United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 4 (Geneva, 2-3 April 1998)
Agenda Item 10
UNEP/EWWP4/7 - 19 March 1998


1. Almost all the partner organizations in Earthwatch now have their own site on the World Wide Web, giving all Internet users around the world access to the information they post there. However, our capacity to use this new information tool effectively is still in its infancy. We need to devote more attention to the strategic development of the Internet as an information source and working tool, to the kinds of information we make available there, and to the formats best adapted to the medium. The last Earthwatch Working Party considered the conceptual evolution of a UN information system (UNEP/EWWP3/3) and a working paper on "Proposals for an Earthwatch World Wide Web Site" (UNEP/EWWP3/2) which reviewed the possible development of information exchange on the World Wide Web, with an emphasis on design criteria and formats. Many of the concepts presented in those papers are still far from being realized, and can continue to serve as a useful guide for the future. This paper focuses more on the content of what we put on the Web.

Focus on content

2. Much of the information now available on UN system Web sites is organizational information about the structure, functions and activities of the agency. This is primarily information for public relations, explaining who we are and what we do. Documents from major meetings are frequently available, either to be read on the Web, or to be down-loaded through a gopher. Few organizations have gone very far into the substance that is the focus of their mandate. The question then is how, and to what extent, the Web can become a working tool for the implementation of our mandates. Can it extend, and/or replace, the way we work on a day-to-day basis? The Internet has the potential to become like a virtual reference library, stocked with encyclopedias and other reference works, primary sources, and a multiplicity of analyses, commentaries, assessments, digests and illustrated/graphical presentations, not to mention helpful librarians ready to guide users to the most appropriate sources. This material can be cross-linked by multiple means of access to give a flexibility of use never before possible. Dynamic and multimedia forms of presentation are increasing. With e-mail, it is even possible to go from the information directly to the sources. Because access is so open to anyone on the Internet, knowledge no longer need be restricted to those who can afford to consult the great reference libraries of the world, but can be accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time. While such access is not yet universal, it is spreading rapidly, and may ultimately help to overcome the information gap highlighted in Agenda 21.

3. In the context of Earthwatch, we need a vision of what the World Wide Web and other forms of electronic information networking can do to help fulfil our mandate. Can we use the Web to provide environmental and appropriate socio-economic information for national and international decision-making on sustainable development? Can it help to communicate early warnings of emerging problems requiring international action? Can it provide decision-makers around the world with timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global resources, variables and processes in both natural and human systems? Can it document national and international responses to problems in these areas? The potential is there, but we are far from realizing it.

4. The real challenge ahead is to format and make available the substantive information that users need in forms adapted to the medium. For Earthwatch, this ultimately could mean all the information about the global, regional and often national environments required for decision-making, research, education and public information. Clearly we cannot do this overnight, but we need to plan strategically where to start and how to proceed with practical, deliverable and useful products. The UN system partners in Earthwatch need to consider the role they can play in this larger vision of electronic information networking. Many commercially-sponsored products and tools are being developed, but since they are sold, they are not as widely available as they could be. There is even a tendency, in the name of protecting intellectual property rights, to restrict even more the free exchange of information. However, the policy we have adopted is to encourage information exchange. The United Nations also has a special responsibility for those disadvantaged people, countries and regions that cannot always afford commercial products and services. The UN has a neutral and universal status, free of the biases of any particular interest group, that gives its information an objectivity and reliability that is important for many users.

Development in the UN system

5. There are some inherent characteristics of the new electronic media that will facilitate their development in the UN system. One advantage is that they are inherently decentralized and accessible, which can bring them within reach of many professional and even general service staff members with limited technical and financial means available to them other than a computer. If we organize ourselves properly, preparing information for the Web can be no more difficult than preparing a memorandum, or some overhead graphics for a presentation, although obviously it can also involve much more than that. With a clear vision of what we want to achieve, and some creative thinking, much can be done within existing means to use the new tools becoming available.

