|Bridge Builders: African Experiences with Information & Communication (BOSTID, 1996, 304 p.)|
|Case studies on the collection, management, and dissemination of local information resources|
by John A. Villars
John Villars is Director of the National Science and Technology Library and Information Center, which he helped to found in 1964. His current interests include the popularization of science, science education, and the application of information technologies in support of science.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT OF THE PROJECT
The Republic of Ghana is located on the West African coast along the Gulf of Guinea. In 1995, it had a population of 17.1 million, with about 1.4 million in the capital, Accra. Since attaining independence from Britain in 1957, Ghana has experienced frequent political changes. Over the years, Ghana has had nine governments, five of which have been military and four civilian. In November and December 1992, parliamentary and presidential elections were held respectively for a Fourth Republic, and a new constitution is currently being implemented.
Ghana is predominantly an agricultural country which, for a long time, has depended rather heavily on a single export crop, cocoa. Ghana's economic development is constrained by several factors, including the overall low level in investment, which is estimated at about 16 percent of GDP. Of particular concern is the relatively low investment in social infrastructure, especially in basic education and training. The paucity of basic education and literacy is more acute in the rural areas, which account for nearly 85 percent of Ghana's population and which are responsible for almost all of Ghana's agricultural production.
The Host Institution
The host institution of the project is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which was established as the National Research Council in 1958. It is a government subsidized organization that has the status of a public organization outside the civil service. It enjoys a status similar to that of a university institution.
The mandate of the CSIR is to implement government policies on scientific research and development and to advise the government on scientific and technological advances likely to be of importance to national development. Another goal of the CSIR is to collate, publish, and disseminate the results of research and other useful technical information. Past attempts to promote the popularization of science and technology in the society and to market research results have not made a very significant impact and CSIR is taking steps to improve the situation.
The commitment of the CSIR to information activities stems from its recognition that information constitutes an integral part of the research enterprise. CSIR has thus established the National Science and Technology Library and Information Centre (NASTLIC), as well as library and documentation units in several of its institutes. There are in some institutes various categories of officers engaged in providing, processing, repackaging, or disseminating information.
The role of the CSIR in information activities is essentially a dual one of a parent organization and a user. As a parent, it acts as promoter, supporter, and facilitator of such activities. It plays this role by setting out broad policies; recruiting and paying salaries of personnel; providing buildings, books and equipment, and other physical facilities; and obtaining funding from government and other agencies for the development of information services.
As a user, the CSIR needs information to support its research and managerial functions. Its current mandate aims at regulating research and the application of science and technology in development, enabling private sector research and development activities in the Council, and encouraging commercialization of research results. For a long time, the CSIR was perceived as an "ivory tower" institution whose research activities have not been of direct benefit to society. This view has changed, following the general realization that it is ineffective mechanisms for marketing research results that create the impression of CSIR as an ivory tower. The CSIR must show even greater commitment to information and its repackaging and transfer.
The Ghana National Scientific and Technological Information Network (GHASTINET) project is located within NASTLIC. NASTLIC is the national focal point of the project, which includes nine sectoral nodes and several special resource centers. NASTLIC provides leadership through meetings, discussions, and guidelines and also promotes and fosters collaboration and cooperation among network participants.
The main objective of the project is to make scientific and technological information (STI) available in appropriately packaged forms for the benefit of users. The beneficiaries include government officials, private enterprises, scientific researchers, including university staff and students, and also small-scale and cottage industries.
To achieve the above objective, a number of functions and activities have been identified for which resources are being provided. Such resources include personnel, buildings, equipment and funding, as well as clear guidelines on operating procedures and linkages with external agencies. These resources and other relevant issues are discussed below.
The present core personnel of NASTLIC consist of eleven professionals, three technical level staff, four administrative staff, and fifteen clerical and junior personnel. We have plans to recruit four more staff, including two technical support level, and two junior staff.
All the professional staff have basic academic and professional qualifications. They have acquired other skills but could use more practical training through attachment to similar organizations. Additional training is required in technical areas such as database development and management, abstracting and indexing, handling user inquiries, and information searching. All library staff need more and better skills in using new information technologies. Many have little confidence in the use of computers because they do not have ready access to them.
