From Habitat Exchange 1.0 to 2.0 and 3.0


The original idea for a web-based portal, called The Habitat Exchange, came from Dr. H. Peter Oberlander. It was developed by a project team under his direction and a Cooperation Agreement between the United Nations Human Settlements Programme and the University of British Columbia, Centre for Human Settlements, signed in 2007. This resulted in a pilot version of a portal that was unveiled in November 2008 at WUF 4 in Nanjing, China. As conceived by Peter:

The Habitat Exchange is a venue for the disemmination and discussion of best practices, action plans and other tools relevant to the pursuit of ecologically sound and socially equitable urbanization. The Habitat Exchange aims to be a portal for learning and collaboration and we welcome ideas for future partnerships.

About Habitat Exchange

The pilot version presented in Nanjing was well received and there was general agreement that it should be developed further. Peter sadly died shortly after WUF 4 but work on further development of ideas associated with the Habitat Exchange 1.0 was taken over by a UBC committee jointly chaired by Stephen Owen, Vice President External, Legal and Community Relations and Penny Gurstein, Director, School of Community and Regional Planning.

I became involved during one of the Committee's early meetings in 2009 when it was discussing the pilot version and ways to develop it further. This web site summarizes the results of exploring one enhancement possibility that I naively floated during those discussions. As you will learn, I have come to think differently as a result of my explorations of enhancement options and their pros and cons. In the following sections I summarize what I have learned from exploring these ideas further. I will be interested to find out how others react to my conclusions and recommendations on next steps for developing the Habitat Exchange.

1.0 A Portal of Portals

2.0 Assessing the Potential Strengths and Weaknesses of Habitat Exchange 1.0

3.0 Why a Portal of Portals?

4.0 What Might It Look Like?

5.0 A Searchable Portal of Portals

6.0 Assessing the Potential Strengths and Weaknesses of a Searchable Portal of Portals

6.1 Building and Maintenance

6.2 The Alternative Search Options

7.0 Conclusions and Recommendations

1.0 A Portal of Portals

My expertise is not in building and operating web-based data systems or interaction tools. I am not a techie. I am a Mac fan who only takes up user-friendly and well-proven hardware and software. Thus the perspective I bring is primarily as a potential user of the Habitat Exchange and possibly an occasional contributor to its data base. From this view point it seemed to me that it might be possible to significantly enhance the usefulness of the portal if we could add a capability to more easily search the web for those sites where others had already built and are advancing portals on topics relevant to the focus of the Habitat Exchange. This thinking was primarily driven by my reflections on how I increasingly use such portals in my own areas of research, teaching and practice, and by the dawning realization of how valuable a portal of portals might be.

2.0 Assessing the Potential Strengths and Weaknesses of Habitat Exchange 1.0

Assemblying potentially useful resources in one archive so that people can easily browse and search for documents and video resources that are relevant to their interests and needs is a very appealing idea. This is particularly so for those resources, including historically important documents, videos and records from conferences and workshops, that might not otherwise be easily located or accessed. The preliminary sample of resources that was put into the pilot version of Habitat Exchange gives a glimpse of the potential usefulness of having such a collection and being able to browse and search among its holdings.

To gain such benefits is, however, a demanding and costly process if it is done in the ways used for creating the pilot and as had been envisioned for further developing the archive. In general, I would expect a relatively small number of people to be likely to submit resources to the archive of their own volition, particularly in the early stages while it has little or no reputation for the services it provides. Submission rates would probably improve with the growth of the collection and its reputation as a good source but would always be constrained by the efforts required. There would be a continuing need for a staff that solicits resources and in the beginning this requirement would be significantly greater.

When resources are obtained for adding to the archive, there would also be a need for staff to process them for inclusion in the collection. This could involve work on the item itself if it does not arrive in a form ready for inclusion (e.g. a report might need scanning). Beyond this are the tasks of creating the accession information, including the critically important summaries and key words. Even when documents arrive with this information, they would need to be checked and likely revised to meet accession standards and to be consistent with criteria for key words. Experience in creating the pilot version indicates that these are time-consuming and demanding tasks, essential if standards are to be maintained.

