Information value chains – from data to research communication

What’s needed to sustain the flow of information from field data to policy communication? Rosalind Goodrich reports from a meeting in Durban that considered how to get biodiversity information to the heart of government decision-making.

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Insight by 
Rosalind Goodrich
Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications at IIED
15 November 2019
A sunbird

The sunbird is found in western and central Africa. The Connect project aims to communicate information about biodiversity to policymakers (Photo: Brendan Ryan via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Value chains are all about trade and business, right? That’s what I always associated them with until I heard the term being used to describe something quite different – a flow of information. As someone who thinks about research communication a lot of the time, I was interested in the inference of connection and progression – a journey to the point where information can be simply communicated.

The term came up in a presentation at the Connect project meeting in Durban, South Africa, last week. This is a Global Environment Facility-funded programme involving three countries (Ghana, Uganda and Mozambique), UNEP-WCMC and several international data partners. 

The project partners have the common aim of getting biodiversity information into the heart of government decision-making processes. It might be decisions around the expansion of agricultural land, lifting a hunting ban or allowing a new fishing practice in coastal waters.

Whatever the sector, the message that the project wants to get across is that biodiversity in all its forms is the foundation for sustainable development. Acknowledging this, every policy process should be able to access biodiversity information and use it to consider the implications of a decision on the environment, as well as on people and the economy.

Gathering foundational data 

This is where the information value chain comes in.

It starts with the gathering of biodiversity data on, for example, species numbers and distribution or vegetation and ecosystem types – a task that may take several years and requires persistent and detailed work. 

The next link in the chain is to convert these data into information represented, for instance, through infographics, graphs or spatial maps. The latter are complicated, with layers of information requiring specialist knowledge to interpret them. But as Matt Child of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) said, in SANBI’s experience, they are the foundation for everything that comes afterwards.

A presentation slide showing different layers of data

Because looking at the maps and how they change over time, reveals what is happening to that particular data set – is the number of Cape Mountain Zebra increasing or decreasing in the area where data are being collected? Or agricultural land encroaching on forested areas and reducing the numbers of a specific tree? 

A presentation slide with a picture of zebras and a graph of their numbers

From science to research communications

The results of that analysis are the next stage of the chain and a link away from where research communication comes in. The big question to be asked now is, depending on what the information shows, what are the implication for related policies and decision making?

This link is critical and requires new knowledge and skills. No essential need for knowing how to gather data – every need for familiarity with the local or national policy and political context and the ability to make connections between that and the information to hand.

Then, finally, once that analysis has been done, comes the time to decide the best way to engage with chosen parts of government and communicate the messages that the data reveal. Should it be a digital output or print; infographic or text? A one-to-one meeting to explain in person or a presentation at a ministry meeting? It might be one of these tactics or all of them, but without the original data and the biodiversity information, none of them is possible.

Sustained information flow is vital

All this is central to the Connect project and meeting participants spent some time discussing the challenges of the process. The value chain’s whole rationale is to help make change happen and change doesn’t happen quickly. So this is where a sustained flow of information is vital – dynamic data sets, evolving biodiversity information, and ongoing outputs and messages that are nuanced to suit new policy contexts, even, sometimes, new governments and decision makers.

The process is time consuming, requires a variety of expertise, but as Selwyn Willoughby of the Economic Development Partnership said at the Connect meeting, works best when the value chain is put together collaboratively. Data experts knowing what information scientists want; information scientists liaising with policy specialists; research communications people working with those policy experts – like the Connect project staff – to set out how the information will reach policy and decision makers in the most timely and accessible way.

A presentation slide showing the data value chain

Every link is critical and the whole chain essential to help policymakers understand why including biodiversity information in their deliberations will lead to better decisions. Conserving a country’s precious biodiversity and ecosystems will enable governments to plan for a sustainable future, where the economy, people and the environment can thrive.