Question and Answer Service Reviewed
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CTA. 1988. Question and Answer Service Reviewed. Spore 13. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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The mandate of CTA is to diffuse information, which it has been doing in a variety of ways ever since it was established. In this interview with Thiendou Niang, Documentation Chief, we learn more about the role that the Question and Answer Service...
The mandate of CTA is to diffuse information, which it has been doing in a variety of ways ever since it was established. In this interview with Thiendou Niang, Documentation Chief, we learn more about the role that the Question and Answer Service (QAS) plays in this regard. Niang: CTA itself is really one big QAS at the disposal of ACP countries. As you know, the Third Lome Convention stipulates that CTA must ensure, at the request of ACP countries, the diffusion of agricultural information (Article 37), and this is the basis of all our activities. In establishing this information service, CTA wanted to be able to respond to specific requests originating from ACP countries. Our seminars and publications are excellent ways of diffusing information, but they must be complemented by a service that can satisfy the needs of special target groups. SPORE: Wasn't your establishment of a QAS an implicit acknowledgement that traditional information centres have not been able to meet the real demand from people in the field? Niang: I would prefer to talk about the problems that these centres face. They don't always have the means, given often insufficient budgets and limited staffs, to do all that is expected of them. Some were created without being able to benefit from a preliminary analysis of the needs in the field and so may not be adapted to real needs. SPORE: CTA's QAS is currently expanding. How do you account for its success in view of the failure of other services? Niang: It's true that there has been an exponential growth. In 1986, we received 761 publication requests and 325 questions compared with 3,664 publication requests and 1,962 questions in 1987, five times more! CTA's success in this field is based primarily on its ability to make use of existing information sources. Another satisfying result is that users of our QAS give us good publicity, which makes us believe that they appreciate our services. SPORE: What resources do you have to work with? Niang: First of all, we have a team of advisers experienced in the fields of research, technology, training, extension work and documentation. We have also gradually built up a network of outside experts that we rely on for specific advice. We have also established a reference library that includes files on the main information sources in this field. At the technical level, CTA is tied in with the main agricultural data bases (AGRIS, AGRICOLA, CABI IBISCUS, etc.) through both the DIMDI and ESA systems. This is made possible by a substantial budget that has been allocated to our QAS: 150,000 ECU in 1987 and 225,000 ECU in 1988. SPORE: Who makes use of your service and what kind of questions do they ask? Niang: An analysis of the requests shows that our users are very diverse in terms of their jobs, origin and interests. The questions are put by professional categories as varied as researchers, extension workers, trainers, farmers, documentalists, planners and decision-makers. Their fields of interest revolve mainly around crop and livestock production, agroforestry, rural economics and sociology, teaching and agricultural equipment. The specific subjects deal with vegetable plants (yams, cassava, African sorrel) oil plants (oil palm, butter tree), f;uits (papaya, melon) and cereals (maize and wheat). While the QAS is at the disposal of the 66 ACP countries and citizens of the 12 EEC countries who are working in these areas, some countries make more use of it than others. Benin, Cote d'lvoire, Ghana, Kenya Nigeria, Senegal and the Sudan are our main clients. That is probably the result of word of mouth contact. Most questions are asked in order to solve a practical problem, assist a research programme, or improve a development project. Some of the information provided is also used to expand or improve basic knowledge, in which case it can be considered as part of a continuing education programme. SPORE: How do you set about answerinq questions? Niang: There are numerous ways in which we provide information. First, a reception service analyses the question and sends it on to the most appropriate information source. Second, a bibliographic service uses our documentation and data bank resources to provide references, by subject or author. Access to basic documents is a third type of service, through which copies of original articles are provided thanks to the cooperation of the British Library Document Supply, the French Office for the Development of Agricultural Products (BDPA), CABI in the UK, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and PUDOC in the Netherlands. Finally there is the technical advice provided by our team of advisers and outside consultants mentioned above. SPORE: How much does it cost to use your service and how long does it take? Niang: Although it costs between 35-185 USD per question, CTA provides this service free of charge to eligible users (see above) and the turn-around time, which depends on the complexity of the question, can be up to six weeks. SPORE: Some questions must be difficult to answer! Niang: That's true, and I wouldn't want our success to hide the fact. The major problem is in the formulation of the question. In certain cases, we have very little information on either the person asking it (educational level, experience, profession, languages used, etc.) or the project that it is designed to help. In order to respond well, it is important to know what information has already been used, the region concerned, and any deadlines involved. SPORE: Has such direct contact with people in the field affected the direction of CTA's other work? Niang: Of course. The QAS is one of the barometers of information needs in ACP countries. The analysis of questions posed enables us to orient our programme development. In 1987, for example, we received numerous requests dealing with subjects as diverse as water supply, jojoba, snails and other molluscs the breeding of small ruminants, and the motivation of local groups. Our Technical Division also bears this in mind for the selection of feature articles published by SPORE, for CTA's other publications and for organising technical workshops. The QAS can also influence the direction of research programmes. A request from Trinidad for information on Scatella, an insect which threatens greenhouse lettuce, revealed the near-absence of references on this subject and thus identified a useful research area SPORE: Is it really cost-effective to invest so much time and energy to respond to a single request? Have you thought about disseminating your answers to a larger audience? Niang: Of course. In 1987, for example, CTA received many questions on row cropping. As a result, I published an article on agroforestry in The Courier (No. 103, May/June 1987) to direct those interested to the appropriate information sources and to encourage more dialogue between researchers and practitioners of agricultural development. We sometimes get the same question from different people. For example, questions on mango processing were received from an NGO in Mali, a government agency in Senegal and a West German expert. In this case, our research efforts were spread between three clients which, of course, was very cost-effective. SPORE: Are you not afraid that you may be creating more demand than you will be able to handle? Niang: I certainly don't want to see CTA submerged by requests. That is why we are also working on improving the information services of ACP countries, both at the training and documentation use levels. In this regard, we organise an annual course on agricultural information sources whose objective is to teach documentalists where and how to find information, thereby improving the quality and capacity of such services. In conjunction with CABI and CIRAD, CTA is now preparing a directory of Agricultural Information Services in ACP countries as a follow-up to the directory of European Information Sources on Tropical Agriculture. It is designed to encourage South/South communication in this field As you can see, CTA now plays an intermediary role, but our long-term goal is to facilitate direct contact between information sources and users. In this regard, the QAS is sort of a catalyst, or even better, an 'enzyme'that provokes and accelerates such interaction
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