November 06, 2013

Putting a Spark into knowledge sharing

Written by  Anson Jack, RSSB
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Online information distribution portal Spark is breaking down barriers to sharing information and research between institutions across the international railway industry, as Anson Jack, deputy chief executive of Britain's Railway Safety and Standards Board, explains.

"PROUDLY Found Elsewhere" is a corporate innovation strategy that recognises - even celebrates - the value of adopting or being inspired by innovation from somewhere else.

The appeal of such an approach in the railway industry is readily apparent - rail organisations in different sectors or countries face many of the same challenges, be it replacing ageing assets, combating extreme weather, or exploiting new technologies. However, finding out what others are thinking or doing is often a challenge, which is why Britain's Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), in conjunction with the International Union of Railways (UIC), is developing Spark.

Spark is a free-to-use online resource launched in November 2011 initially to RSSB members, and in December 2012 to all users, which provides access to people, publications, research findings and data. Available at www.sparkrail.org, Spark connects the information uploaded with the owner of that information, allowing users to quickly understand who is doing what and allowing them to make contact when collaboration opportunities exist.

Of course there are challenges when utilising externally sourced ideas, such as aversion to materials with external origins, which might be dismissed as "not invented here." A corollary of this is a reluctance to share information through the perception of not wanting to give away intellectual property.

However, sharing knowledge through Spark does not necessarily mean giving up ownership or releasing sensitive information - often sharing a statement of the work being done and the capabilities supporting it is sufficient for others to find and engage. In Spark the user can create outline records that give visibility to capabilities or needs, but allows the user to retain control of how any further knowledge trading agreements progress.

Through such an approach Spark provides potential benefits to both the supplier and recipient of the information; those seeking knowledge can find new ideas or resolve existing problems, while those providing knowledge are able to identify prospective customers, partners or funders. For example, where a particular operator might be experiencing a problem, they can use Spark to access research on a particular issue which could improve their understanding of the factors at play. In contrast, academic institutions or test facility owners are able to use the platform to actively seek applications for their expertise.

While there is a clear focus on research, development and innovation in Spark through regular updates from a growing number of organisations including Japan's Railway Technical Research Institute, Spanish Railway Technological Platform (PTE), and RSSB, Spark also provides access to a number of respected legacy sources. Spark will soon contain the complete archive of World Congress of Railway Research (WCRR) papers in addition to over 10,000 British Rail Research papers.

WCRR

As part of RSSB's contribution to this month's WCRR, which is being held in conjunction with the AusRailPlus conference and exhibition in Sydney, papers from the congress will be available to Spark contributors for six months following the event before being released to all users.

Anyone involved in the railway industry can sign up to Spark, which like any social network, allows users to build their own profile in which they can state their area of expertise and tailor content to their specific interests. Users looking to upload content to the site are able to become "contributors" which grants them access to more papers and reports. Anyone with information to share can apply to become a contributo. Contributor access is also available to entire organisations through knowledge sharing agreements.

So far over 2000 people from 44 countries have signed up to the service, and RSSB is optimistic that this month's WCRR will provide greater visibility to Spark, boosting users and contributors, thereby allowing more railway professionals and experts to share what they are working on.

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