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How I fell in love with next Dgroups

September 19, 2012 | Blog-Admin1 | Methods & Tools |

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Carsten Schulz

Dgroups is used as a communication tool within most of SDC’s thematic networks, allowing both the channel of information through newsletters as well as e-discussions among network members. Carsten Schulz from AGRIDEA reflects on his own experience with Dgroups as a tool and his evolution from a sceptical and critical reviewer to an “aficionado” of the newly designed next.Dgroups platform.

By Carsten Schulz

I am writing this blogpost as an e-facilitator for the Employment and Income Network (e+i network) in which I used to animate e-discussions with practitioners from all over the world. We started the e-learning cycles on Private Sector Development by using Dgroups in 2010 with discussing relevant topics on Value Chain Development and the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) Approach with around 120 members. In September 2012, the same community counts more than 260 members from 45 countries and is among the largest discussion group within SDC’s thematic networks.

dgroups screenshot 2

 I am pretty sure that all of you know Dgroups – and that you have an opinion about its use and functionalities. For those who don’t know: it’s an online platform for individuals and organisations working in international development.Dgroups is basically hosting mailing lists. Additionally it offers an online archive of all contributions and group members can set up a profile to help them networking on the website. This message board was started in 2002 as a project of Bellanet/IDRC (Canada) in collaboration with different donors and UN agencies such as DFID, UNAIDS, WHO among many others. As the number of partners increased, it was agreed that an independent legal entity was needed to support the initiative. Therefore, in 2009 the Dgroups Foundation was established in the Netherlands as a non-profit foundation, which now comprises 18 full Dgroups Partners, among which SDC. And just to give you the latest figures which I read on their website: in July 2012, Dgroups counts 2.136 active communities, with around 195.892 registered users. It delivers around 400.000 email messages each day, half of which are exchanged with and within African countries.

 dgroups screenshot 1

When we organised our first e-discussions within the e+i network and set up the platform, we were pretty disappointed because of its limited functionalities and usability, for instance:

  • Old fashioned design of Dgroups
  • No subscription of RSS Feeds possible
  • No social media connection
  • Difficult administration of member profiles

With regard to tracking emails, we learned our lessons when inscribed SDC Dgroups members reported that they were not receiving the emails sent to the SDC network members. This happened because the firewall of the server system of the Swiss Federal Government didn’t accept emails sent by Dgroups. In the middle of the discussion, the SDC dgroup coordinator discussed with the Department of Informatics at FDFA and Dgroups; since then, emails were put on the email “white list” and get through.

I remember that, as a facilitator, I couldn’t directly receive emails sent by the participants, and some needed 12 to 24 hours to reach me. At the same time, however, other members with easier email access already were able to respond to posts which I had not yet been able to read.

To be honest, during this time I disliked very much Dgroups as an email platform and I wondered why we, as e-discussion facilitators, should work on such an unreliable and out-fashioned platform.

Due to overall dissatisfaction by users and the governance bodies of Dgroups, a process of overhauling the Dgroups platform was started, which took some time – but is almost completed now. Damir Simunic, director of WA Research in Geneva, and his team, as the service provider for the technical platform for Dgroups since 2010, has led the redesign of next.Dgroups.

love dgroups

New functionalities in next.Dgroups

Since May 2012, the Private Sector Development discussion group has moved to next.Dgroups – and now my love story actually starts. A lot of new functions have been added to next.Dgroups. The platform is much more reliable and user-friendly:

– Bounce-back emails are closely monitored

– Spam emails are filtered and can be released or deleted by group administrators

– The users’ interface can be filled in different languages

– Groups administrators can edit the email footer for each community

– Statistics functions at group level are improved

New “add member” function in next.Dgroups

 I remember very well in May 2012, I had to set-up a new discussion group with the members of two networks, because e+i and A+FS network jointly discussed the opportunities of M4P in Rural Advisory Services (RAS). With the previous rather limited functions in the old version, setting up a new discussion group with 400 members would take me more than half a day – because I had to manually insert all names again. Although the old Dgroups had an export function of the member profiles, a user-friendly import function was missing. With the well thought-through next.Dgroups functionalities, it then took me only 5 minutes to insert the email addresses from 400 members of the both networks to a new discussion group. Wow, I was really amazed!

Efficient support by the WA Research team and Damir Simic

In addition to the improved functionality of next.Dgroups, I have to underline the extremely efficient support given by the WA Research team and Damir Simic. Whenever we are faced with specific platform-related problems, we just send him an email and he normally answers within half an hour and successfully eases the problem.

This is my love story with Dgroups – and my observations during the last 3 years of working with the platform. I think that my relationship with Dgroups has something in common with the article posted by Corinne Sprecher in May 2012, in which she describes the attitude of individuals towards two opposing concepts (Think Pink! Learning from the Antipoles)

What about my fellow e-facilitators and other readers of this blogpost: what have been your experiences with next.Dgroups during the last months?

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Comments to“How I fell in love with next Dgroups”


  1. Many thanks Carsten, it’s good to read your story. I have been using Dgroups as a facilitator/moderator for many years and the ‘next’ Dgroups – which is now the current Dgroups is indeed a big advance on the old version. Congratulations to Damir and WA-Research who have been working hard on this. There is, and always will be, a long list of possibilities for future functionality improvements. The software is in a continuous state of evolution, and we are committed to work with SDC and the other 17 partners of the Dgroups Foundation, to ensure it continues to meet people’s needs. For those who are already moderators or administrators of Dgroups, please join the ongoing discussions on the [redesign] group. For those who would like to find out more about Dgroups, please see http://www.dgroups.info or contact me – neil@ghi-net.org . With thanks, Neil Pakenham-Walsh, Chair, Dgroups Foundation

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  2. Riff Fullan says:

    Your story is not only a good one Carsten, but it has a happy ending :-)

    Having been involved with Bellanet when Dgroups was designed, and later on the Dgroups foundation board – as well as being an efacilitator throughout – I can also say there have been significant improvements over the years. One thing that is constant is the tension between fulfilling the basic function of managing email traffic, and having enhanced functionality: the ‘bells and whistles’ that the platform could have in addition to its core functionality. It is always tempting to think of how great it would be if dgroups could do this or that, but one thing that was emphasized from the beginning is to resist calls for adding bits and pieces of functionality. The belief was (and I think still is) that the more complex the platform becomes, the more difficult it will be to make sure it works well. We all know examples of platforms that integrate a lot of different tools, but usually have one or two of those tools that work very well, and the rest not so well. Moreover, the more complex the platform, the harder it is to keep up with the rest of the internet world and all the freely available tools and platforms that evolve extremely rapidly. I believe most users of dgroups value that email functionality, and that is where the energy should still be directed. In fact, even the dgroups website is probably used mostly by facilitators and rarely if at all by the majority of users. So for me, dgroups is an example of how to thrive in a changing world by not being tempted to wander too far from its essential niche.

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