In summary, it seemed to me that substantial financial resources were going to be necessary to implement the proposed approach if it is to go beyond a very limited and tightly focused goal of assembling in the archive key historical materials and other resources that are readily available. While the pilot version envisioned that there would be additional resources beyond the archive, including listings of online courses and interaction tools and programming, that would make the Habitat Exchange even more beneficial, each of these components would also require substantial budgetary resources to deliver an updated portal on a sustained basis. It was these conclusions that originally led me to think about alternative ways of obtaining some of these benefits at lower costs.

3.0 Why a Portal of Portals?

Since 2008 I have been providing all of my course materials through web sites. One of the developments that has encouraged me to move in this direction has been the creation of powerful sites and portals in my areas of teaching, research and practice that increasingly provide ready access to information on existing and newly created resources. Here are three illustrative examples of portals that I find valuable and use regularly:

Global Water Partnership (GWP)

Resilience Alliance

These three examples illustrate the diverse types of resources and information that any single portal aggregates for me. While is a portal I use for my interest in mediation, negotiation and facilitation, it is not the only one. For example, others include

Program on Negotiation (PON)


And when my interest re-focuses on the use of mediation, negotiation and facilitation in governance processes, I go to additional portals, such as

International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)

Collaborative Democracy Network

Deliberative Democracy Consortium

And if I am more specifically interested in science intensive negotiations, then portals such as

The Keystone Center

Consensus Building Institute

I am only guessing but I suspect I presently use upwards of fifty portals to monitor what is developing and to search when I am looking for particular types of information. This number is steadily growing as I discover additional portals and new ones are established. This led me to the simple thought that it might be useful to be able to search the collection of portals that I use rather than going to them one by one. And a second thought was that it might be useful to be able to search the collection of portals that people specializing in Habitat Exchange issues would put on their own list of valuable portals. In turn, these thoughts led me to wonder whether this might be a cost-effective way to enhance the Habitat Exchange.

4.0 What Might It Look Like?

To explore the idea of a portal of portals further I created the diagrams below using Buzan's iMindMap software. The primary branches on the diagrams show different types of information sources that might be included in the Habitat Exchange. The blue branch at 2 o'clock, Resources & Archives, depicts the information that was included in Peter Oberlander's pilot version of the Habitat Exchange. The sub-branches at the end of it are the major categories into which his team divided the resources. The other primary branches are examples, that I added to those included in the pilot, of sources of information relevant to the Habitat Exchange that are available through other web sites and portals produced by other groups or organizations. The primary branches that I added are only an illustrative set, selected to show some of the diversity of potential sources at UBC and outside of it in Canada and elsewhere around the world.

In the expanded diagram below I have added sub-branches to some of the primary branches to illustrate the kind of web and portal sources that would be useful to include in the Habitat Exchange. Those chosen are ones with which I am familiar from my own research, teaching and practice. Thus one sub-set of sources that I would consider are Topic Portals (purple at five o'clock) and an example would be for the topic of Governance (which was one of the major categories into which the pilot version of the Resources and Archives was divided). Relevant to Governance would be web sites and portals such as those examples I listed above (e.g. Deliberative Democracy Consortium).

A second sub-set of sources I would consider would be located by Organization (green at three o'clock) rather than a particular topic. Here, illustrative examples would include the following

UN Habitat > E-Library

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) > Projects > Metropolitan Governance (Brazil) > UBC Centre for Human Settlements (CHS)

International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Library

Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) > Best Practices Reports & Tools and Resources for Building Capacity

Web sites and portals have been added to other primary branches to illustrate sources relevant to them.{Add page with list}

5.0 A Searchable Portal of Portals

Brian Lamb and Gagan Sandhu of UBC Office of Learning Technology, have taken the above illustrative list of web sites and portals, created tags for each based on key words, and using software provided by BCcampus have created a demonstration of how a portal of portals might be made searchable. The demonstration has been added into the pilot version of the Habitat Exchange site. Clicking on a tag in the cloud leads to relevant web site addresses listed in a Delicious site. To see how it works click on a word in the cloud, such as "governance".

6.0 Assessing the Potential Strengths and Weaknesses of a Searchable Portal of Portals

From this rudimentary illustration, adding a searchable portal of portals to the pilot version of Habitat Exchange is clearly feasible. Whether or not it would be a cost-effective addition depends on at least two major considerations.

