United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 3                                                                UNEP/EWWP3/3
New York, 17-18 January 1996                                                           18 October 1995


1.   The United Nations and its specialized agencies produce quantities of potentially useful information, but often not in forms that facilitate its use or in ways that make it accessible to potential users. With the rapid development of new information and communications technologies, it is essential to rethink how this information is stored and presented and the ways in which it can be made most accessible.  This note seeks to explore the conceptual bases for a compatible and coordinated UN information system that can service the UN system-wide Earthwatch and many other uses.  It also summarizes some of the steps through which such a system could evolve within available resources.

2.   The basic assumption behind this concept is that information, once collected and processed, should increasingly be handled and distributed in electronic form.  This will free scarce human resources within the UN for other purposes.  At the same time, it is recognized that this will exclude many potential users without electronic access, particularly the already poor and disadvantaged for whom the information gap has been growing even faster than the development gap.  It is thus essential that any system includes the means or interfaces to reach beyond the circle of electronic users so as to be accessible and responsive to those who probably need access to information the most.

3.   Automated electronic handling of information requires a fundamental revolution in procedures and ways of thinking.  Just as the early automobiles resembled the horse-drawn carriages from which the were derived, so do most information systems today simply aim to post in electronic form text and illustrations that would otherwise be printed.  We have difficulty breaking free from the mental patterns associated with printing on paper and turning pages.  Yet the printed page is a fixed support while electronic media can be updated constantly and flexibly, and sifted selectively, and this capacity can allow the preparation of more timely and relevant information.  Once the information required for a particular purpose is assembled electronically, its reverse conversion into printed form for those who need it should be quite a simple process.

The concept

4.   Several principles should underlie the design of any UN information system.

5.   Subsidiarity.  It is in the nature of the UN system that information is collected for many purposes by innumerable organizational entities and held in many forms and places.  This is a strength to build on, since it keeps information close to those who have collected it and who know its uses and limitations.  Any information system should keep things decentralized and near to data collectors and users.

6.   Responsibility.  Those who collect or originate data should be responsible for its accuracy and appropriateness.  The system should not allow data to be cut off from their source or to collect at secondary locations where they can go out of date.  Data should always be accompanied by meta-data including date and origin, and should not be alterable except by the responsible parties.

7.   Transparency.  Information should be freely available for all non-commercial users.  All those involved in decision-making processes should have access to the same information with the highest standards of reliability.

8.   Efficiency.  Data should only be collected once, by one responsible entity, avoiding unnecessary duplication (apart from that needed for quality control) and simplifying reporting requirements.  This will require consultation mechanisms to determine which entities in the system are best placed to collect and assess which kinds of data on behalf of the whole system.  Some cost-sharing mechanisms may also be appropriate.  The corollary of this is that data, once collected, should be readily and rapidly available to any others who need it.

9.   Economy.  Investment in the system should where possible be less than or equivalent to that now made in collecting and processing information manually and in responding individually to the many requests now made.

10.  These principles or design parameters suggest a UN information system where each organization is responsible for collecting and posting data within its areas of responsibility, coupled with a common access and search capacity that can tap easily into information across the system.  Tools like the World Wide Web are now being developed on the Internet that should make this possible.

11.  The information system should include substantive data about the issues of concern to the UN (economic and social development, environment, human rights, etc.) and about the UN itself and its activities (projects, meetings, expenditures, organization and staff, etc.).

Components of the system

12.  Each agency, organization or sub-unit should establish its information points or networks, using standard or compatible formats wherever possible.  The major effort required of each partner in the system will be to make any information it has collected available rapidly at one of these points, and to advise the system of its availability.  Wherever possible, the tools for data access within an agency's information points should be similar to those elsewhere, to allow seamless searches and assembly of information.  Some informal ad hoc meetings (physical and/or electronic) of those responsible for these information points should facilitate convergence and rapid progress through shared experience.

13.  Internet linkages will allow immediate communication between all the information points and with outside users.  They will also facilitate feedback and comment which should improve the information.  For instance, a government or NGO might wish to question the accuracy of certain figures.  The system should encourage such queries and allow questioners to provide additional documentation, but the ultimate choice should rest with the responsible agency to ensure objectivity and prevent manipulation.

14.  All information should be coded by subject, date, geolocation and source to facilitate searching, verification and compilation in geographic information systems.  The system should allow these tags to remain with the data.  An increasing number of uses require information broken down below the national level so that it can be correlated in space and time.

