Rob Cartridge


Rob Cartridge is Practical Action's Head of Knowledge. His role is to improve knowledge and learning across the Practical Action group and then to make sure it is shared as widely as possible. .

Recommended reading:

Posts by Rob

  • Complexity doesn’t have to be confusing

    February 3rd, 2016

    credit: from the Mudd Partnership was recently inspired by a talk by Danny Budzak at the International Data and Information Management Conference (IDIMC) in Loughborough. Danny works for the London Legacy Development Organisation and is responsible for their knowledge management. Many of us were recently inspired by Chris Collison’s case study on IOC knowledge management so I was interested to hear Danny’s take on the reality.

    But in fact, the main thing that stuck in my head was Danny’s description of how office life has changed over recent decades. It’s not so very long ago that important documents were typed and filed by professionals – people trained in filing, records management, knowledge management. The fact that a typist may be employed to type a report, and that the opportunity for editing was limited to the use of Tippex, inherently built in quality assurance processes that have long since disappeared.

    Nowadays we are all office managers and knowledge managers. We are responsible for our own digital filing and usually for creating our own filing structures. This is all well and good, when you are creating and capturing knowledge that only you will use. But if you are capturing knowledge that has a wider value – say expertise on how to deliver a development project, then you need to design a system which will allow others to find and retrieve that knowledge easily.

    But how many of us have had any training in the design of such systems. The use of metadata or version control? How many of us have actually even had proper training in the use of excel or word?

    Danny summed up his talk with a great phrase that I will return to. Complexity doesn’t have to be confusing. It’s so easy when faced by burgeoning big data and masses of junk mail to shut ourselves off from the potential sources of knowledge and wisdom. It is the job of the knowledge manager (and we are all knowledge managers) to make sense out of this chaos and confusion and bring order to the complexity.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • Knowledge systems, chains and grids

    September 28th, 2015

    Last week I was pleased to attend the launch of the Climate Knowledge Brokers (CKB) manifesto at DFID. It’s a really handy guide to the role of knowledge brokers, how they should go about their tasks and why they are so important. Whilst the launch of the manifesto has conveniently arrived ahead of COP21 (the 2015 Paris Climate Conference), I think the models and lessons from this document have wider importance for knowledge brokers across all sectors.

    In particular, the necessity to understand the needs of the audience is one of the main items highlighted by the CKB. This seems a straightforward observation, but it’s easily forgotten because the links between knowledge ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ are rarely as simple as they appear on paper. I found this recognition particularly relevant to our work: the ‘chain’ between the creators of knowledge and those that will find it useful is complex. It’s also full of gaps, with actors often possessing neither the will nor the way to pass knowledge on.

    courtesy of Jerry Manas

    courtesy of Jerry Manas

    For knowledge brokers like Practical Answers, we must act effectively in both directions: communicating the needs of our consumers to our suppliers whilst formatting, contextualising and organising information to make knowledge accessible and appropriate for our users. A great point raised during the meeting, and an approach that we strive for in Practical Answers, was that constantly asking questions is the key to success in knowledge brokering!

    The CKB have also previously talked about a ‘Climate Grid’: a network of brokers, working in a co-ordinated way (digitally and offline) to make sure marginalised communities get access to the knowledge they need.  But I wonder if it’s better to see the whole process as a knowledge system, albeit a complex and ever-changing one. It was clear at the meeting, for example, that people who are running large programmes for DFID are both knowledge creators and knowledge users. A chain, focussed on brokers, tends to underestimate the other influencing factors in the whole knowledge system. When it comes to climate change, everyone is exposed to messages from a whole host of actors beyond formal knowledge brokers, including the media, the private sector, scientific organisations, governments and their community: not to mention special interest groups and lobbyists. In such a complex system, it’s vital to understand these gaps, dynamics and needs to provide knowledge that those on the front line of a changing climate can use.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • Open Data

    February 19th, 2015

    Did you know that this Saturday is open data day? How can you have missed it???

    Seriously it’s a good idea. It’s a chance to highlight the need for governments, donors and other institutions to open up their data and make it freely available. This is really important in international development. Sharing data is crucial if we are going to share knowledge and learning.

    NepalOpen data is not to be confused with Big Data. I’m just on my way back from a conference addressing the question of whether Big Data might be the next revolution for agriculture in Africa. (The short answer is “no”). We heard about a new NASA satellite which can map soil moisture across the globe – and make the data available (That is big, open data). We heard about precision farming, where European and North American farmers use GPS to optimise their fertiliser and pesticide inputs (big data, not necessarily open). And we heard about an initiative to improve cashew markets in Africa, by gathering data on quality and sharing it back to the farmers (open data but not that big!).

    Overall there is a sense that growth of big data whilst potentially very exciting, could very easily leave Africa behind and contribute to an expansion of the digital divide, rather than a closing of it. In recent years several African countries have seriously adjusted their national income when it became clear that existing statistics were not robust. Very few countries have anything like adequate agricultural surveys on a regular basis.

