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INTERNATIONAL EXPERT MEETING ON
INFORMATION FOR DECISION-MAKING 
AND PARTICIPATION

(Ottawa, Canada, 25-28 September 2000) 

BACKGROUND PAPER

"It is impossible to devise effective environmental policy unless it is based
on sound scientific information. While major advances in data collection
have been made in many areas, large gaps in our knowledge remain." 

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General
The Millennium Report


CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION
What has changed since UNCED?

II. ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
A. Access to and uses of information
 (1) Making Information Useful for Decision-making
 (2) Indicators of Sustainable Development
 (3) Public Access
 (4) Reaching the Excluded
 (5) Training the Users
 (6) Traditional information
 (7) Commercialization
B. The Data Gap And Information Technology
 (1) Improved Data Collection And Use
 (2) Innovative Data Collection
 (3) Harmonization And Rationalization
 (4) Integration of Information
 (5) Financial support
C. New Information Technologies
 (2) Electronic Networking
 (3) Commercial information sources and business involvement

III. CONCLUSIONS 


I. INTRODUCTION

1. Agenda 21 concludes with Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making. This is appropriate since information underlies and supports all the other issues. Without adequate and timely information, decision-making in any field is haphazard at best. A pilot without instruments, a banker without accounts, a speeding driver who is suddenly blinded are in difficult situations indeed. Chapter 40 highlighted two key issues: bridging the data gap within and between countries, and improving the availability of and access to information. These issues are still highly relevant today, but the context within which they need to be addressed has changed considerably since 1992. 

2. The Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) has selected Information for decision-making and participation as a major cross-cutting theme for its ninth session in April 2001. The international expert meeting on information for decision-making has been organized to provide advice and recommendations to the CSD on the kinds of policies that should be adopted by governments to further implementation of Chapter 40. These will serve as an important input to the Secretary-General's report to the CSD on this topic. Since CSD-9 will also lead up to a major review of Agenda 21 and the accomplishments of UNCED at Rio+10 in 2002, the recommendations of this meeting should also be viewed in that larger context. 

What has changed since UNCED?

3. As the revolution in information technology has exploded into the "new economy", the importance of information has grown accordingly. The media speak of the new information century. For many investors, information must somehow be worth money, but there is often uncertainty about how to make a profit from it. There is in fact a certain confusion about the value of information. Unlike most goods whose value depends on their scarcity, the real value for society of most information grows the more it is shared and used. Restricting its distribution in an attempt to increase its value is therefore counterproductive. For instance, the more widely and freely information on soil erosion control is shared with local land users, the more erosion will be effectively controlled, with cumulative benefits for society. Information is a tool that makes other kinds of benefits and wealth generation possible. In the new information economy, new wealth comes generally not from the content of information, but from the technologies for sharing it ever more widely and rapidly. It is the information infrastructure that is generating the most profit. The issues of communications and access to information, and of the content and use of information, are very different though interrelated. This distinction is important when it comes to considering information for decision-making and participation. 

4. The new information technologies are changing the ground rules for information flow in society. Previously the holders of information decided how it should be distributed and to whom, and this control gave them power. Top-down systems of management and governance functioned on this basis. Delivery of information was also limited by the reach of the technologies available (printed word, telephone, etc.). The mass media allow broadcasting information in an untargeted way for those who happen to be listening or watching, but this is still limited in range and ephemeral in time. The Internet and computer-mediated information systems shift the balance of control from suppliers to consumers. Information holders simply make their information available on the internet, and users can come searching for what interests them in a very flexible way. The pool of electronic information world-wide is growing enormously, and information flow has become more horizontal. Anyone can become both a user and supplier. The potential being opened up by these new patterns of communication is revolutionary and still far from being appreciated adequately. For instance, such information systems empower users to make their own decisions, permitting more decentralized and locally-adapted forms of management. One result is the rapid growth in non-governmental organizations and other new structures in civil society that expand the scope of public participation in decision-making 

5. It has been evident in recent years that access to information is essential in the planning, design and monitoring of policies to support sustainable development at the regional, national and international levels. At the Government level, a growing number of countries are carrying out national data inventories, organizing the collection and dissemination of data, and developing information systems. In Ghana, the objectives of the new Environmental Information Network are to strengthen information handling capacity in networking between participating institutions, and to improve on the delivery of information to the users of environmental information. Its activities include the creation of an information center, where information is to be collected, databases established and information centres linked. Creating promotional print media on environmental issues and an electronic networking system in the environmental institutions, has made information gathering faster and enhanced capacity for data collection, storage, processing and dissemination. In Latin America, the Costa Rica Foundation for Sustainable Development has introduced small deployable information centres through a project called Little Intelligent Communities (LINCOS). The centres comprise a working high band-width satellite link, a space for telemedicine, environmental monitoring, a computer lab and a walk-up information booth. 

