Lessons from a Private Experiment in Knowledge Transfer

This paper briefly outlines the background, establishment, objectives, contents and problems of the African Water Page during its brief life, and highlights a number of problems in the use of the internet in Africa. It is not intended to be an authoritative research article from an information technology expert but rather the observations of the author based on practical, hands-on experience in the development and maintenance of an active web page from within Africa.Sharing the experience – An experimentThe development of the African Water Page started as an exercise to promote water issues in Africa – through the use of the internet, an emerging and powerful technology. The process began as a personal venture by the author and it has yielded surprising results, which have exceeded initial expectations. However, the whole experience has also highlighted a number of concerns regarding the sustainability of such efforts and the impact that they have on the target audience as a result of constraints of information technology on the African continent.OriginsThe origins of the African Water Page were related to the beginnings of a new era in South Africa. The idea of the African Water web page was based on the author’s experience gained from the design and establishment of a site on the World Wide Web for the Ministry of Water Affairs, a first of its kind which was set up on an ANC server in Cape Town. It has since been relocated to the departmental web site.The early experience was instrumental in defining the concept of the African Water Page, which was first published on the Internet in December 1996.RationaleThe reasons for the establishment of the African Water Page include:To promote the use of the Internet as a medium for the dissemination of information and as an advocacy tool.To make information which is already available on the Internet more accessible. The author reviewed the availability of water related information on the Internet with particular reference to Africa. Although there is a great deal of water related material available, it is dispersed and not easily accessed.To identify and highlight specifically African related water issues and to promote dialogue in Africa and elsewhere on these issues, including any information from the international water sector which may be of interest to Africa.Developing the PageThe author is a civil engineer by training and has no formal training in computer sciences or programming. The reason for making this observation is to emphasise that publishing on the Internet is not difficult, particularly with the Web publishing software which is currently available. Researching, designing and authoring an active web site does however require considerable commitment of timeThe African Water Page has grown “organically” form its original publishing date. As issues have emerged, material has been gathered and published on the site. Visitors to the site have been asked to submit materials and this has happened on a few occasions. Apart from establishing a basic structure, the page was not planned in full before it was mounted on the Internet. The goals and mission of the African Water Page are highlighted on the index page of the site. These are as follows:This is a page dedicated to the water sector in Africa. Issues addressed include water policy, water resource management, water supply and environmental sanitation, water conservation and demand management, and a variety of other issues.A primary objective of the page is information dissemination on water issues in Africa and to exchange views and ideas on water on the continent.The strategies adopted to promote the goals are as follows:Ensure that the page is continuously kept up to date. It is imperative to keep the page “alive” with interesting materials, news etc.Ensure that the page is attractive visually and graphically.Promote open and free access to information. For this reason as many articles and documents as possible are made available through the page and links to other sites are promoted.Promote an open and informal atmosphere as a contrast to the many institutional pages which are accessible on the Internet, which tend to be formal in style and presentation.Maintain an independent and critical perspective & do not subscribe to any particular political or developmental doctrine or approach.The structure of the site should be clear and accessible so that the site can be easily navigated.Avoid the use of web authoring techniques which require the use of the latest browsers and software which may not be available to the target audience and which may increase the transaction time, particularly on slow servers and low quality telephone lines.OverviewThe contents of the African Water Page have grown considerably over the past 2 ½ years. The site currently has approximately 11,5 MB of information accessible to users including graphics but excluding the information available through access to linked sites. The access statistics indicate that the volume downloaded from the server is approximately 327 MB a month.The site has a branch structure with a basic link system to the main pages on the site.Listing of contentsThe main areas of information contained on the African Water Page.SustainabilityDrought and the El-nino phenomenonCapacity building in the water sectorThe World Commission on DamsThe SADC water sectorPrivate sector engagement in the water sectorSanitationInitiatives in the Nile BasinWater supply and sanitation coverage figuresWeb Server Statistics for the African Water PageAnalysed requests from Mon-01-Mar-1999 00:11 to Sun-18-Apr-1999 14:21 (48.6 days).Total successful requests: 48 000 (5 923)Average successful requests per day: 988 (846)Number of distinct hosts served: 2 180 (313)Number of new hosts served in last 7 days: 218Total data transferred: 523 083 kbytes (66 816 kbytes)Average data transferred per day: 10 765 kbytes (9 545 kbytes)(Figures in parentheses refer to the last 7 days).Domain ReportIndicating all domains, sorted by amount of traffic.