it possible me to follow the sessions that I couldn’t attend. The next time Twitter is used for ICRAF events, there will hopefully be more followers and less irrelevant tweets. For example, a tweet like “#WCA2009 Noordwijk leaves the podium to a round of applause following a lovely sing-song!” is not very relevant to a person who is not at the event. Tweets should be used sparingly to avoid flooding followers’ Twitter streams. Potential followers will automatically be attracted to Twitter accounts that tweet high quality information, since this information can be re-tweeted by others. On the other hand, ICRAF might considerr promoting its Twitter account more widely in order to get more followers.

[AP]
. Have you been to other conferences where people were on Twitter?
[TV].
I attended one in FAO last June, where some participants were posting to Twitter but not in a systematic way. But FAO now tweets from a number of interesting accounts, including faonews for news releases and related coverage, and FAOWFD for World Food Day.

[AP]. Do you have colleagues at ICRAF or other institutions who are bloggers and twitterers?
[TV].
Besides Vanessa, who blogs at ASB (Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins) and PRESA (Pro-poor Rewards for Environmental Services in Africa), there are some others, but I don’t know if they’re real staff, students or interns. These blogs usually contain personal stories.

[AP]. Would you recommend your colleagues at ICRAF to get engaged with social media?
[TV].
Definitely. There’s a lot of value in Web 2.0 tools, but I think we’re over-creating new blogs and Twitter accounts, instead of consolidating what we have already, including our presence on other high-impact blogs.  It would be better to liaise and engage with those who are already out there, the same way you want to be on high-impact research journals. To give you an extreme example, if Britney Spears were tweeting about trees on farms, that would be excellent. She has more than 3 million followers on Twitter now, while ICRAF has about 100.

Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF)

Vanessa Meadu (ICRAF)

[Vanessa – VM]. ASB has contributed to a new blog, the Rural Climate Exchange, where the CGIAR is bringing together the Climate Change and Agriculture initiatives from across the System. Most of the content is developed by professional writers working closely with communications staff in the Centers. This type of collaboration, especially on such a high-profile issue, is bringing a lot of added value with minimal additional cost.

[TV]. When blogs get linked by popular traditional media, they often get a big boost. For example, a blog called Africa Expat Wives Club became one of the most popular blogs in Kenya after being featured in The Times.

[AP]. Do you think that social media have a role in mainstreaming agroforestry research?
[
TV]. Yes, but it is different if we talk about the general public or the scientific community. With the general public, we need to target people on social networks who are interested in receiving information about agroforestry. That’s what my PhD research is all about: me-learning, a new form of e-learning, based on individual requirements, on recommendations based on the user experience history, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Through cookies or other existing technologies, e-learners can receive learning propositions that suit their interests, experience levels and learning styles.

The role of social media would be different within the scientific community. Scientists tend to have a more traditional approach to publishing, through papers, assessments, journals, etc. And this has an influence on how they perceive the worth of a communications channel. It could possibly take another generation of scientists to start realizing the value of social media for science.

Perhaps it would be easier for them to perceive this value if more projects used these tools to gather data, such as via SMS-based systems. I’m thinking, for example, of an adaptation of Ushahidi for the collection of scientific data from a range of specific locations. Ushahidi is a platform that crowdsources crisis information: people can report incidents via the Web, email and SMS. The reports are then aggregated, geo-referenced, browsable and searchable on the Web.

[VM]. Many projects I’m working on at the moment have a knowledge sharing and communications component built in the design, so this is changing… like with the PRESA, it was a direct request from the donor, IFAD. Impetus is coming from different places, and this could shift research priorities. Many of the scientists I work with understand the value of integrating knowledge into a proposal, with proper funding for it. Hopefully the trend is over, of asking the communications unit to churn out a policy brief at no cost, after the project is already finished.

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Vanessa Meadu

The concept of paying it forward fits in nicely with Vanessa Meadu’s idea of the nature of true knowledge sharing. She strongly believes that when you benefit from someone else’s experiences and knowledge, you can optimize that gift by passing it onto others who can profit from it, too. As such, it’s possible for a single knowledge sharing event to create a ripple effect capable of touching a large number of people outside of the event.

Not only did this Nairobi-based Communications and Project Officer benefit from the recent Share Fair held at FAO Headquarters in Rome, but she also has great respect for the CGIAR’s burgeoning Knowledge Sharing community.

