What’s the best way to manage information overload on development? My favourite synthesizers and other tips.

How to cope with Information Overload – how much of the daily tide of opinion and research on aid, development, politics etc can you manage to surf, while still doing the day job (which may well involve adding to it)? Some colleagues suffer from FOMO and ICYMI, hopping between social media in a constant scavenging for wisdom, or at least novelty. Others seem to have given up entirely, hunkering down with a few classic papers from decades ago, ignoring all the incoming. I’m closer to the FOMO camp, so here are a few thoughts, and an appeal for more ideas and sources.

First, the good old RSS feed – a good solid base, in which you sign up for anything new from a list of tried and tested websites and authors. I follow about 40 sources on my Feedly account, which generate a list of about 30 pieces every morning. Of those, I read about half a dozen, and tweet links to the good ones. I know RSS is seen as a bit old hat, but I still have not heard of a better alternative and am shocked how few colleagues or students use it.

Then the treacherous swamp that is twitter. Do you exert discipline, and only follow work-related stuff, or sign up to that lovely series of video clips of birds of the world (more disturbing than lovely in the case of the Common Potoo) and risk disappearing for 20 minutes down a web-rabbit hole in the middle of the working day?

And finally, the synthesizers (of aid and development literature, not the musical abomination). These are those selfless/hyperactive individuals who publish round-ups and summaries of links, typically every week. Here’s my current list, in no particular order, but I would love some additions:

  • Tobias Denskus publishes Aidnography, a long list on aid and development, usually with a critical take on the many failings and iniquities of the aid system
  • Heather Marquette provides an occasional monster round-up of her reading on Governance and Conflict.
  • Despite being a sleep-deprived, first time Dad, Ranil Dissanayake serves up an eccentric weekly combo of sport, pop culture references and hardcore economics on the Centre for the Study of African Economies blog.
  • Ranil’s now at CGD, which is also home to ace synthesizer Dave Evans, who has made a speciality out of monster human-hoover reviews of new research on topics such as educational research in Africa
  • When he stepped down from blogging (I’m still hurting from that decision) Chris Blattman handed the keys to his blog to Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action for an occasional round up of development links with a focus on research, especially RCT-type experimental work.
  • The Week in Africa is an extraordinarily comprehensive round up of links on politics, aid and culture, compiled by Jeff (American) and Phil (Zimbabwean) and hosted by the University of San Francicso. Sign up here.

Who am I missing? These are the synthesizers – I also follow lots of individual blogs and authors – but I am struck by how white and male they are (and you can add me in a small way via this blog’s Links I Liked round-ups). So do please suggest other sources of round-ups, preferably not so male, pale and at least in my case, stale…..

Update: do check out the comments below for some great tech info management software, as well as further links

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24 Responses to “What’s the best way to manage information overload on development? My favourite synthesizers and other tips.”
      • scott Bayley

        Set up a Google account. Do a search for a term/phrase of interest (e.g. adaptive management) and ask Google to automatically repeat this same search every week and then email me the results. I get 90% dross and 10% nuggets. The volume of material isn’t overly large.

  1. Steve Prior

    RSS is such a great thing. I have over 100 sources in my Feedly account and while I still struggle to keep up at times the title view allows me to quickly skip through things I’m not interested in.
    I also like RSS because I keep control of what I see instead of allowing a social media platform to determine whether I want to see particular posts from particular sources.
    Privacy is another advantage.

  2. Conrad Zellmann

    Thanks for the great tips, and totally agree on RSS. One other source I love is The Syllabus, in particular its ‘Best of Podcasts’ feed – it takes a wider angle, and I regularly find real gems there, enjoying e.g. an in-depth discussion on Paraguay’s political economy, and then one on changing media landscapes in MENA during a recent longish drive.

    • Herman Brouwer

      Agreed, https://the-syllabus.com is excellent and not just for podcasts. Their non-silicon valley-based algorithm (combined with human selection) generates surprising good quality content. Also editions in German, French, Spanish and Italian. They invite weekly guest curators (called ‘cyberflaneurs’) from different walks of life to search & select.

  3. Hi Duncan,
    You forgot the easiest hack: Duncan reads all this, and chooses the most interesting bits. Just follow his blog if you feel overwhelmed. Just disconnect en limit yourself to the blog for a while. Here is the link: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/whats-the-best-way-to-manage-information-overload-on-development-my-favourite-synthesizers-and-other-tips/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+FromPovertyToPower+%28From+Poverty+to+Power+%3A+Duncan+Green%29.
    Moreover I follow a few additional feeds: ODI; Political violence at a glance; development as an anthropological object; thenewhumanitarian.
    Many twitter accounts that used to be interesting and good aggregators tweet now only about Anglo-Saxon politics or viruses. E.g. Ezra Klein used to be a good complement to think about fundamental issues that are also relevant for development.

  4. Heather Marquette

    Thanks for the shout out, Duncan, from your pale, not male but definitely feeling 2020-stale curator. I find twitter/lists to be really helpful for finding stuff, but it’s really the curation that’s been a learning journey for me.
    I hesitate in sharing a top tip that costs money (though there are discounts/possible freebies for students, charities, users from the Global South available), but Roam Research has been a game changer for me – https://roamresearch.com/. It looks like a note-taking app but works like my brain. I saw a bit of hype on Twitter (there’s a hashtag, of course – #roamcult), and I played around with it a bit as a beta user: fine, interesting, whatever.
    Then I saw this walk through video on YouTube where someone called Nat Eliason shows how he outlines an article in 20 minutes using Roam, and it blew my mind.
    This may sound like gobbledygook unless you check it out, but Roam has this magic combination of backlinks (where you can use brackets like [[Duncan Green]] to create easily navigated connections/links between notes, thoughts, people…whatever really) and a sidebar that allows you to work on 2 different spaces at the same time in a very cool way. It’s made the process between discovering interesting things, reading them, taking notes, thinking and writing much easier and less time consuming, especially now that I’m using Substack too.
    But – and this is the really important bit – it also makes it a million times easier for me to reconnect with all of this reading and thinking at any point in the future, because the connections stay hovering in the background waiting to be rediscovered, rather than just sitting in an Evernote-type folder or a paper notebook. So, in the future if I’m taking a note on something that you’ve written, and I type [[Duncan Green]] (or whatever link/tag it may be) it automatically links the new note to everything else with those same links, and then I’ll be able to see ‘oh yeah! Duncan wrote that cool thing 6 months ago, and I can bring that into my current reading list/journal article/blog etc’.
    I’m gushing, but it’s amazing. For anyone who is looking to improve their own personal knowledge management system (called a PKM, apparently…), it’s worth looking into.

  5. Jamie Pett

    My set up is similar. I prefer Feedly and a few selected newsletters as my main sources over Twitter. I actually use an app called Freedom to block social media on all my devices during the working day. My addition is using Pocket to save articles that I come across that I want to read later. That saves me from having dozens of tabs open. Then I look at Pocket when I’ve got time to sit down with a cup of coffee and read a bunch of stuff – often on a geeky Saturday morning. Then I save the best ones to Evernote, though I’m planning to transfer to Roam Research, emboldened by Heather’s recommendation.

    What you didn’t mention is that the best way to synthesise and learn is probably to collate links to share with others. Alas, I’ve struggled to do that in more recent times but used to get a lot out of it.