|United Nations System-Wide
Working Party 3
New York, 17-18 January 1996
Working Paper UNEP/EWWP3/2
1. The second Earthwatch Working Party (UNEP/EWWP2/3, para.12) accepted the UNEP offer of a World Wide Web (WWW) site for the system-wide Earthwatch with a home page that would provide means for linking to the various agency information sources, and requested proposals for the next meeting. This paper responds to that request.
2. As a first step, the Earthwatch Programme Document, compiling basic information on the UN system-wide Earthwatch and summaries of the information submitted by each organization to the Task Managers, has been posted on the UNEP Geneva WWW site at the following address: http://www.unep.ch/earthw.html . Electronic addresses and summaries of information available electronically in each organization have been requested from all the Earthwatch partners and are being added to the information posted.
3. Some concepts for the evolution of a UN information system, as the larger framework within which the Earthwatch site would be a major component, have been developed in a separate paper. It is important that the whole UN system presents a coherent front to the world, even if technology now allows such a virtual reality to be based on a highly distributed and decentralized network of systems. The system-wide Earthwatch site can be a major component of, and indeed a trend-setter for, such a UN system. The following proposals suggest some design criteria for the Earthwatch WWW site and the ways in which it could be developed.
4. A major problem with the information revolution is the rapid transition from drought to flood, together with the relative slowness of the present means of access. So much information can be made available that it is easy to wander for hours in the electronic desert, or drown in a torrent of useless information. The goal should be to allow any user to find the information they want in, say, five web pages or 5 minutes. Since users may range from primary school children to scientists and government officials, this will require some early streaming of those logging on towards search tools and levels of information adapted to their needs.
5. The search tools should as far as possible be generic to the whole UN information system, since many user needs through Earthwatch will be common to those interested in other subject areas of UN action in the economic and social fields. They should allow searches by subject, geographical area, and activity, project, or organization. (See the separate paper on the UN information system.)
6. The system should be able to provide access to substantive processed information on the major environment and sustainable development issues covered by Earthwatch, as well as information on the programmes and activities of the Earthwatch partners, and on the organizations themselves. It should also ultimately lead to appropriate data sets for those who need them.
7. Whenever possible, the system should provide "hot links" to pass users directly to the electronic sites of the organizations holding the appropriate information, or to information "warehouses" where preprocessed information is stocked and updated regularly from the agencies. The tools and formats should be designed so that this transfer is as seamless as possible, demonstrating the coherence and efficiency of the United Nations system. Where agencies have their own specialized search tools or thesaurus of terms, these need to be integrated with the general tools and thesaurus to ensure compatibility and consistency.
8. As far as possible the system should be built and maintained with information already collected and assessed by the partners, and thus requiring a minimal initial investment in posting the information electronically that should be repaid quickly in increased efficiency of information distribution. Products should ideally be prepared only once in a form that can be used both for electronic posting and also for printed or other more traditional outputs.
9. The system should have mechanisms for internal monitoring of the use of the system, so that parts receiving heavy use can be strengthened and expanded, and those used little or not at all can be simplified or cut back. The system should therefore be able to grow and adapt in an organic way to the real needs of its users. Users could propose, for instance, new key words that do not occur in the standard list. An analysis of search paths to identify users that fail to reach a desired end, and a user satisfaction questionnaire on signing off, could provide additional feedback. It should also be possible to provide each Earthwatch partner with reports on the number of users referred to them or to their information by the system.
10. Software support tools should be developed to help agencies post information to the system with minimum effort. For instance, there should be a simple way to assign to documents or information files the classifications and key words necessary to facilitate retrieval by users. Each document could have an electronic cover sheet for all the information necessary to facilitate its access: title, source, document number, date and time frame, type (text, data, graphic, etc.), abstract, user level, key words, geographic area, contact for further information, etc. A search tool could scan the document and propose to the posting officer the key words from a standard thesaurus (such as the INFOTERRA thesaurus) that occur most frequently in the document; it would then only be necessary to select those key words that best describe the contents.
11. It would be desirable initially to provide access in at least the working languages of the UN, at least for the first stages of the search process and for categories of users less likely to master English, particularly wherever the final information is available in those languages or in graphic or numeric forms. This is already being planned by ISCC for the central UN home page.
The home page
12. The first page of the Earthwatch WWW site should welcome users and propose asimple user profile questionnaire (Figure 1), as well as some rapid access options for experienced users who could register their preferred search configuration with the system. This information would also help to build statistics on users in order to guide the future development of the system. Depending on the user profile and the nature of the search, the user would be presented with certain basic search tools to help define the user's needs. A subject listing, for instance, could propose nested sets of key words of ever-greater refinement or precision, arranged in succeeding columns like a file manager. A geographic search tool could propose country or other geographic names, or allow the user to click on a map. The tools could be used in any order or combination. It should not be assumed that users know how to spell (even country names have many linguistic variants), so options should be suggested by the system wherever possible. The user would only be proposed information, in the first instance, that was adapted to their level and type of search. For instance, school children would only be offered simple text and graphics, not detailed UN documents. One search tool could be a directed search rather like a taxonomic key, which would propose options from among the range of information types actually available, to reduce the number of dead ends where the user finds that the system, in fact, has nothing to respond to his/her interest.