Most senior professional staff need training in management and leadership skills. This is particularly essential because most of them are expected to provide liaison between the national focal point and the sectoral nodes and special resource centers of the project. They are therefore required not only to be highly trained professionals but also good managers with leadership skills. The technical support staff also require more training, especially in the use of computers and in the new information technologies. Such training, for which the present resources are inadequate, should ideally be provided in house.
Local training facilities are generally either not available or are inadequate. The only school for training in library and information science has a poor resource base in terms of teaching staff and equipment. This is particularly acute in the area of modern information science and technology. The school has only in the last year acquired six personal computers. Training provided tends to be rather theoretical with relatively little opportunity for practical skill acquisition in spite of a three week attachment program for students in working environments.
The attrition of librarians to other professions or to neighboring countries, as experienced about a decade earlier, has ceased, mainly because of an improved economy and the competitive salaries of librarians as compared to salaries of university lecturers and researchers. (See Box 1.)
Information and Communication Technologies
The project has received various items of equipment, most of which were gifts. One personal computer, donated by a local computer company, developed a problem with the motherboard after only six months and it took several months to have it replaced. During the last three years, the project has acquired a total of eight personal computers. The computers are mainly IBM personal computers, or clones running MS-DOS, that have capacities ranging from 50 to 120 megabyte hard disks. There are two laser printers and two dot matrix printers. All the computers operate on DOS with Windows and they have VGA color monitors. Other equipment includes a CD-ROM drive, a Telebit 1000 modem, and two mouses.
We have four CD-ROM databases namely, the CAB International Abstracts, AGRIS, TropAg and Rural, the Maize Germplasm Databank, and a couple of demonstration disks. We currently use standard software, including WordPerfect Version 5.2, Lotus 123, Borland Reflex for DOS version 2.0, Dbase 4, Aldus Pagemaker, and CDS-ISIS Version 3.1. There is also a Fidonet-based communication software, Frontdoor, used for electronic mail exchange with the Association for Progressive Communications in London.
The equipment and software are used for database management, word processing, desktop publishing, accounting, and electronic mail. All the software is user-friendly, although some observers complain that CDS-ISIS often poses problems and that its operation is sometimes cumbersome.' Technical support for the equipment has posed rather serious problems in the past, partly because of the lack of information about local suppliers, their products, and their competence in the repair and maintenance of electronic equipment. (See Box 2.)
Although technical support is now available, it is rather expensive. Lately, however, with the establishment of a repair unit in a local research institution, there appear to be prospects for much cheaper rates and more reliable arrangements for maintenance. Another bit of good news is that October 1995 the import duty on personal computers was lifted.
Attempts at developing a national policy on informatics are currently in progress. Over the years, certain major issues have been identified as being pertinent to a national policy on information technology. Some of the issues include:
· recognition of the importance for ministerial
responsibility for informatics;
· the establishment of professional training centers for software and hard
· ware applications;
· better methods for disseminating public information and raising awareness about information issues;
· the need to review trade restrictions and other legislation, regarding standardization and improvement in telecommunications infrastructure;
· the need for greater reliability of electricity supply;
· support for local manufacture and assembly of computer equipment;
· ways to promote investment in the information sector; and
· the establishment of a system for effective monitoring of trends in the industry.
Systems and Processes
The systems and procedures of the project arise from its objectives, functions, and activities. The activities have been assigned to six sections: Administration and Finance; Collection Development; Technical Services; Information Technology; Marketing, Publicity and User Service; and Reprography and Conservation. These activities ensure logical work flow and smooth communication among the various sections.
The project is funded predominantly from central government sources but it has benefited from funds provided by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada and the World Bank. The World Bank supports the National Agricultural Research Project (NARP), which is developing the library and information system for agriculture - the Ghana National Agricultural Information Network (GAINS). GAINS is a sub-network of GHASTINET.