“It’s certainly advantageous to have a knowledge sharing community in the CGIAR,” she said. “Among other things, the members provide a great support system. If I have a question about, say, blogging, I can email Simone Staiger-Rivas (Project Leader of the ICT-KM Program’s Institutional Knowledge Sharing project), and if I have a question about technology, I can email someone else for assistance. It’s good to have someone to turn to for advice.

“Being able to communicate with knowledge sharing experts is invaluable. Events like the Share Fair helped reinforce that feeling, and that’s what I’m trying to do at ICRAF now. I let people know that there are knowledge sharing examples from which they can learn, as well as people who are willing to share their knowledge with them. So I’m going to try to bring that out a little more in the sessions I conduct and also encourage other people to give innovative knowledge sharing examples of their own. The KS community needs to keep growing, and we can only do this by continuing to share knowledge and experience with our peers.”

Walking the Talk  

This dynamic woman admits that the Share Fair has already had a spin-off effect at her Center. “The Fair has been a big incentive towards a movement for better knowledge sharing at ICRAF,” she explained. “Since the event, I’ve held two seminars, one of which I wrote about on the ICT-KM Program’s blog. I conducted a small lunchtime session with the Center’s communications unit and shared with them some of the experiences we had with newsletters and blogging for the ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins (ASB), a CGIAR System-wide program.

“I then conducted an open session for the entire ICRAF campus called Blogging for Impact. I talked about how the ASB blog has been used to enhance dissemination and knowledge about our research and our activities. I also gave participants information about our web stats and publication downloads, to show the tangible impact it’s had on research dissemination. This session was extremely well attended. We even had people coming in from off-campus. Most people attending had heard of blogs and had read them, but they’d never had experience using them in their research and in their project activities. I’d say that for about 90% of the people this was a fairly new concept.

“People got really excited. One guy even asked me if we could do a week-long course. It was also heartening to see a lot of scientists in the room. These are the people we want to reach, and these are the people we also want inspire to think differently about communications.”

E-News is not Old News

Getting back to the Share Fair … Vanessa also shared some ideas and insights at this event.

Drawing on her experience coordinating and distributing the monthly email newsletter for the ASB partnership, Vanessa participated in a panel session called E-News is not Old News, which was based on a proposal she developed with her Nairobi-based colleagues at ICRAF, Gender & Diversity, and CIMMYT. The panel responded to questions about the strategic use of email newsletters to reach a broad audience, specifically in the African context, and also discussed this tool as an appropriate means of reaching people who may not have regular or fast Internet access.

“The panel session was well received,” said Vanessa as she summed up the event. “Many participants simply wanted advice on how to put together an effective newsletter. As such, they really hadn’t thought about the great potential of this tool. People asked very practical questions, but I think the more interesting questions concerned the use of email newsletters to broaden knowledge sharing impacts. I think an e-newsletter should be a way of bringing people to an organization’s website. It should be both a standalone tool and a means of increasing hits and drawing people to a site by posing summaries of the stories in the newsletter, with links to the full story online. Many people reacted very positively to this idea. Although it’s a very simple idea, it has so much potential to make a difference.”

The Big Picture
As the interview wound down, Vanessa contemplated the impact knowledge sharing could have on the larger CGIAR.

“There is such a wealth of knowledge and expertise within the Centers, and it’s vital that we encourage people to learn from each other, and let them know about the resources that are out there and the good practices they can build on. We can have a high standard of knowledge sharing throughout the CGIAR System if we capitalize on these kinds of events and keep the momentum going at each of our Centers.

Click to read the latest ASB e-newsletter: March 2009 – ASB endorses call for US leadership on Forests and Climate Protection

Since participating in the first Knowledge Sharing Workshop in March-May 2008, I’ve been trying to implement new processes, technologies and methods for KS into my work. Simone wrote a nice post about this back in July. Seven months and one Share Fair later, it was time to do some show and tell with a small group of staff at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) , and show them how new ways of sharing knowledge had made a big impact for our projects.

With our communication director’s consent, we set up a brown bag lunch (ok catered cafeteria lunch) with our communications unit and library last week to share with them what we’ve been doing at the ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins. I used examples from our work to introduce them to the concept of blogs (which we use for our news site), rss/feedreaders (how we gather news) and social bookmarking (how we encourage our scientists to share resources), explaining why we chose these tools and how they work for us.