#reqs: %bytes: domainThe domain statistics for the given period indicate that 6.84 %of the is from Africa, of which 87 % is from South Africa, making the total non-South African access from the remainder of Africa 0.91%. It is for this reason that the comment is made on the Entry Page relating to the irony of the African Water Page. Although it focuses on Africa, the access to the page by Africans is very limited.From the outset of the African Water Page, an electronic address list has been developed and continuously added to. The information has been derived contacts made by the author and from requests received from people within the sector who have asked to be added to the list. It is thus an ad-hoc list. The list has been published on the African Water Page partially as an indication of the interest shown in the site and as a service to the sector. There is a concern that the information can be misused by persons and businesses but there has to date been no evidence of this occurring.The objective of the list is to keep people informed of changes and updates to the African Water Page. It is used very sparingly in order not to increase the volume of email circulating within the sector.The list has not been developed as a full list server but has been used as a bulk mailing list and responses have been handled individually.There have been several requests from organisations within the sector for the African Water Page to publicise issues through the list or to solicit specific information for a sector related research project or survey. The policy has been to entertain such requests if the issue is of general interest and benefit to the sector, in particular within Africa, provided that it is not of a commercial nature.The use of the list within these limited objectives has been very successful. It could probably be used to greater effect but this is limited by two factors. One is the time required to service the list and the other is that the author spends a great deal of time travelling in Africa where Internet access is often very difficult. Using the list usually generates a significant volume of mail which becomes difficult to manage under these circumstances. Clearly the list could be put to greater use.From the evidence of the server statistics, it is clear that there is limited access from the African continent to a service such as the African Water Page. There are several probable reasons for this:Appreciation of the advantages of the InternetThere are many government officials and other professionals within the sector who do not fully appreciate the value of the Internet as a resource and communication tool. This may be as a result of disinclination to use new technology, lack of access to computers, lack of proper introduction to the advantages of the Internet and similar factors.SkillsPersons lack the skills and training in the use of computers generally and the Internet in particular.EquipmentThere is a shortage of computer equipment available generally but particularly to government departments and at educational facilities such as universities and high schools. Often available equipment is obsolete and difficult to service.Internet infrastructureTelephone services are poor resulting in slow connection speeds and frequent disconnections which cause many users to become disillusioned with the Internet as a useful and practical tool.The lack of availability of phone lines to service providers and the bureaucratic difficulties of getting assigned lines results in congestion and connection difficulties especially during peak traffic times.Service providersThe lack of availability of service providers or the existence of only one service provider in a country leads to a lack of competition resulting in high costs, poor service, and few available lines.Official access limitationsIn a limited number of countries on the continent access to Internet services, including email and the World Wide Web, is officially banned in the public service.CostA combination of problems relating to availability of equipment, Internet service providers and low budgets make the Internet a relative expensive service. Generally low salary scales, particularly in the public service, result in few people having private computers and individual Internet accounts.Availability of informationA problem related to the Internet itself (as opposed to Africa specific issues) is that there is so much information available on the Internet that accessing useful information becomes very difficult. One of the objectives of the African Water Page has been to create a single point of access to the Internet on water related matters which will enable information to be more easily accessed.In the final analysis, however, the overriding problem is not an IT problem per se, but a problem of the pervading circumstances of poverty throughout the continent. It is improbable that the problems noted above will be solved until broader economic development is achieved. Whilst Information Technology, including the Internet, is undoubtedly part of the solution, it is inevitably constrained by the problem.Over the past few years a great deal has been learned through the experience of establishing and running the African Water Page. The lessons learned include:FocusIn order for a venture such as the African Water Page to succeed, clarity of objective is required. A distinction is needed between the objective and the method, between the message and the medium. With a resource as technically intriguing as the World Wide Web, there is a potential for the medium to become an end in itself. The objective of the African Water Page is to provide a service which is borne out of concern for the immense impact which water has on development and poverty. Unfortunately some of the sites on the Internet have clearly been produced by persons for whom the medium is their first interest and the message the second.ServiceIt is important that a service is provided and that the service meets the needs of the target sector. A service & something which users find of use & may take a variety of forms, including access to information, availability of news, links to other sites, a virtual notice board, the conducting of sector surveys etc. If the site does not provide a service it will not be visited. The World Wide Web is entirely unforgiving of sites which do not meet the needs of the