6. Another significant trend is the continuing technical progress in environmental observing and monitoring. Satellite remote sensing with ever-more refined instruments and improved resolution and coverage, drifting buoys and autonomous instrument packages transmitting their measurements in real time, and more powerful computers allowing the increasing integration of data into complex models and decision-support systems such as Geographic Information Systems, are putting the world at our fingertips. The institutional capacity to coordinate all this is also growing through initiatives such as the Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership, the Global Observing Systems and global research programmes. 

7. This rapid progress has increased concern for the widening gap, the so-called digital divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in the information revolution. The most obvious gap is due to the deficiencies in the coverage of technological and communications systems for transmitting information. Those parts of the world without the telecommunications infrastructure to connect into the new global systems, those parts of the population too poor to be able to afford the equipment necessary to connect to these systems, and those generations educated in the pre-computer era, are being left farther and farther behind, despite efforts to reach out to them. However the boundaries between the two groups are shifting rapidly. Countries that have recognized the importance of being connected are giving priority to investments in the necessary infrastructure. The younger generations are also adapting rapidly, taking naturally to technologies that still mystify their elders. 

8. The importance of closing the information gap is heightened by the potential of these new systems to give information access to and empower disadvantaged groups and thus enhance participation. They represent a potential breakthrough for the poor, giving them the means to help themselves out of poverty. One can imagine new information-based occupations springing up through the combination of new technologies, micro-credit and the educated unemployed. Fulfilling this potential will require more robust and adapted technologies, improved information packaging, and new marketing strategies. Since the eradication of poverty is a top international priority, specific policies to address that in terms of information technologies are needed. 

9. A second and less obvious information gap is in the basic data about our environment and the pressures from human activities. Even in the industrialized countries, data are often too poor or too disparate to be usable. In developing countries, even the most basic statistics are often lacking. No assessment or decision-support system can deliver results better than the quality of the inputs. Even where new technologies are generating masses of data, the capacity to analyse and use it is often lagging far behind.

10. Another trend since Rio has been the rapid shift in responsibilities and resources resulting from globalisation. Governments find they have less control of their own situation, while the private sector and civil society are organizing and operating in new ways. Major new issues concerning the control of the internet and the privatisation of information are being debated. The outcome of these debates for the use of information for decision-making will be significant. 

11. It is within the context of these changes that specific information issues and proposed solutions should be explored and developed for CSD-9. The following sections review specific issues that have emerged or evolved since 1992. 

II. ISSUES FOR DISCUSSION AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

A. Access to and uses of information

(1) Making Information Useful for Decision-making

12. New avenues are opening for preparing and presenting information in formats more easily understood by decision-makers and the general public. Multimedia technologies, software packages, and tools such as indicators and animated graphical presentations can assist decision makers in their sustainable development efforts. The development and use of GIS and map-based information tools have expanded rapidly in recent years. They provide, among other uses, for helpful planning tools allowing for visual assessment of impacts and of resources available to address problems and environmental emergencies. One example of the expansion of such information tools for practical applications are the products of the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), part of UNEP's environmental information network. Another example is the CIAT/WB/UNEP Spatial Planning Atlas available on CD-ROM for the Latin American and Caribbean region. It would be desirable to develop demonstrations of these new technologies for decision-support at CSD-9 to illustrate the revolution in information for decision-making, particularly where information systems are becoming operational. 

(2) Indicators of Sustainable Development

13. Significant progress has been made both internationally and nationally in the development of indicators as tools to support national decision-making processes. One example is the CSD Work Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development, which represents the largest UN system-wide and country collaboration to date in the development of an indicator framework and methodology based on a consensus approach among the more than 30 participating agencies, other international organizations and Governments. To date 22 countries have been involved in testing the indicators as the basis for an overall revision of the framework and methodology in preparation for CSD-9. The results of the CSD indicators programme will be reported at the Ottawa meeting. Other major initiatives include the work of the World Bank on genuine savings and measures of wealth indicators, the OECD DAC/WB/UN programme on indicators for Shaping the 21st century and the UNDP work on the Human Development Index as well as the UNDAF Common Country Assessment Indicator Framework, among others. These indicators are becoming important tools to support national decision-making processes. 