    So pumping more and more data into the internet is unlikely to make things better, data alone is of little value. What would be much better is some effort put into repurposing data – giving it context, and getting it off the internet, into the right language and the right format, and into the hands of the farmers that need it. That could make a really significant contribution to tackling poverty.

    So yes, I’ll be supporting open data day, but I’m looking forwards to days which focus on translating data into wisdom, and making it really worthwhile.


    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • The only library in a World Heritage site?

    November 28th, 2014

    Gyan Bikas Knowledge node - Nepal

    The Gyan Bikas community library, in Panauti – Nepal is a remarkable achievement. It is built entirely with the financial support of the people of Nepal. There were no corporate donations and no government funding – but people across Nepal each gave as much as they could afford. Children from across the country were encouraged to collect 1 rupee at a time in their piggy banks.

    And now it is built and it could well soon become the only library in a world heritage site – if the local town’s application is approved.

    The library is supported by our wonderful partners – READ Nepal, and now, in addition to a children’s library, a music room, a meeting room and an audio visual room, it also has a Practical Answers room.Practical Answers Room in Gyan Bikas

    The new Practical Answers service is already proving popular with more than 1500 enquiries in its first 3 months of operation. They mainly focus on insect control in crops, potato farming. The team there also organise outreach “interactions” out at local community gatherings., The most successful one so far has been about how to make your own fertiliser and pesticide.

    People pay 25 rupees (about 15p) to be a member of the library, and up to 100 a day use the library. Overall there are 30,000 people in the community.

    In anticipation of gaining world heritage status the old library has been turned into a souvenir shop – selling handmade crafts to tourists. The profits pay the running costs of the library. This is one of the most recent libraries to join the Practical Answers programme – but I get the sense that it will soon be one of the most successful.

    1 Comment » | Add your comment
  • Harnessing the power of mobile

    April 15th, 2014

    The Practical Answers call centre in Bangladesh is now live – giving us a great opportunity to increase our reach exponentially. The initiative – which we have been piloting for a couple of years, is a partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture. Apparently it’s completely unique – because the Freephone short code (16123) has been recognised and endorsed by all the main telecom operators in the centre
    There are no shortage of call centres in Bangladesh – where the mobile phone seems almost ubiquitous. We have had a lot of debate about the business model behind the call centre – why should we be subsidising anything that the private sector could do more effectively? And how do we make it sustainable in the longer term?

    The answer on this occasion is that private sector initiatives have not reached the poorest farmers (where knowledge can have most impact) because of their high call charges . And in the medium term we are looking at an annual very low subscription service – rather than cost per call, which shouldn’t get in the way of accessibility.
    The new Krishi Call Centre is going to be advertised through national tv, and will handle enquiries on livestock, agriculture and fisheries. According to a government press release – it could benefit a staggering 20 million poor farmers – by supplying them with cutting edge information.
    Every answer from the call centre – will be of the highest quality, having been approved by the experts in the Ministry themselves. The call centre will also be proactive in generating new knowledge based on the work done by Practical Answers’ extension agents who are out in the field meeting farmers every day.
    Check back here in a few months and we’ll let you know how it’s getting on.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • Websites that really reach the poor

    March 10th, 2014

    In contrast to Nepal’s hands on – ground based strategy for knowledge sharing, our colleagues in Peru, have made fantastic use of websites and portals over recent years to promote knowledge on appropriate technologies.

    In addition to their main Spanish language site Soluciones Practicas they also run specialist sectoral sites – one for dairy, one for coffee, one for livelihoods in the forest,  and one for renewable energy. These specialist sites are incredibly popular and effective. Their work has been so successful that they now have other organisations coming to them for advice and support. When Peru’s First Lady was looking for someone to build a website to support the international year of Quinoa – she came to Practical

    The team have also been involved in online learning through the Peruvian Ministry of Production’s Innovation in Woodwork centre . This is a new initiative and the first 24 students graduated just before Christmas. And UNEP have commissioned us to provide an Ecosystem-based adaptation community of practice bilingual portal  with unique simultaneous translation of user generated comments.

    Having these dealings with external bodies has helped us with our own innovation (some have SMS facilities, some have an app), but also allow us to play a wider role in making knowledge systems work better for poor communities.

    In total since April 2012. The Spanish language websites have delivered more than 2.5 million downloads. Some people think that web based materials can be of only limited value to poor communities – but a significant proportion of our users are NGOs, micro-entrepreneurs and other infomediaries/knowledge brokers who can take the materials out into poor communities where there is no web.

    One government worker from Bolivia recently said of the information he had found on our websites: “The publications on the operation and maintenance of micro hydroelectric power plants have been useful for improving the handbooks we have designed for projects of this kind, also benefitting the peasant communities we work with in Bolivia.”

    1 Comment » | Add your comment
  • Reaching the last mile in Nepal

    March 6th, 2014

    So it’s nearly the end of our financial year here in Practical Action. The great thing about this time of year is the chance to look at just how far we have come. At a recent video conference for our knowledge sharing service, Practical Answers, we did just that and we discovered fantastic progress and great innovation.