Another source of funding is from the photocopying service, but this is rather meager and covers only the cost of paper. We also hope to cover the costs of providing email service. In this regard, our revenue has been limited by an increasing number of email service providers in the country, some of whom are offering service free-of-charge - at least in the short term. With the installation of desktop publishing software and a microfilm facility, we plan to generate some additional income. There are also plans to introduce charges for literature searches provided to industrial or commercial firms. We increasingly feel the need for a vigorous marketing and publicity campaign to attract customers for these services. Our effort to generate income falls squarely in line with the CSIR's new policy directives that require all its institutes to commercialize as much as possible.
BOX 1 Staff Mobility
Staff mobility and turnover has largely been a one-way - from the public library to the special or university library. In recent times however, as a result of a certain degree of saturation, especially at NASTLIC, there has been some exodus to financial institutions and to a large oil exploration company.
BOX 2 Repairing Modems
We had an interesting experience with our modems. we could not find a local company that could repair them so we took two modems across Africa to far-away Nairobi and Addis Ababa, where we were attending conferences. We could not repair the modems in either place, however, because they were not accompanied by their corresponding cables. So they went back across Africa and remained broken until, by sheer coincidence, a staff member complained casually to a relative. This person was able to fix one of the modems merely by inserting a pointed object into one of its pin-holes.
PROJECT EXPERIENCE AND IMPLEMENTATION
The first phase of the project developed, equipped, and strengthened the national,focal point to a level that enabled it to lead the gradual establishment and growth of the entire national network. To do this, we:
· developed an efficient system for the bibliographic
control of indigenous STI;
· created computerized databases for indigenous STI, ongoing research projects, high-level scientific and technical manpower, and a union list of S&T periodicals:
· from these databases, generated and produced publications and other promotional material;
· established a facility for microfilming indigenous STI;
· arranged training programs and workshops for network participants; and
· promoted the implementation of the network and its services.
By its various activities, the project is expected to arouse the awareness of information personnel to the importance of science and technology information. With the ultimate objective of providing STI to assist in the socioeconomic development of the country, the project envisages carrying out a national survey to find out the information needs of various user categories including the research and academic: the government and public policy makers and planners; the private or public commercial and industrial houses; and the small-scale and cottage entrepreneurs and peasant farmers.
Ghanaians are innovative as reflected by the ingenuity shown among the small-scale or cottage industrialists. Attitude to information and knowledge is very positive, especially if the information has direct relevance to needs and if it is cheap and easily accessible. There is a tendency to give up the chase if information is hard to get or if it is not cheap. This attitude stems partly because information may not be easily accessible - either because it is not known to exist, because its location or source is not known, or because it has not been packaged or organized in a readily useable form. There is also a general attitude of wanting things free-of-charge. This is even more acute in the case of information, probably because it has always been provided free or because it tends to be taken for granted, unless it is a matter of "life and death." (See Box 3.)
In many areas of science and technology activity, especially in agriculture, environment, and health, there are instances where information has played a vital role in the alleviation of problems. For several years, Ghana had experienced the problem of low-yield of local maize varieties and their high susceptibility to serious insect attack, both on- and off-farm. The role of information in alleviating these problems is not so much in the form of publications, but rather in the form of effective knowledge transfer and communication between the Crops Research Institute, the Extension Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, and farmers and maize consumers.
The solutions most commonly proposed for the above problem include knowledge transfer through effective extension and communication with farmers whose confidence is thereby won. By this means, information and feedback are easily obtained from experiences of the farmers who are generally illiterate and whose attitude to research may be one of suspicion or mistrust. Other means of solving the researchers' problems include faster and easier access to foreign journals or publications and inexpensive communication with their peers in other countries, as well as with other agencies like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Both the researcher and the farmer have interchanging roles as providers and users of information and they therefore exhibit certain patterns in the information life cycles in which they are involved. They both generate information either through research or from experience. The farmer produces and distributes information mainly orally and by demonstration. Researchers publish papers in journals or other media. They may distribute information at conferences or seminars, through invisible colleges among peers, or in electronic form on diskettes, tapes, and CDROM. They can also communicate by means of electronic mail or bulletin boards.