(3) Public Access

14. A major new issue since UNCED that falls within the scope of Chapter 40 is the need to facilitate public access to environmental information, as exemplified in the adoption in 1998 of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. The Convention aims to provide public and nongovernmental organizations in ECE countries with common tools and standards to monitor performance and engage in environmental decisions on issues ranging from nuclear power to infrastructure development. The Convention has three main components. The first sets rules and requirements for governments to disclose environmental and other information to the public. The second addresses how public and private interest groups can participate in environmental decision-making. The third deals with the right of public and private interest groups to seek judicial remedy for non-compliance by governments and corporations.1 A key question is whether conventions of this nature are or can be made applicable in other national or regional settings. 

15. Recent experience has shown that public awareness of the environment, access to local environmental data, and participation in the debate on environmental quality can be an effective complement to command and control regulation in driving environmental improvement. The UNEP INFOTERRA global environmental information exchange network, with national focal points in most countries, is being reformed to ensure better public access to environmental information and to advocate the public-right-to-know principle. Other actions in this area and in efforts to improve the sharing of information as called for in Chapter 40 should be highlighted in the Secretary-General's report. 

(4) Reaching the Excluded

16. The necessary complement to the information revolution is the need to ensure that it is not restricted only to more privileged countries and sections of the population. An effort is needed to make electronic environmental information as widely available as possible, since decision-making on sustainable development takes place at all levels from intergovernmental meetings to individual resource users in rural areas. One example is the Sustainable Development Network Programme (UNDP), which supports efforts to bring together national producers and users of information for the purpose of improving data collection, accessibility and analysis through dialogue and electronic communication. 

(5) Training the Users

17. As scientific information on the environment and sustainable development has become more widely accessible, it has become apparent that additional efforts are needed to integrate and use available information in decision-making processes, at all levels, in a timely and appropriate fashion. Data may need to be analyzed, interpreted and presented in understandable ways, but the capacity to do this has not kept up with space technologies and other means of generating new data. Fortunately, new techniques for generating maps, graphics, animated presentations and other formats can facilitate the communication of information on complex issues. However, even when it is delivered, many decision-makers are unaccustomed to using scientific information, emphasizing the need for special training activities on the use of information for decision-making. 

(6) Traditional information

18. Chapter 40 addressed the need to consider traditional information reflecting the long practical experience of indigenous cultures with the sustainable use of resources. There has been specific progress in the collection and use of traditional information under the Convention to Combat Desertification. 

19. Traditional knowledge carries the idea that the knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples can add value to modern, scientific ways of thinking. At the same time, current understandings may be incomplete if they don't take into account traditional knowledge. Traditional or indigenous knowledge is a way of life, based on the experience of the individual and the community. Such knowledge is often passed down from generation to generation and is incorporated into indigenous languages. This knowledge is continually being adapted to the changing environment of each community and remains current as long as people are still in contact with their physical surroundings. There is a need to revive traditional methods of using natural resources.  Documenting and preserving the use of indigenous knowledge at the community level and using this knowledge to address resource management issues are essential undertakings.2 

20. A related issue concerns the fact that traditional knowledge regarding plants and animals is often used by scientists as a way of identifying candidates for purification of active compounds that have pharmaceutical or other beneficial properties. However, this is done without compensation to the holders of that traditional knowledge. Similarly, the works of indigenous peoples and communities, and individual artists, are copied without compensation. Under existing systems, protection is granted to improvements using the raw material (i.e. identification and purification of a new compound), not to the raw material itself. 

21. The Convention on Biological Diversity has been seized with the issue of the protection of traditional knowledge in the context of intellectual property considerations. The CBD came into force on December 29, 1993, and has now been ratified by 174 states. The objectives of the CBD are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. Its fundamental purpose is protection of the environment. 

22. The CBD is a framework agreement and thus most provisions are expressed as overall goals and policies rather than precise obligations. The CBD gives developing countries the right to control access to their genetic resources, thereby allowing them to use such resources as a way of restoring the balance between them and the industrialised countries. Up to the present, this has taken the form of an agreement between a company or government institution and a developing country whereby the company or government institution agrees to provide the country with a fair and equitable share of the benefits when and if they are realised. 

23. The CBD recognises that intellectual property rights may influence implementation of its provisions, and thus explicitly states that there must be co-operation to ensure that such rights are supportive rather than counter to the objectives of the Convention. This has been used as an argument that environmental issues should be considered within the patent system. The types of intellectual property protection most likely relevant to the CBD are patents, trade secrets, and plant breeders' rights. 3 

(7) Commercialization

24. Another issue that has taken on new importance since UNCED is that of intellectual property rights and the commercialisation of data and information. As pointed out in the introduction to this paper, information on environment and sustainable development increases the wealth and well-being of the whole society if it is widely and freely shared, even with those who cannot afford to purchase it. Policy guidance is needed to distinguish between information uses that can effectively be commercialised, and those which should be freely available in the public interest. 