6. Another advantage is that electronic access via the Internet removes much of the problem of product distribution. The UN is very good at producing reports and publications, but much poorer at distributing them to those who really need the information. On the Web, at least for those who are connected, there are no major distribution costs or handicaps. The challenge is more how to signal the availability of, and guide users to, the information posted. For particular target groups, there will also be a need, for some time to come, to train users in how to use electronic media, and sometimes to equip them and to provide Internet access as well, but this is being pursued through many channels.

7. There are some excellent examples of what can be achieved in access to substantive environmental information even at this early stage in the development of electronic media. The FAO Web site (http://www.fao.org/) is one with considerable information available on key issues of concern to the organization. The IGOSS Products Bulletin for oceanographic information (http://ingrid.ldeo.columbia.edu/SOURCES/.IGOSS/.products_bulletin.html) with a near-real-time display of global environmental information, such as ocean surface temperature data so important in the prediction of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, shows how relevant scientific data can be made widely available in an easily understandable form. We can expect an increasing flow of such environmental information from new data sensors and telemetry systems, both on satellites and in situ, that can be converted into products useful for decision-making. Even the Earthwatch Web site demonstrates what one professional, in a fraction of his time and with minimal technical support, can generate and maintain on the Web.

8. Ultimately, the Earthwatch Web site could become a central node linking and aggregating relevant environmental information from sites across the UN system, by providing links to the source pages at each site in an integrated context of global environmental issues. However this will require more stability in Web addresses and page names. Even within the UN system, many sites have changed addresses or moved from one URL to another over the last two years, and pages within sites seem quite ephemeral, making any links from other sites go out-of-date very quickly.

Defining user needs

9. One challenge is defining and understanding the different groups of users of electronic information, and learning to respond to their particular information requirements. In this fast-evolving area, identifying user needs must be an interactive process, as there are many untapped user groups who need to be attracted by products adapted to their requirements, as well as existing users who are often still learning, or are uncertain of what they really want or need. Successful sites with many user "hits" are one demonstration of user interest, but in the multiplicity of Internet information sources, such mass success is also related to visibility, accessibility and reputation built through links established with other sites and search engines. The quality of use, as well as the quantity, is important.

10. Since the United Nations is by nature intergovernmental, one significant user group to target is the "decision-maker", a term which usually includes politicians, diplomats, senior government officials and their technical advisers. The term could be extended to senior corporate managers and other leaders in civil society. This group suffers from information overload, and needs highly aggregated and focussed information in a brief and easily assimilated form, available on a timely and readily accessible basis. Electronic media have the potential to respond to this group's needs, at least for technical background and facts as opposed to policy information, but since they cannot afford the time to learn electronic networking by experimentation and "surfing", they will only become users when accessing the Web and finding precisely what information they need is simpler and faster than calling an advisor and waiting for a report. They may also just call their adviser and let the latter search the Web. This may be the best user group to keep in mind when designing Web access to UN environmental information. Products that respond to the needs of this target group will also be useful for a variety of other users including the media and the general public.

11. We still have much to do to meet the needs of this user group today, yet many of the necessary elements are being assembled. Indicators, for instance, will be an essential component of environmental information communication, and the Web should be a ready source of indicator information. Work is still needed on the best ways to present indicator information. Tables full of statistics are not very useful; graphical formats can communicate the overall message of a set of indicators more readily, and are well handled by the Web. Animated presentations are coming, and will facilitate showing time series and other dimensions.

12. Each Earthwatch partner needs to review the aspects of environmental and sustainable development information for which they are responsible, the key elements or parameters of that information most needed for effective decision-making, and the best ways of presenting that information. From this, the design criteria for their Web site presentations can be derived, and information systems put in place to produce the information on a regular basis. In many cases, of course, the data are not now available, and the user needs will have to feed back to the whole process of establishing observation systems, assessment mechanisms and reporting processes to complete a coherent chain of information production and delivery. This is part of our on-going mandate as the UN system-wide Earthwatch.

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