Enhancing learning, communication and knowledge-sharing by design

Written by Julia Barrott and Sukaina Bharwani. This article was originally published on the blog of SEI International on the 29th of March, 2017. See the original here.

Taxonomy not only helps us sort through information – it also helps us make sense of complex topics and grapple with differences in our understanding.

Imagine trying to drink from a fire hose. You are thirsty, but the force of all that water – far too much water – gushing your way is overwhelming. You don’t know how you can possibly swallow anything.

This offers an apt metaphor for the situation facing people seeking to understand issues around climate change. Researchers, practitioners, governments, businesses, activists and the media are all producing and sharing information – some excellent, some less good, some outright wrong. But the deluge of material makes it hard to make sense of anything.

How do we sort through the information and find what is most relevant and useful to us? And if we are trying to help others, how can we make sure that relevant information reaches them? In other words, how do we make it possible to take a drink from that fire hose?

These are questions we regularly ask ourselves as we endeavour to make weADAPT.org – an SEI-led online open platform for sharing knowledge on climate change adaptation and related issues – as effective, useful and user-friendly as possible.

An example taxonomy branch from REEEP’s Climate Tagger

An example taxonomy branch from REEEP’s Climate Tagger, one of the technologies behind weADAPT’s tagging functionality. Click to enlarge.

This is where technological tools such as taxonomies (classification systems) and information architecture come in. The terms themselves may be unfamiliar, but chances are you already know how to use them.

Think back, for instance, to the last time you browsed through an online shop or a news site. If you found it easy to explore the content and find what you wanted, you almost certainly benefited from taxonomy and information architecture. The categories and tick-boxes you use to refine your searches are all based on behind-the-scenes “metadata” designed to structure content and bring relevant information to the fore. This allows you, the user, to readily order, connect and compare information that is interesting to you.

The same is true on weADAPT and other knowledge-sharing sites. By organizing and tagging the content, we aim to make it easier for users to quickly navigate to the materials they want – and also to find related materials that might be of interest.

Yet as we have learned through our work with weADAPT, taxonomy is far from straightforward. It involves much more than just tagging information with generic terms and/or organizing it into categories. How we define the categories and the relationships between categories and terms is a reflection of how we understand that realm of information. It requires value judgements and careful analysis of trade-offs.

Consider “climate-compatible development”, for example. In different contexts, the term can mean low-carbon development and climate change mitigation; “climate-proofing” of development, which is associated with adaptation, and/or development that reduces disaster risks associated with climate change. It is also, of course, a form of (sustainable) development.

So how should climate-compatible development be categorized? Is it an overarching category that includes mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction as sub-categories? Or is it a sub-category of one of the others? How does it relate and link to each of those other areas?

Deciding how information should be organized thus forces us to grapple with how we understand the subject matter, and it can expose differences among colleagues and collaborators. Yet as difficult as that can be, it is central to effective communication within an organization or a research/practitioner community.

Using taxonomy to improve communication

That aspect of taxonomy was an important insight we gained from the Taxonomy Boot Camp London last autumn. At this event, Matt Hollidge from KORE explained how mapping knowledge across an entire organization revealed significant disparities in the language used by employees, particularly between the organization’s different sub-sections.

To help improve communication between departments and across the organization in general, KORE developed a holistic, overarching taxonomy that reflected and connected these distinct language environments, which he likened to subsystems within a wider language “ecosystem”.

This structured information – an interconnected tree of terms and concepts – illustrated what activities were undertaken in each department and how using a clearly defined and broadly understood set of terms and relationships could aid communication. Employees, despite their siloed day-to-day activities, now shared a common language with and understanding of other departments, enabling them to better communicate and better engage with their colleagues.

Using taxonomy to connect different disciplines

Similar approaches can help bridge gaps between separate but related communities of research and practice. For example, in SEI’s Climate Services Initiative, we are working to develop a “harmonized” language for climate services – a consistent set of terms that are broadly understood – to help support more effective communication in this growing and multidisciplinary sector.

The term “climate services” itself remains somewhat of an umbrella term for a diverse array of activities. Bringing structure to this area will help identify what activities are being undertaken and how these fit into the bigger ‘climate services’ picture. This will also help to identify opportunities for future activities and improve our ability to learn from past experiences.

Similarly, in the PLACARD (PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction) project, SEI Oxford is working to connect the adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR) communities through better knowledge management. One approach we are taking is to look at the key terms that they use and how they differ in their interpretations.

DRR Diagram Finland

An alternative way to visualize adaptation and DRR terminology and its overlaps, based on analysis of Finland’s national strategies for adaptation and risk reduction. Click to enlarge.

For example, in an analysis of national strategy documents for Finland, “protection” is common to both communities, but in the National Risk Strategy and 2nd Hyogo Framework for Action Plan (DRR), the term refers mainly to civil protection measures and mechanisms, such as the emergency services.

In Finland’s 6th National Communication on Climate Change, meanwhile, the use of “protection” referred much more to species and ecosystem protection, sometimes with reference to laws and policies and other times with reference to longer-term risk reduction, such as flood and coastal protection.

These differences in framing and context reflect long-standing differences in the way these communities consider vulnerability. Identifying and making plain the differences and how they impact decision-making and process in each community (in terms of the interventions, implications and actors considered) will contribute to greater mutual understanding between these communities.

We also hope to highlight overlapping action areas that would benefit from greater collaboration between these communities, and entry points for intervention and dialogue that can contribute to more coordinated and effective action.

Do you work in one or both of those fields? You can help the authors explore what a harmonized language could look like by taking a short survey here.

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