B. The Data Gap And Information Technology

25. Great differences exist between geographical regions and countries at different stages of development, as to the availability of relevant primary data (e.g. in the area of the environment), the quality, comparability and frequency of data compilation, and the subsequent quality of information systems. Even in the most developed regions, problems of non-uniform standards and methods for collecting data, dispersion of data among different agencies and the handling of information can make use of that information for management and regional comparisons difficult. The data gap exists even where data seem to be abundant, because so little of it is in forms that can be used for assessment and management purposes. 

(1) Improved Data Collection And Use

26. Major initiatives have been launched to improve environmental observations and data collection, ranging from ozone monitoring under the Montreal Protocol and implementation of the three Global Observing Systems, to non-governmental organizations monitoring forests and coral reefs. There have also been efforts to improve coordination and cost-effectiveness, such as through the Integrated Global Observing Strategy. However, these efforts are badly under-funded relative to the need for improved data in response to global data needs such as the requirements of the multilateral environmental agreements. 

(2) Innovative Data Collection

27. While scientific research has been the customary supplier of environmental information, its coverage is too thin, and the scientific infrastructure too weak in many countries, to meet the essential needs for environmental management. There have been some successes in bottom-up approaches to data collection, using school children, non-governmental organizations, major groups and amateur volunteers, that can help to fill in data gaps. This may be a partial solution to the particular problems of data collection in developing countries, but cannot substitute for efforts to strengthen scientific research capability to produce better data 

(3) Harmonization And Rationalization

28. The growing recognition of the need for information-based decision-making is driving a steady increase in reporting requirements at all levels. As governments struggle to meet their reporting obligations, for example under international conventions, they recognize the need for harmonization and rationalization of reporting requirements. Efforts are under way in ECOSOC and elsewhere, to standardize development data and indicators in an attempt to address the growing number of data requirements of UN-system programme activities. The UN Statistical Division has undertaken a major study on the needs for harmonization and rationalization in the context of integrated and coordinated implementation and follow-up of major United Nations conferences and summits (E/1999/11). They have noted, inter alia, that among international organizations there is ample room for improvement in the coordination of data collection. Such coordination can promote efficient use of resources and contribute to easing the burden on countries' statistical programmes. They also document many inconsistencies among data disseminated at the international level. At the same time, there is a lack of basic statistical data at the country level and an urgent need to build and enhance national statistical capacity. It is noted that improved coordination at the international level regarding data collection and standardization of concepts and methods with regard to indicators will go a long way towards addressing some of the inconsistencies. 

(4) Integration of Information

29. Even where the data exist, there are often difficulties in obtaining and combining data from different ministries for an integrated view of sustainable development. There is first an institutional problem with data holders (ministries, companies in the private sector, scientists, etc.) not wanting to share their data with other users for various reasons. This type of problem may be amenable to improvement through policy recommendations and institutional reform. Then there are technical problems in combining economic, social, and environmental data and indicators measured in different units that are not easily compared, as well as problems in combining data at different geographic scales (local, national, regional, global). Research on solutions to these problems has made some progress, and needs further encouragement and support. 

30. While technological progress has driven improvements in remote sensing and in information access over the Internet, the ability to analyse and assess data and to assemble information in a comprehensive integrated framework has lagged behind. There is an ongoing need to consider weaknesses in the whole data collection, analysis, assessment and reporting process and recommend necessary improvements to eliminate bottlenecks in the information system. Even in the most developed and data-rich regions such as Europe, the regional integration and assessment of data has been hampered by inconsistent methodologies and inadequate harmonization. 

31. Progress can be reported in the production of more integrated and forward-looking assessments of environment and sustainable development, including the Critical Trends report prepared for the CSD, the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports, and the World Resources Reports (UNEP/WRI/UN/WB) which provide data for 157 countries on environmental resources, consumption and waste, as well as new information on poverty and food security. However these reports suffer from the lack of adequate core data sets at the international level for many topics, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from the available information. 

(5) Financial support

32. At the same time that new possibilities are being opened up by new technologies, there is a decline in essential observations due to reductions in government support and spending. There is also a need to shift from data collection in research programmes to operational systematic observing mechanisms and institutions able to provide both the long-term time series needed to monitor and assess global change, and information delivered rapidly for immediate use in decision-making. The particular problems of data collection in developing countries, which cannot afford the considerable costs when faced with other urgent priorities, may require innovative solutions, such as international support for the incremental costs of collecting data primarily for international assessments. The CSD should aim to increase awareness in Governments of the need to increase financial support for critical data collection efforts both nationally and internationally. In this regard, it is particularly important that the needs of policy makers for information and data are clearly understood by them and linked with the data collection efforts of statistical offices so that the resources invested in information and data programmes clearly support policy objectives. 