    Taking our work in just one country as an example. In the last three months in Nepal alone our free of charge technical enquiries service  has handled more than 5000 enquiries per month. This is a huge step change – as only a few years ago the whole service handling only 3500 enquiries globally in a year

    Knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    The key to Nepal’s success has been taking the knowledge out to the people who really need it. “Reaching the very last mile”. We have a really constructive partnership with an organisation called READ Nepal . They have established 55 community library and resource centres across the Himalayan country – all are self-sustaining. Into about 20 of these libraries we have put a knowledge service, handling technical enquiries and running training and regular “focus group discussions” to tackle current issues with the local community. If an answer is not immediately available from the library, we seek help from local and district authorities. And if a question is particularly frequent we get a Kathmandu radio station to record a programme on the subject that can be played back to the community. I saw this once when there was great interest in mushroom cultivation as a possible additional source of income for people living on the margins.  One innovation this year has been for one centre to start to provide real time weather forecast information to the local community to warn against extremes,  and help the farmers plant and harvest at optimal times.

    A further innovation in the last year has been the establishment of local knowledge management committees. These are made up of local government representatives , agriculture officers, sometimes the water authorities. Far from being bureaucratic they have helped give the service real sustainability. It’s great to bring these groups together and demonstrate how valuable simply sharing knowledge can be and what an impact it can have on people’s lives and livelihoods.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • Bad news from Zimbabwe

    August 2nd, 2012

    A new report published today suggests that up to 1.6 million people in Zimbabwe will require food aid next year.

    This is an appalling position to be in. Zimbabwe used to be Southern Africa’s breadbasket – producing and exporting food but a combination of poor rainfalls and political turmoil have reduced their output dramatically. The problems are exacerbated by a lack of skills, inputs and knowledge by farmers, all of which reduces productivity.

    The response form the international development world to Zimbabwe’s downfall has been slightly mixed. The big agencies like USAID, World Bank and others, who I met recently in Harare, want to see an emphasis on support to commercial farmers. They think that, if they can get the export market up and running, some of the income will trickle down to the 1.6 million – who have very few resources.

    Practical Action believes strongly in working with those in immediate need – who may own only one cow or a goat. Helping them to make twell in Gwandahe most of their meagre resources, gives them a safety net and an ability to take their own choices. This is what we mean by a hand up and not a hand out. Our podcasting work, for example, helps people to tackle disease and get the best form their livestock. We are also working to get people access to clean water and better sanitation.

    On reading the new report my thoughts are with the women I recently met. I wonder what their fate will be, come January and February next year when the problems are due to be at their worst.

    2 Comments » | Add your comment
  • Local solutions to local problems

    July 30th, 2012
    Gwanda community meeting

    Gwanda community meeting

    The Secretary General of the FAO came to Harare today. According to the papers his most important message was that Zimbabwe should be seeking local solutions to local problems.

    This echoes a meeting I had with the FAO just a couple of days back. FAO are excited about our podcasting work. They are currently funding the creation of a post-harvest handbook for farmers and extension workers in the local Nbele language. Now we are talking about breaking down that manual into audio chunks – podcasts – which can be played to the local communities.

    Our meeting got exciting as I started to think about the Practical Answers website becoming a repository for podcasts in local languages from throughout the Southern African region. Part of our project is to capture the local knowledge – in danger of being lost as older generations die out. If we could harness the power of all our partner NGOs to capture this knowledge – upload it and then share it we could reach hundreds of thousands of people. To make the project sustainable we could even create a subscription service where NGOs and others contribute to the costs of the service but the information is made freely available to the people who need it.

     We’ll see how this one develops but it’s another sign of how powerful our knowledge sharing service already is, but also what the potential for further growth is.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • ICT outreach in Zimbabwe

    July 26th, 2012

    Gwanda knowledge nodeThe Ministry of ICT in Zimbabwe have three digital programmes. They want to encourage e-government (improving their own webistes etc.), e-learning (equipping schools) and they are interested in setting up Community Information Centres, where people can gain one stop access to a whole heap of services and information. It is this last initiative which Practical Action is interested in partnering with.

    Fibre is a relatively recent arrival in Zimbabwe – previous the only connection to the internet was via satellite and microwave links. In the last couple of years two new companies have brought the internet through fibre cable – and now all the major roads seem to have a recently completed trench at the side deomnstrating the progress of the fibre cable to different towns.

    The idea of the Ministry is to use a handful of public buildings (possibly Post Offices) to host these community information centres. Our contribution would be to create a technical information point for our Practical Answers service where people could view our technical briefs, ask questions of trained staff, view “how to” videos and listen to podcasts.

    Working with the government in Zimbabwe is of course fraught with challenges – nothing in Zimbabwe is apolitical. But equally you can’t build any kind of communications infrastructure without government endorsement. So as we go forwards we will need to ensure that whatever partnership we come to, our independence is assured.

    1 Comment » | Add your comment