13. The major components of the Earthwatch site (or eventually of a more comprehensive UN site) should include:
- a substantive compilation
of text information and some summary data and indicators on the key
themes of interest to Earthwatch, including planetary issues of policy
relevance (see section below);
14. Each organization would be responsible for entering and updating their own information in the agreed standard formats. Where these need to be combined into country data files or to facilitate common searches, a central warehousing point such as the ICC could collect the updates periodically from each agency's electronic site without having to bother anyone. The posting organizations should also be responsible for ensuring the timeliness of the information they make available, and in particular should remove outdated information from the system.
The substantive Earthwatch pages
15. Many users will want what Earthwatch was always intended to deliver, timely information about the major environmental problems of the planet requiring internationalaction. One part of the virtual Earthwatch site should provide brief policy-relevant summaries of the latest results and trends concerning the following key planetary issues of policy interest [tentative list]:
- the state of the ozone
layer, UV radiation at the surface, and production of ozone-depleting
16. Each heading would only summarize the latest findings, and then provide access if necessary to other sources for further information. The listings should include the relevant indicators being tried out under the CSD work programme. Most of the headings could be the responsibility of a single organization, and would be maintained by and clearly identified with the organization concerned. Much of this information is already collected and available somewhere, so formatting and posting it should not be an impossible task.
17. Updates or new findings could first be compiled for Earthwatch Policy Bulletins to be distributed to decision-makers, and then added to the WWW posting. Maintaining the WWW site would thus become part of the regular process of bringing the latest results to the attention of decision-makers. Information could be given as global maps or graphics and short text summaries, with regional or even national breakdowns where appropriate. Content would be aimed at what a senior decision-maker would need to know about an issue, which is also the level appropriate to much of the public, but with added reference to policy implications.
Establishing the WWW system
18. Since there are now many initiatives to develop WWW sites, a first step will be to improve coordination among all these efforts without stifling the innovation necessary with any rapidly developing technology. A multiplicity of sites is not inherently duplicative, since they can be interlinked, but there is a need for some harmony in presentation across the UN system. What needs to be avoided is duplication of the same (or even conflicting) informationat multiple sites, since secondary postings can become outdated when the primary information is revised. Coordination therefore requires the sharing of successful experiences and some mechanism to decide which parts of the system should be responsible for which types of information. Compatible, preferably off-the-shelf software and formats, should be agreed. The system should be built slowly as resources permit, using existing capacities and in-kind contributions. By sharing out responsibilities and combining efforts, we should be able to make reasonable progress even at a time of shrinking resources.
19. Where tools or programmes have been developed outside, for instance by organizations like CIESIN, the system should cooperate with and adopt the best available. However it is necessary to avoid overcommitment to any one system, to allow for the evolution of the system as new options and capacities come along. The system should be designed for growth, with modular elements and ease of substitution.
20. The ISCC has the institutional mandate to provide coordination on the technical side. The Earthwatch Coordination office will focus on the substantive types of information needed to implement the Earthwatch mandate, and on the related inter-agency coordination required to make coherent substantive information available. The office will implement a system-wide Earthwatch WWW access point and related tools to the extent that resources permit. It will also ensure that the Earthwatch component is properly coordinated and integrated with broader UN system efforts at coherent information.
21. One of the major weaknesses in the UN system has been its inability to make the information it has collected available to more than the narrow circle that is the immediate constituency of each organization. As a result, the UN is too often unjustly seen as ineffective or irrelevant, when it is in fact just invisible, and there are repeated calls for improved transparency and access to information in the system.
22. New information technologies like the World Wide Web offer a way to break out of this unintentionally-closed situation. They provide an opportunity for users around the world to search out and obtain information from the UN system without increasing the burden on limited human and financial resources within the organizations, beyond what is required to post and maintain the information electronically. They also create the potential for improved sharing of information and joint programming within the UN system.
23. While World
Wide Web access is limited to those with the necessary computer technology
and Internet connectivity, thus excluding many developing areas and
disadvantaged groups, it does provide a partial solution to the present
handicaps in UN information distribution. Alternatives for those without
electronic access should not be neglected, but it can be hoped that
Internet technology will continue to spread rapidly, and that efforts
like the UNDP Sustainable Development Network Programme will expand
the circle of users in disadvantaged areas. The effort to develop a
UN system-wide Earthwatch electronic information source that meets a
wide range of user needs should help to stimulate the expansion of the
system, and thus to close the information gap.
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