6.1 Building and Maintenance

The first consideration is how it is built and maintained. For an individual, such as myself, I would see it as providing relatively large benefits for little effort. All I would have to do is to follow through on the approach taken above.

To maintain and enhance the usefulness of the portal of portals to me would involve relatively undemanding tasks including

A group of collaborators could well take the same approach. They could either decentralize all functions to each individual so that anyone could add to the web sites and portals and associated tags or they could limit such functions to selected individuals or centralize them. Decentralizing this function is an appealing thought in that it could enhance participation and would make efforts to coordinate and find resources for centralized functions unnecessary. However, there may be a need for at least minimal coordination in order to avoid counter productive contributions. I don't have the experience to know what to anticipate here and would thus welcome comments from others more knowledgeable about potential challenges. However, I would assume that all these questions become more significant the larger and more diverse the group that is involved.

One evolutionary approach would be for a group to get started and monitor how the collection develops with the idea of intervening as found to be desirable. Thus, for example, those working with Peter Boothroyd, could carry out a test for a period of time. Once there is confidence with their approach, other groups could be encouraged to develop it for themselves and/or join in.

From the point of view of developing Habitat Exchange, a decision would need to be made at some point as to how to define what subject material to include so as to maintain clarity of focus. The scope defined for the pilot by Peter Oberlander is very broad and hence this would not seem to be a limiting factor. However, the hypothised appeal of the Habitat Exchange idea is that it would permit searchers to more easily locate information that meets their particular interests. It is therefore important to consider how to maintain clarity on the focus of the collection and to ensure that the tags used facilitate users in readily locating relevant information. These considerations suggest that there is at least a minimal level of coordination needed among any group of users with regard to tagging practices and what subject materials are included. Again, this may be most efficiently determined through an experimental development approach to build out and maintenance.

From this initial exploration it would appear that adding this capability to the Habitat Exchange need not require large resources for individuals and possibly at least small groups. Whether or not this is the case and whether the benefits exceed the cost and effort involved could be determined in this process of experimental development.

6.2 The Alternative Search Options

The second basic consideration is what are the alternative search options that might be employed by those who are interested in information relevant to Habitat Exchange. In identifying some alternatives, I have learned how to better utilize options, like Google Search, that I was already using. Below I briefly consider what I believe are a few of the significant options that merit consideration as both alternatives and complements to Habitat Exchange 1.0 that could be part of an expanded Habitat Exchange 2.0.

Google Search

Major advantages of using Google Search are that it involves no construction or maintenance costs and has an ever-growing potential to locate items on the web. Major draw backs are that (i) it will not locate resources that are not posted to or referenced on the web and (ii) the huge numbers of returns to search terms that are associated with topics that may or may not be related to what is of interest. The first of these draw backs will continue to diminish as more and more frequently resources of potential interest to the Habitat Exchange are being put online or at least referenced somewhere online.

The second draw back can be mitigated significantly by using all the strategies that are available for more productive use of Google Search. Prior to working on options for the development of The Habitat Exchange, I would class myself as an un-intelligent user of Google Search even though I use it many times each day. I found very good information on how to utilize Google Search more intelligently in their Google Search Basics. Intelligent Google Search is a zero cost option (except for the time spent) that has relatively high expected benefits.


Often Google Search will identify relevant pages in Wikipedia. In my experience, when these exist they can frequently be useful sources of introductory overviews on topics that sensitize the reader to differences in views and lead to other more specific resources on the web, which can be much more useful. The topic coverage is, however, limited and individual articles vary in quality and usefulness. It is again a very low cost option with relatively high potential benefit but generally much lower potential than Google Search.

Google Knol

I was really intrigued by the possibilities for Knol when Google introduced it just over a year ago but from watching its evolution so far I have not yet found it to have great potential. Its future in its present form seems uncertain with variant models being proposed for re-forming it. For a sense of the debates go to A collection of collections of knols about Knols.

However, one recent experiment in using Knol, begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) in August 2009, is worth watching because of its similarities to some of the interests in Habitat Exchange.