I also showed the commoncraft videos to give an overview of RSS and social bookmarking, which people seemed to like. I asked my peers, a mixed group that included IT people, designers, librarians and communications officers, to think about how these tools might be applicable in a wider ICRAF context or even in their personal day to day work. We had a brief discussion about the benefits of getting comfortable with tools for your personal use before trying to apply them to a project or institution. This led to a request that we hold a technical “hands on” session sometime soon to help people set up their own news aggregators and delicious accounts. People were really interested in general and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to learn these new concepts. People were specifically interested in how we were tracking impact — I pointed to a huge increase in site hits, publication downloads, requests for information and more hard evidence that our research was getting the attention it deserves.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be delivering a modified version of the same session, but this time sharing our stories with the wider ICRAF community. One of my objectives is to invite all the communications staff from the CG institutions hosted at ICRAF (CIMMYT, G&D, MDG Centre etc) to help build a local community of practice on our campus .

An even bigger objective is to get senior leadership onboard, and ask some of my scientist colleagues who have been benefitting from these tools to be knowledge sharing ambassadors. It’s always more convincing coming from someone well-established inside the institution.

Overall I hope that the upcoming seminar will get people aware and interested in new KS approaches and realize they can learn from experiences within ICRAF and within the CG (and that there are many resource people to turn to). I’ll be sharing periodic updates about this process so please stay tuned!

In the context of this workshop GFAR invited us to submit organizational profiles in order to allow GFAR to do some assessment work. Participant organizations were asked to share their needs and priorities with regards to Agricultural Knowledge Sharing, Education and Learning. Concrete suggestions for action were also part of the form.

See the profiles:

Eight participants, and two facilitators of the first KS Workshop are joining efforts to write a joint article about their multiple perspectives around knowledge sharing in the context of our workshop experience. I am talking about Alessandra Galié (ICARDA), Ben Hack (consultant), Alexandra Jorge (ILRI / Bioversity), Florencia Tateossian (CGIAR Secretariat), Andrea Pape-Christiansen (ICARDA), Vanessa Meadu (World Agroforestry Centre), Michael Riggs (FAO), Gauri Salokhe (FAO), Nancy White (consultant) and myself.

What are we trying to do?
We want to share and document a snapshot of our professional lives, at the moment when the KS workshop took place. Clearly, our backgrounds, current responsibilities, and applications of tools and methods learned in the KS workshop are diverse and we hope that we can provide readers with multiple perspectives on, and examples of, the contributions of “modern” KS approaches to our development work. Overall we will look at the value or significance of KS approaches (and the KS workshop itself) to us as international development professionals?

How are we getting this done?
In order to get such a joint article done, we benefit from the help of Gerry Toomey, a science writer who will coordinate our efforts and edit the different pieces as a whole. Gerry had short interviews with each of us and just sent us some guidelines so we can work on our individual contributions. For this enterprise we use a wiki set up as a private space. Each of us has a personal page where we can compose or paste in our texts. While we will not be editing anyone else’s text, we are all encouraged to leave comments, questions, suggestions, or words of encouragement on each other’s pages. Gerry will then work with each of us individually on our drafts.

We are all looking forward to it and hope to come back to you soon with a useful piece. Happy writing to all!

Vanessa MeaduVanessa Meadu who works for ASB (Partnerships for the Tropical Forest Margins) and who is based at The World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, attended the KS Workshop and got quickly known among participants as THE Flickr resource person.. She said nice things about her workshop experience like:
“I had a fantastic time in Addis and found the workshop to be extremely invigorating. I feel like I can approach my work with new enthusiasm,  and also new skills!” and: “The KS workshop has really helped at least sow the seeds for how to do things.”  But Vanessa did not only have fun and it seems that the seeds that were sowed collectively are carrying quickly fruits:
Vanessa shared with us proudly her brand new ASB blog! The blog is replacing the news section of the ASB website and features an interesting tool. The delicious account that she created feeds directly into the blog, which means that every time that a bookmark is created on delicious, it appears as a blog post. Vanessa says she has started to get ASB scientists excited about the collective bookmarking approach. 

Some interesting tips on how to train scientists in Web 2.0 tools can certainly be found in Pete Shelton’s recent post: Three lessons from a year of teaching 2.0 to researchers

Well done Vanessa!