These media also provide the means of storage and easy retrieval and facilitate wider dissemination in a relatively short time. Modern electronic media can be used to capture, store, and communicate the farmer's orally delivered or demonstrable experiences. The mode of acquisition for both user types ranges from word of mouth and demonstration for the farmer, to document procurement by the individual researcher or a library and information center through gift, exchange, or purchase.
Users who have reacted positively to the project are predominantly the research scientists of institutes and academic staff and students of universities. Their reaction is initially one of approbation of the objectives of the project, especially with regard to the databases and the publicizing of the collection of indigenous STI. The policy makers and planners in government and public organizations who know about the project also approve of the objective of the databases, especially those that cover ongoing research and high-level manpower.
Researchers and academic staff however express disappointment with the poor availability of current journals and with difficulties in obtaining full-text articles when searches are conducted from CD-ROM databases. They also complain about the high cost of photocopies and lack of translations of materials in foreign languages, especially French. Industrialists hardly use the services of the project because they are not aware of it, and the small-scale and cottage industries do not have any direct contact with the project as yet. This is partly because they do not know about it and also because, even if they did) the information would not be easily assimilable since it has to be repackaged. It is also partly because of the general perception that libraries only have storybooks and not information or technical information for that matter. This state of affairs calls for sound information repackaging and marketing.
Marketing of the services and products of the project has been minimal and this is being remedied with the recent appointment of an Information Marketing and Publicity Officer. So far, the only marketing methods adopted are announcements in the project's GHASTINET Newsletter. Other publication outlets include a GHASTINET Brochure, a flier advertising the project, and another advertising the electronic mail service. There is also a Ghana Science Abstracts Bulletin issued bimonthly, in which summaries of indigenous STI are provided and distributed to research and academic institutions. We are in the process of planning effective marketing of the project and its services.
Following the creation of a Ministry for Environment, Science and Technology and the concern of government for the need to market research results and to popularize science and technology, the CSIR has embarked on developing programs for this purpose. Accordingly, I am chairing a special committee on science popularization and we have held preliminary meetings with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and all public relations personnel in the CSIR. During the last six months, we have prepared a set of proposals in a project document. The proposals have been discussed with the CSIR Director-General and officials of the local secretariat of UNESCO. A short request for basic equipment, including a video camera, has been submitted to UNESCO for consideration in 1996. (See Box 4.)
With regard to user education and training in information searching, not much has been done. Formally, only a couple of demonstrations of CD-ROM have been organized for selected user audiences. The major one was conducted among all agricultural research institutions, stations, and university faculties. It was combined with an interactive survey on user preferences and on their perceptions and opinions on services being provided. Following a full-day seminar and demonstration of CD-ROM to about forty researchers and academic staff, our expectation that we would be inundated with demands for searches proved to be a pipe dream - requests for searches remained as before. We have also taken advantage of national fairs and exhibitions to give demonstrations on the use of CD-ROM and of electronic messaging.
BOX 3 Acceptance of Technology
Generally, Ghanaians as a whole value education and learning. This attitude and the desire for high economic attainment has however seemed to wane. In the last decade, there has been a slight drop in the respect accorded to education and schooling. Attitude towards the new technology is positive but not many are willing to take risks, especially among the very highly educated. A case in point is my own attitude: for fear of it catching fire, i would not risk leaving a computer on overnight for electronic mail purposes.
BOX 4 Popularizing Science
As part of the CSIR program to popularize science, a new radio program is in the pipeline. This program, "From the Research Files," is expected to start in August or September 1995. As part of the World Science Renaissance Day of Africa, which Is celebrated on 30th June every year, NASTLIC participated in this year's program. It compiled a directory from a computerized database of small-scale industries in a suburb of Accra and distributed it to various agencies engaged in supporting or promoting small-scale enterprises.
BOX 5 Importance of Science and Technology
The project has made an indirect contribution to the increased recognition of research as a necessary tool for development. Science and technology research has received considerable recognition and as a result, a Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology has been established. Hitherto science and technology did not have such prominence.
