HIV/AIDS: research brokers and intermediaries in different sectors and contexts

The thematic session on HIV and AIDS gave us some great examples of innovative work in the intermediary sector and highlighted the importance of ensuring that we all link better together.

Zolile Machi from the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) started by asking us if we knew what a DVD is; I thought I was pretty good on my acronyms so was fairly confident. However this term is used by adolescents in South Africa to mean HIV. The stigma surrounding the disease means that the terms HIV and AIDS are rarely used. Zolile pointed out that this has a wider relevance for intermediaries who are involved in classifying information, or developing search terms. It made me wonder how careful we are to ensure that concepts and terms used are actually those common to our different target groups.

Working towards linking up different sources, databases and people working with information was a key theme of the session. Andree Gacion from the Aids Portal.org talked about collaborating to ensure the information each partner has is linked up effectively. This requires working out standards and mechanisms to allow better communication flows between information systems. Catherine Fisher from IDS pointed out that the costs of not linking up, and having hundreds of duplicating and overlapping databases, outweighs the investment required.

It was also commented that often within institutions researchers working on HIV/AIDS don’t know what their colleagues in other departments are doing. How we find out what our colleagues are up to, and what our partners, networks and other institutions are working on is going to be an increasing challenge as more people start playing the intermediary role. Information sharing about who is information sharing seems to be a critical issue.

Keeping information accessible was another theme. This means ensuring that the important information is not shut away in an obscure journal which requires paying for, hidden in a lengthy report, lost when a researcher leaves an organisation or kept only on the internet- inaccessible for communities to contribute their views.

I was really interested in the uses of mobile phones that the Aids Portal are trying out. Not only is there the potential to create surveys which are sent out by text message, but they are now pulling together multiple information sources into collaborative briefs to influence policy debates through an online wiki. One of their partners has developed an audio wiki which will phone someone and talk through the wiki. The person can then record their response and this gets added into the wiki. The potential for this collaborative and inclusive tool seems to be vast- although I wondered how easy it was to cope with different languages, and complex or lengthy wikis.

Finally, Andrew Chetley from Healthlink argued that information intermediaries are not just one off, short term projects. They are a central and critical part of the development puzzle. I think the work going on in Eastern and Southern Africa that we heard about in this session are certainly building some bridges to help navigate through the puzzle.

Anna Downie, IDS

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