15.  An effort will be required in the UN to catch up and keep up with computer and internet technologies.  Only when more staff have access to and training on tools such as the World Wide Web will they start to use efficient electronic information sources and communications, and thus to see the need to post their information on those sources.  The costs of the hardware and software necessary to do this are only a small fraction of personnel costs and should be given the same priority.  This should be an essential part of the restructuring of the UN system.

Search tools

16.  The set of search tools for accessing this information should allow approaches from a variety of perspectives, often in combination.  Users searching for an organization, organizational unit or programme should be able to approach this alphabetically (including other key words than the first word in the title), by acronym, by subject or function, or from organogrammes of the whole UN system.  For those wanting to reach an individual, it should be quite easy to make all the system telephone directories and staff listings available on line, adding e-mail addresses and fax numbers as well.

17.  Users may want to trace a subject, starting with key words either alphabetically or through logical groupings, based on the INFOTERRA Thesaurus and other similar standard works.  This will require linking all those subjects with the available types of information, preferably by adding key words from the thesauri at the time the information is posted.  A computerized thesaurus could facilitate data entry using only accepted key words.  There can also be "shopping lists" of the main kinds of information available, which can steer searchers towards information that may respond to their needs, rather that leaving them with blind searches which will inevitable turn up many negative responses.  A system of interactive questions, rather like a taxonomic key, could be used to help focus requests.

18.  Another route of access will have to be geographical, whether by country, region or other units.  The entry point could be a name or through pointing on a map.  With the multiplication of reporting requirements to many fora, countries cannot cope with the multiple requests for often similar information.  The UN system must organize itself to collect such information from countries only once, and then make it available for sharing with all those that need to meet various reporting requirements.  This may require some kind of central country data file system, with responsibility for each type of information assigned to an appropriate agency, or to the country itself.  The concept of a "central" file would not exclude "virtual" files in which the data are held in distributed databases but are linked electronically into a single system for access purposes.

19.  A frequent secondary search criterion will often be chronological.  Information may be required for specific dates or periods, or in a time series to demonstrate trends.

20.  There are those uses that require identifying activities including projects, meetings, training courses, studies, etc.  These should be accessible by date, location, subject, responsible unit, etc.  This would facilitate such things as the scheduling of meetings, as it would be possible to determine if there were any conflicting meetings on similar subjects or at the same location for any proposed dates.  An automatic scheduling tool could even provide a warning indication if it spotted any potential conflicts.

Evolution of the system

21.  A common or compatible system of access to UN information will not happen overnight.  It will need to grow organically.  The following are some suggested steps in the process.

22.  Agencies are already posting texts on gopher and WWW sites.  This is relatively simple to do where documents have already been word-processed in electronic form, and should be encouraged as widely as possible.
23.  Those responsible for coordination, such as the Task Managers designated by IACSD, could be responsible to set up central access points with hot links to all the data sources within (and outside) the UN system pertinent to their topics.  UNEP, for instance, has already been requested to do this on the World Wide Web for the system-wide Earthwatch.

24.  The development of user-friendly search tools to access this information efficiently will be a major priority.  Generic search tools are available, but they are not always easy for non-experts to use and produce many negative responses or unmanageable floods of responses.  Neophytes with only a vague idea of what they are looking for should be helped to focus on what is available that may respond to their need.  Some of the types of searches have been mentioned above.  Groups such as CIESIN are developing tools that may help here.

25.  A special effort is required to develop systematic bridging with other media, especially through information brokers and printed publications, to reach non-electronic information points and the many potential users who do not have internet access, especially in developing countries.  INFOTERRA and the Sustainable Development Network Programme should be important bridging services.

26.  As the system develops, it should be possible to move beyond text pages to data sets (for those who want to manipulate them), and to more plastic information products generated on a one-off basis automatically by the system in response to particular requests.  The system could also be designed to calculate or compile at least some of the standard indicators agreed through the CSD work programme.  Some of the reports, or at least supporting documentation, to respond to reporting requirements for international bodies, could also be compiled in this way, as long as the information is being up-dated regularly.


27.  A major part of the information system concerned with statistical information would obviously be the responsibility of DESIPA and UNSD, but this will require them to move towards electronic posting of statistical series, with the potential for more frequent up-dating as new data are received.  Other types of information should be the responsibility of existing coordinating mechanisms such as the Task Managers, linked by umbrella structures like IACSD and system-wide Earthwatch coordination.  The ISCC should organize the technical development of the system, while maintaining a dialogue with those involved in the substance.
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