RESULTS, IMPACT, AND BENEFITS OK; THE PROJECT
On the whole, we can say that the project has been of limited benefit to users in the various categories targeted. More could have been achieved if we had developed a vigorous and sustained information marketing program. The responses we obtained during the survey of users in agricultural research institutions indicated the benefits derived and the impact of the project, even though the demonstration did not result in an increase in requests for CD-ROM searches. These benefits included skills in using thesauri, abstracting and indexing journals, and in CDROM searches. For many, the project provided a first opportunity to use a computer database and for some, a first opportunity to use printed abstracts.
We are placing a great deal of emphasis on how to get science and technology to contribute to national development objectives and on ways and means of providing adequate funding for research. (See Box 5.) The former Minister of Science and Technology consulted with his peers and senior personnel in other ministries to determine areas in their programs to which science and technology could contribute. Ghana has also taken steps to establish a National Science and Technology Fund (NASTEF). Expected contributions from industrialists may raise the funding for research in science and technology to close to the target of one percent of GDP by the year 2000, as suggested in the Lagos Plan of Action. (The level of S&T funding since 1992 is only about 0.3 percent of GDP.)
As part of the effort to maximize the impact of science and technology and the contribution it can make to society, the legislation establishing the CSIR is being amended to give it a wider scope in commercializing research results. The CSIR Council is also being restructured to make it less cumbersome and more effective.
A recent development was the invitation to the Director-General of CSIR and some institute directors (including myself) to a special session with the Parliamentary sub-Committee on Science and Technology. We discussed issues relating to how well S&T had been covered in a Presidential Report to Parliament. The report, which is entitled Gharna Vision 2020: The First Step, seeks, in the President's words, "to provide a framework within which we can realize the long-term vision of raising Ghana into the ranks of the middle-income countries of the world."
One notable impact of the project at the national focal point has been the increased awareness and the newly acquired skills of staff in the application of new technologies, especially computers, CD-ROM, and electronic mail. They accomplish assignments faster and their information products are more impressive, especially the publications produced by desktop publishing. Staff have become computer literate and their understanding of modern information work has been heightened considerably. The information literacy of users has also increased considerably, especially as a result of their exposure to CD-ROM and electronic mail facilities.
It is, however, too early to determine if users' information query formulation has also improved since rather few users are physically present during searches. However, as a result of their exposure to these new information technologies, both staff and users are better able to cope and feel more confident in handling the technologies, and they have become much more aware, not only of a wider scope and volume of information sources, but also of the potentials offered by the new technologies.
The users who have been exposed to services offered by the project have benefited in a variety of ways. For example, those who have used the email facility have been able to contact their colleagues overseas for information or for some solution to a problem.
The project staff have benefited because they have learned new skills in computer use, database creation and maintenance, word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, CD-ROM searching, and electronic mailing.
The CSIR as a whole has benefited from the introduction of computers into the organization. As a result, some secretarial staff at the headquarters had their first exposure to computers and this encouraged them to seek training in applications of word processing and spreadsheets. CSIR now appreciates the potential of the technology and is taking steps to have the project provide assistance for the development of a management information systems (MIS) and in automating accounts in the CSIR.
Nationally, the project attracted the attention of the Ghana National Commission for UNESCO, which designated NASTLIC as the national organization responsible for matters relating to the General Information Programme (PGI) and the Intergovernmental Informatics Programme (IIP). Accordingly, the CSIR Council has approved proposals by NASTLIC to set up a Special Committee to handle issues on informatics. The Committee is expected to be inaugurated early in 1996. NASTLIC also attracted the attention of the government's National Development Planning Commission and as a result it is represented on a special committee known as the Information Technology Planning Group.
ANALYSIS OF LESSONS LEARNED
Major Success Factors
Human, financial, and external support factors contributed to the success of this project. Essential human factors include the perceptiveness of authorities in the parent organization; their understanding and appreciation of the role and value of information in their work; and the commitment and dedication of staff on the project. Added to this is the vision for the project, with its clear and well-articulated plan, objectives, and expected benefits. The most significant human factor in this connection is the mutual understanding between authorities of the parent organization and the project leader. Another factor derived from this is good management practice, involving planning and constant review and evaluation.
