New search feature transforms access to articles on UP-hosted SDG repository

Posted on February 14, 2023

The South African Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Hub, hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP), is revolutionising the way in which policymakers can access essential research. With a new cutting-edge feature called Intelligent Search, finding the information needed to inform policy decisions is becoming significantly easier.

As a digital platform, the hub needs to be easy to search. However, the large number of research items on the platform has made it difficult and time-consuming to do so – until now.

“It is literally an intelligent search,” said Associate Professor Willem Fourie, founder of the hub. “You upload any PDF file, and the machine will read it and recommend all the articles that are relevant to it.”

The South African SDG Hub hosts more than 150 000 research articles, and uses machine-learning to classify these articles in terms of one or more of the SDGs. The 17 goals include eliminating hunger, ending poverty, achieving gender equality, and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

“Users get to the most relevant research on our site by entering a search term,” Prof Fourie, who is also the programme lead for the Master's in Development Practice at UP's Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute, explained. “But it’s not always easy to know which search terms are relevant. We realised that many of our users are writing policies or reviewing legislation. We thought that instead of them having to decide on the most relevant keywords, they could send us the PDF they are working on so that our machine-learning algorithm can scan it and suggest relevant articles.”

With Intelligent Search, finding the information needed to inform policy decisions has become significantly easier.

Reassuringly, any PDF that users provide is not saved and does not remain on the platform’s servers. The system is set up in such a way that the information is not visible to anybody except the user, and only on their computer.

Prof Fourie and the hub’s team of data scientists are upbeat about this new tech tool as they believe it will attract more users to the hub.

“We want as many people as possible to use the site – NGOs, individuals, anybody,” Prof Fourie said. “It gives them access to research at no cost, and it is to the benefit of both researchers and users of their research.”

The South African SDG Hub hosts only peer-reviewed articles previously stored in the repositories of South Africa’s public universities, as well as a select group of international universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Sydney, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the University of Cambridge.

The platform began as a low-tech WordPress site in 2017, and has grown to become more than just a bigger and more high-tech site. With the support of the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), the hub now has a full-time project manager, Teresa Kroesen, and hosts a policy support initiative, managed by Dr Dominique Mystris. Prof Fourie refers to this as the “human-centred part” of the project.

“It’s a tripartite partnership with the South African and German governments. If our government partners require academic input into SDG-relevant policies or legislation, we have a process to link them to experts at any of South Africa’s 26 public universities.”

The tool went live on Monday, 13 February 2023, and can be accessed at:

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