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Answering enquiries - A service provided by GATE

by Helma Zeh-Gasser

How can an information service for appropriate technologies which has already been in existence for more than a decade and has answered more than 17,000 letters during that time improve the services it offers? To answer this question, a survey was conducted by questionnaire in Peru, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Ghana, and a trip was undertaken to Ecuador and Colombia to interview people. This article presents the background to this survey and the principal findings that resulted from it.

The aim of answering questions which are, basically, a large number of micro-projects, is to ensure that

• existing potential, some of which has still not been tapped, and the long experience of GTZ/GATE and other institutions are drawn on to provide answers;

• intensive contact is maintained with institutions and people from developing countries;

• institutions in developing countries are put in touch with one another;

• experience already gained in one place is made available for people elsewhere;

• the information provided is not purely technical - that the answer also relates it to a context;

• free access to existing information is guaranteed (an exception to this is patented knowledge, which can neither be bought nor made available);

• it is possible to give help, without "red tape" or other obstacles, to a large number of organizations etc. in the Third World who need it;

• there is a central address in the Federal Republic of Germany to which all enquiries can be sent;

• a "snowball-effect" occurs more and more enquirers find out about the existence and the idea of Appropriate Technology and GATE's work.

However, the subject-matter of the letters received not only relates to RATE's original terms of reference, e. Appropriate Technology. Among other things, it also includes:
orders for publications and "gate" magazine;

• requests for general and specific information material on technologies; requests for detailed expert opinions;

• requests to supply the names and addresses of organizations and/or people to contact concerning specific problems;

• requests for assistance in the form of finance, personnel, and material, and help in identifying potential sponsors;

• paving the way for cooperation partnerships.

Comments mainly favorable

GATE has always done everything it can to answer enquiries. We have not carried out any systematic checks to determine how the information given is applied or how appropriate it is. Apart from letters of thanks and occasional reports of success there has been no feedback to indicate how efficiently questions have been answered.

While the mechanics of dealing with enquiries have been continuously improved and professionalized, for example by introducing word processing with a PC and compiling "Technology Readers", there has been no information concerning the intrinsic quality and usefulness of the information material sent.

Initially, the survey ignored the question whether the enquirer had requested a publication or technical advice. The important thing was to establish whether the information sent had answered the question and where it was inadequate.

On the basis of 156 questionnaires returned (i.e. 40 per cent of those sent) and 40 interviews (GATE wrote to 78 enquirers and 40 of them agreed to an interview) it was established that a written question-and-answer service can help in the dissemination of knowledge. The majority of those asked commented favorably on the service, not only as regards the technical processing - such as the time taken to provide an answer and the presentation of the answers- but also as regards to content of the material sent. Needless to say, everyone was aware that the sending of written information can only contribute in a small way to the dissemination of appropriate technologies and to a country's development: the actual application of it in practice must be left to organizations and individuals "on the spot". However, the Question-and-Answer Service can disseminate experience already gained elsewhere and make information available which is otherwise difficult to get hold of.

Language barrier the biggest problem

The principal suggestions and criticisms identified by the survey are listed below.

Language

Language was the problem mentioned most often. In the Spanish speaking area in particular it has been found that information in another language is of little use to enquirers. For the future, it is planned to translate all GATE publications into the major languages. Additionally, more attention should be paid to this point when selecting information.

Contact address

In order to enable enquirers to approach other people, organizations, manufacturers and firms direct, more information must be given about people to contact, even though this may not be expressly requested in the enquiry. The same applies as regards information about workshops, exhibitions and other events.

Unclearly formulated questions

Enquirers often find it difficult to formulate questions clearly enough for a satisfactory reply to be given. This problem could be resolved by sending a questionnaire to enquirers the first time they contact GATE. The questionnaire would ask the enquirer to supply the information needed to answer his or her question.

Making services offered by GATE known

Some enquirers only knew about GATE publications and therefore sent their enquiry to GATE in the form of an order for a book; additional information was not asked for, even through it was available. This situation can be remedied by systematic mailing of the GATE leaflet.

Detailed plans and designs

Another complaint was that there was a lack of information from the industrial sector (plans and construction manuals for performance proved technologies). Here, it must be admitted, the GATE information service is limited: it cannot offer patented know-how. However, plans prepared by GATE and other organizations are available.

Publications

GATE publications should contain more drawings, photos and explanatory diagrams to make the text easier to understand.

Publication of interesting enquiries
Enquiries that might be of interest to others should, in future, be published in our magazine "gate" together with the answer given by GATE.

Setting up and running of local information centres

GATE already assists information centres run by its counterpart organizations and provides all libraries with complete sets of publications. We also give help in setting up libraries.

Processing time

Enquirers are usually informed by letter if it takes longer than usual to answer their questions. In future this must be done in all cases.

The points listed above will be adopted in the near future, together with a number of other suggestions.

If readers of this article have further suggestions or criticisms to offer we would be glad to hear from them. Letters should be addressed to:

Frau
Helma Zeh-Gasser
Frage-Antwort-Dienst
GTZ/GATE
O. Box 5180
6236 Eschborn 1
Federal Republic of Germany

Abstract

The appropriate technology in formation service (Question-and-Answer Service) has now been in existence for over ten years. During this time it has answered over 17,000 letters. To enable GATE to improve this service still further a survey was carried out recently in Peru, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Ghana. This was complemented by an interview trip to Ecuador and Colombia. The majority of those asked thought the service was good. Criticism was voiced in particular about the language problem and the shortage of detailed drawings and construction manuals.

Résumé

Le service d'information pour les technologies appropriées existe désormais depuis plus de 10 ens. Au cours de cette période, il a été répondu a plus de 17000 lettres. Afin de pouvoir améliorer encore davantage ce service, GATE a effectué une enquête par questionnaire au Pérou, en Inde, aux Philippines, en Thaïlande et au Ghana. Cette operation a été completee par une enquête en Ecuador et en Colombie. La majeure partie des personnel interrogées s'est exprimée en faveur de ce service, les seuls points de critique étant le probléme linguistique ainsi qu'un manque de plans et de schemes de construction détailes.

Extracto

El Servicio de Información de Tecnologia Apropiada existe desde trace más de diez años. Durante este tiempo se hen contestado más de 17.000 cartes. Para permitir a GATE mejorar aún más este servicio se ha realizado recientemente une encuesta en Peru, India, Filipinas, Tailandia y Ghana, completada con dos viajes a Ecuadory Colombia pare realizer diversas entrevistas. La mayoria de los encuestados se han exp resado positivamente sobre este servicio. En cuanto a los puntos de critica los encuestados mencionaron el problema del idioma, asi como la falta de planes detallados y pianos de construcción.

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