Funding, especially from the Ghana government, has not been easily forthcoming; however, the limited funding that was available and the support of IDRC in the form of equipment and training, have contributed immensely to the success of the project. In fact, the external support has always served as bait for obtaining government funding and very often it has been used as a threat to withhold external assistance if government funding was not forthcoming. In spite of the generally weak economic situation of the country, even the rather meager government funding can be considered as a success factor simply because it serves as evidence of government interest in the project.
In this connection, another success factor has been the sometimes unorthodox public relations approach of project staff, especially at the individual level, to government officials in the funding ministry. This personal and informal approach helped drive home more effectively the not easily recognizable principle that STI is a vital ingredient to national development. My persistent reference to the importance of information at virtually any meeting of CSIR directors often led to remarks like "Oh yes, there goes the information man."
The issue of funding is directly related to external support factors that have contributed to the success of the project. The quality of any organization's library and information services is a reflection of the importance and commitment attached to such services. So, while the general economic and political situation had an adverse impact on the project, as evidenced by the delay in its take-off and in the occasional hiccups, it can still be said that the project has benefited from the generally enabling environment in the CSIR and the government. This was partly due to the timing of the project, which may be described as propitious and also partly due to my persistence and the many years of sustained effort from me and my colleagues.
The problems that have prevented the project from reaching its full potential can be traced to the general lack of a sufficiently strong conviction and realization of the importance of STI in all spheres of national development. This is also partly due to the inability of the project, like many a library or information project, to adopt a more aggressive marketing, user education, and publicity approach. The weak marketing itself derives from an apprehension that the resulting demand for information may not be adequately met and will, therefore, lead to loss of confidence in the system. There have been a few examples of this, especially with regard to the email service, which broke down because of faulty equipment that could not be repaired quickly.
Lack of personnel has been a problem to the project. Special services, such as literature searches on CD-ROM, and the personal touch in carrying out such services, could not be sustained simply because the skilled staff were not available. There has also been a tendency for some staff to be apathetic due to insufficient motivation because of low wages.
Funding, as already mentioned, has been a perennial problem. Not only is it insufficient, but it is not always guaranteed. A case in point was when there was a one-year ban on construction works in public organizations. The most recent example was the freezing of allocations made for equipment in the 1995 approved budget estimates. It is also partly due to the relative low priority accorded to library and information projects. The limited funding may be partly due to our inability to articulate more forcefully and effectively the importance of the project. We need convincing and concrete evidence to justify our very existence and continued support.
Equipment repair and maintenance has also been a serious problem. The story of the faulty modems is a typical example. We have also lost large volumes of data due to faulty equipment, interruptions in the power supply, and dust collecting in computers.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
One solution to these problems is the intensification of user education, especially among the senior personnel in CSIR. They need to better understand the real value of information in their work as researchers and as decision makers. Training at all levels of information workers needs to be strengthened and we believe that the project should set up a special unit to conduct all training programs.
We should explore avenues of collaborating with the media and with other professional societies and organizations. We need to develop guidelines and standard procedures and begin services for systems reporting and evaluation. Good management practice is paramount.
Generally, the GHASTINET Project may be described as a success story because it has provided the stimulus and acted as a catalyst in creating awareness and arousing interest in STI generally. It has taken about thirty years to get this far and the little that has been achieved needs to be sustained and improved further. There is the urgent need to re-examine the project in the light of new circumstances and to intensify collaboration with agencies that generate or disseminate information in one form or the other.
There is further need to create the awareness that information management is not the exclusive prerogative of the librarian or other information professionals. Information is a resource that practically everyone needs and that practically everyone handles and uses in one form or another. There is a need for an STI culture in Ghana as part of a science and technology culture.
Finally, I recommend that external agencies, be they international or bilateral, be aware of the need to relate aid programs to STI where relevant and to emphasize information technologies and services as integral components of assistance programs.
1. We are consoled by the fact that many information centers in Africa and the developing country members of UNESCO use it and it has become a de facto standard. Its use might promote uniformity and compatibility and therefore facilitate information transfer and data exchange.