target group & access statistics are unbiased and ruthless.StyleAlthough the main objective is to provide a service, this can be achieved through different styles. The chosen style of the African Water Page is informality with a professional undertone. It is important that there is an element of entertainment, variety and an attractive uncomplicated layout. This gives the sense of a living site which is attractive and which people may be encourage to revisit and use in their work.Site maintenanceThis is a fairly obvious requirement of a web site but one which requires a great deal of time and commitment. It is very off-putting to visit a site which was last up-dated months ago. This is the fate of many corporate sites and sites belonging to large organisations where finances are budgeted to establish a presence but not to maintain it.IndependenceOne of the objectives of the African Water Page has been to remain independent. This is illustrated in sections such as the debate on private sector engagement in the water sector. Independence should be distinguished from neutrality and does not imply that opinions should not be expresses, but rather that the African Water Page should not be used by or become beholden to any particular view. It has been an objective of the author to attempt to be fair to all sides of the debate and to show all opinions on all issues.Clarity and accessibilityAs more information is added to a site it can become cluttered, confused and difficult to navigate. This requires ongoing attention. Keeping a site accessible means reviewing the down-load time of different components, graphics, tables etc and, in the case of the African Water Page, avoiding scripting and the use of advanced programming features which may not be accessible to people using obsolete hardware and software.Information accessThere have been ongoing debates over the past few years about access to and use of information on the Internet. Some sites display cautionary notes regarding the copying and dissemination of information. Whilst this debate will no doubt continue for many years, the policy of the African Water Page has been that resources should be made as widely available as possible through a medium such as the Internet, whilst maintaining the expectation that material which is used is properly acknowledged.Possible growthThere are a variety of additional services which a site such as the African Water Page could offer. These could include:establishing and maintaining a multidisciplinary data base of sector professionals engaged in water related activities in Africa;research and gathering of documents such as national legislation, policy, strategic plans etc. from around the continent;continuously updating of the “links” and documentation pages;the establishment and maintenance of special interest pages such as environmental sanitation, the private-public partnership debate, water resources management issues, and many others.It is clear from the web server statistics that the page is largely being used by non-African Internet users. This needs to be taken into consideration in the future planning for the African Water Page and perhaps points to the site having more of an advocacy role in the future.The African Water Page has been developed to date as an individual enterprise. A great deal of time has been invested in the exercise but there is a limit to what can be done on an individual basis. At the end of 1998 the growing dilemma of maintaining the presence of the African Water Page on the Internet was published on the page together with some suggestions for the future.The two principal alternatives are to convert the page into a commercial venture or to continue as a service. The inclination is to retain the service nature of the site. As a future is sought for the African Water Page, there are two important requirements without which there will be limited advantage in continuing. These are:1. The need to maintain the independent nature of the page.2. The need to enhance and maintain the creativity and constant attention which the Page needs to stay alive and remain useful.There appear to be three alternatives to enable organisations to participate in the African Water Page’s future.Option 1 & General sponsorship of the African Water PageOption 2 & Specific sponsorship of theme or interest areas on the PageOption 3 & Purchase of advertising spaceOptions 1 and 2 are mainly (but not exclusively) suitable for International Development Organisations, UN agencies, NGOs, government development agencies, etc. Agreements can be formulated as projects which comply with the funding arrangements and requirements of agencies. In all cases the nature and extent of the commitment will be acknowledged suitably on the African Water Page by agreement.An agreement of this nature has been entered into with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations whereby a topical page is to be established to feature water scarcity and river basin management issues on the Internet under contract to the FAO.Option 3 is suitable for commercial enterprises seeking exposure on the Internet. This includes the water industry, manufacturers, consultants etc.The establishment and development of the African Water Page has been an interesting exercise which, based on the traffic generated by the page, has provided a useful service. The site has grown and has taken considerable time to develop but there is a limit to the continued development of the site on the current basis. There is an inherent constraint to the sustainability of such enterprises when they are dependent upon the actions of an individual, but it is the individual commitment and attention which is one of the key factors in the success of the venture.The exercise has indicated some interesting issues related to information transfer and communication using the Internet in the water sector in Africa. The impact of the site in Africa appears to be very limited due to connectivity problems on the continent but it is used fairly extensively outside of Africa. As the level on Internet access increases in Africa, the African Water Page may begin to provide a greater service to its primary target group – water sector professionals in Africa.