C. New Information Technologies

33. The new information technologies are opening up exciting possibilities for innovative integrated environmental information systems using data globally from a variety of sensors and systems, transmitting it rapidly to assessment centres, and generating targeted information products for delivery to decision-makers, much as the world weather forecasting system works today. However the new flood of information from remote sensing and other instruments is not being matched by a similar investment in the on site collection of corroborating data and in the capacity to assess and add value to that information. Despite all the wonders of automation and artificial intelligence, there is still an important role for well-trained minds and mature experience, requiring an investment in people as well as technologies as an integral part of an effective information system. 

(2) Electronic Networking

34. Due to rapid technological improvements in computing and telecommunications and in the number of Internet users, electronic access to data has significantly improved, with such tools as web-based meta-databases and Government and organization homepages providing direct links to data sources. Problems of non-uniform standards and methods for handling information are being overcome, although new problems of intellectual property rights to data and information are arising. One example of improved electronic networking is the United Nations System-Wide Web Site on National Implementation of the Rio Commitments. This site provides links to both international sites and Government hosted sites containing country information on sustainable development. The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), responding to a request by ECOSOC, is currently examining the need for harmonization and rationalization of development data and indicators in an attempt to address the growing number of data requirements of UN-system programme activities. In this context UNSD launched a meta-database of UN-system development data accessible on the Internet. UNEP is also planning an environmental information meta-system. The rapid progress in this area should be highlighted at CSD-9. 

(3) Commercial information sources and business involvement

35. Chapter 40 refers particularly to commercial information sources and information available in the private sector, and this area has seen significant developments since 1992. In addition, business and industry are becoming more involved in monitoring and accounting for their own environmental impacts and their role in sustainable development. Recent initiatives in this area include: (1) UN Division for Sustainable Development's work on "Improving Government's Role in the promotion of Environmental Managerial Accounting", (2) the "Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)" (CERES/UNEP) to establish a common framework for enterprise-level reporting on the linked aspects of environmental, economic and social sustainability, (3) the UNCTAD Intergovernmental Working Group of Experts on International Standards of Accounting and Reporting (ISAR), and (4) the "Engaging Stakeholders Programme" of UNEP TIE in cooperation with SustainAbility Ltd. 

III. CONCLUSIONS

1. As we look ahead, we have two main challenges: one is to create a more level playing field for decision-makers around the globe; the second is to understand the full potential of new technologies. 

2. With respect to the first, greater attention must be given to strengthening decision-making in all countries by improving data collection, standardization and access. Countries must be assisted with both technical and financial resources, as required, for this purpose. We have a responsibility to ensure that information technologies are used to narrow the gap between developed and developing countries. 

3. The second challenge is learning how to structure information for new uses and new users that have and will have -- access to the system through new communications technologies. Our minds are still too conditioned by the printed page and the linear timeline of a film or tape to appreciate what the new freedom of flexible access makes possible. This is a challenge to all information providers, including Governments, the UN system, the private sector, NGOs and individuals. We need to assemble useful information on environment and sustainable development in more comprehensive integrated frameworks that allow multiple points of access and that respond to the needs of many users. These evolving information systems will need to balance and combine the entrepreneurial possibilities to sell information and to finance the information systems themselves with the collective benefits from wide and free access to information. The underlying imperative to guide policy-making in this area is the need to prevent further irreparable damage to the environment. 

4. While we can and should continue to improve our information systems, the first principle that should underlie policy consideration of this cross-cutting theme at CSD-9 is the following: no preventable environmental damage or unsustainable practices should continue to be caused by ignorance or by the lack of access to existing information. If we can make full use of what we already know through effective information systems for decision-making at all levels, we will be much further along the way towards achieving sustainable development. 


1 Elena Petkova and Peter Veit, "Environmental Accountability Beyond the Nation-State: The Implications of the Aarhus Convention," World Resources Institute, Environmental Governance Notes, April 2000. 
2 "Recommendations on the Integration of Two Ways of Knowing: Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge," from the Seminar on the Documentation and Application of Indigenous Knowledge, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, November 15-17, 1996 
3 "The Convention on Biological Diversity and Protection of Traditional Knowledge," Report By Danny Huntington, CET News, Newsletter 44, April 2000. 
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