PLoS Currents: Influenza, which we are launching today, is built on three key components: a small expert research community that PLoS is working with to run the website; Google Knol with new features that allow content to be gathered together in collections after being vetted by expert moderators; and a new, independent database at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) called Rapid Research Notes, where research targeted for rapid communication, such as the content in PLoS Currents: Influenza will be freely and permanently accessible. To ensure that researchers are properly credited for their work, PLoS Currents content will also be given a unique identifier by the NCBI so that it is citable.

Examining how PLoS operates gives an indication of the very substantial voluntary, financial and organizational resources that are required to build and maintain such a system, one that has similar characteristics to those envisaged at least in part for Habitat Exchange. It tends to support the view that Habitat Exchange as envisaged in the pilot version would require very substantial resources to build and maintain.

Specialized Sites or Portals

The PLoS Knol is one example of more specialized web sites or portals that already exist for topics of relevance to the Habitat Exchange. In fact, it was the recognition of their existence, in varying degrees of specificity of topic and audience focus, that stimulated my original interest in creating a searchable portal of portals (SPoP). To this point, while I have found all kinds of potentially useful web sites and portals to include in a SPoP, I have found none that is as comprehensive in its topic coverage and resource inclusiveness as envisaged in the initial concept of the Habitat Exchange.

One initiative, The Cities Exchange, caught my attention a year ago as it sounded like it was going to develop something very similar to what was envisaged for Habitat Exchange. I contacted Urbanicity, the organization that was developing it and that maintains a portal that I use, to find out more. In early 2009 I was told that an initial web site would be opened shortly but it was not until later in the year that the site was opened. It briefly described what was planned and solicited contributions from people having experience with sustainability initiatives in cities, towns and villages around the globe. Writing at the end of February 2010, the site continues to show a countdown to a launch in December 1, 2009. It is my impression that it is taking more to put together enough contributions to feel they are ready to open up than was originally anticipated. As you can see Urbanicity has been operating for some time and operates in partnership with UN-HABITAT and in association with ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) an international organization of local governments that has been operating nationally and globally for 20 years.

7.0 Conclusions and Recommendations

I have learned a great deal in exploring my initial naive ideas about how to build on Peter Oberlander's pilot version of his vision for The Habitat Exchange. It has led me into areas where I have no expertise and to conclusions and recommendations that are different from those I had anticipated at the outset. Below, I briefly highlight what these are so as to stimulate critical review of my musings from those who are much more knowledgeable than I and discussion about where and how to go forward next in advancing The Habitat Exchange.

Broad Conclusions

Next Steps

Based on these broad conclusions, I believe two sets of steps might usefully be taken next. They might be characterized as Habitat Exchange 2.0 and Habitat Exchange 3.0.

Habitat Exchange 2.0 (HE2.0) would involve advancing the web-based pilot version of HE1.0 in several ways that are intended to strategically test how existing and emerging information and communications technologies (ICTs) could be cost-effective components of The Habitat Exchange. The focus would be on exploring the options that appear to have relatively low costs and potentially high benefits.

Habitat Exchange 3.0 (HE3.0) would incorporate HE2.0 but go beyond it in pilot testing the cost-effectiveness of expanded capacities needed to support further capabilities of the Habitat Exchange. Two examples envisaged in the original pilot are

Each of these additional capacities would require dedicated resources for providing them and the resources needed become all the greater as the provider becomes more engaged as creator, facilitator, participant and collaborator. For example, it would be relatively low cost to provide information about online courses created and delivered by others in the HE2.0 mode but becoming responsible for developing and delivering courses involves much greater resources. The pilot testing of the cost-effectiveness of this is already underway to some extent in initiatives being conducted by Peter Boothroyd and others. Next steps on such HE3.0 potentials would involve developing and implementing more explicit assessments of options and their cost-effectiveness as additions to ongoing activities.

I want to conclude by indicating that a general priority for moving forward on any of these pilot tests would be the development of a more detailed framework and strategy for designing and conducting productive experiments that can generate good information about their costs and benefits. In proceding there are a variety of important assessment issues that should be addressed, that occurred to me as I undertook this exploration but which I did not go into.



5th March 2011

Rapid developments in software for searching and analyzing documents offer new ways for more cost-effectively searching for potentially valuable information that could be incorporated into the proposed pilot developments for Habitat 2.0 and Habitat 3.0.