|United Nations System-Wide
ON ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS
(Geneva, 15-17 March 2000)
Introduction of participants
UNEP Observing and Assessment Strategy and UNF/UNFIP project
Web site design and coordination
Distributed environmental information system
Guidelines and best practices
Technical Standards and Tools
Web Sites, Operating Procedures and Organization
Substantive Environmental Information
Tagging with key words
User needs assessment methodology
Processes and capacity building
Review of Prototype UNEP Web Site
Table 1 - Actions and Contributions
Annex 1 - List of Participants
1. The first UNEP Planning Workshop on Environmental Information Systems was organized by Earthwatch Coordination in Geneva on 15-17 March 2000. It brought together those in UNEP and its partner organizations who are involved in the conceptual development of web sites, information clearing-houses, CD-ROMs, meta-databases and other environmental information systems (see list of participants in Annex 1).
2. In opening the workshop, the Earthwatch Coordinator and project director of the United Nations Foundation/UN Fund for International Partnerships (UNF/UNFIP) project summarized its purpose and scope as follows. UNEP's assessment function is only effective if it delivers environmental information for decision-making, and the new information technologies are radically changing the potential for doing this. The UNEP Environmental Observing and Assessment Strategy (http://www.unep.ch/earthw/strategy.htm), for which the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) provides leadership, calls for an Internet-based environmental information meta-system (system of systems) that brings together new integrated information frameworks and harmonized, readily-accessible data sets to support assessment and decision-making across the international system, including UNEPís own assessment activities.
3. This meeting is the first of two UNEP-wide planning/training workshops, in March and November 2000, supported by the UNF/UNFIP project on the New UNEP Global Participatory Observing and Assessment Strategy, to catalyze the development of this system. It will build UNEP's capacity to help the various observing and assessment processes converge into a coherent environmental information system able to deliver outputs using the latest information technologies. The target is to address the priorities of Agenda 21 Chapter 40 to reduce the data gap and to increase the availability of environmental information for decision-making.
4. The UNF/UNFIP project aims to assist UNEP to have a coherent set of web sites and systems up and running, at least in skeletal form, by the end of the year. This will require substantive information on the environment, rather than just institutional information about organizations and programmes (which is what most web sites feature now). The aim of the workshop is to define concrete time-limited outputs that demonstrate the improved availability of environmental information for decision-making.
5. The inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party held just prior to the workshop (13-14 March, report at http://www.unep.ch/earthw/ewwp6rpt.htm) considered the kinds of decision-support tools on environment and sustainable development that could be demonstrated to the Commission on Sustainable Development in 2001 to show progress in providing information for decision-making. This workshop gives UNEP an opportunity to plan to develop tools for that demonstration next year.
6. Each participant gave a brief summary of his or her work on environmental information systems, as an introduction to the wide range of capacities and experience in electronic information systems already existing within UNEP and its key partners.
7. The Earthwatch Coordinator provided a short review of the potential of information technologies to bridge the data gap and to improve the availability of environmental information, as proposed in UNEP's strategy. Discussion considered where the UNF/UNFIP project effort interfaces and integrates with the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process, UNEPnet, and the UNEP Web Task Force.
8. The workshop reviewed progress in World Wide Web site design and coordination, as it relates to the need to organize and deliver substantive environmental information. With guidance from the Chairman of the UNEP Web Task Force, it considered policy and organizational issues (related to operational aspects) as well as technologies and tools to make the web UNEPís primary method for communicating its policy message and delivering public awareness and thematic information. In particular, it reviewed three draft papers for the Web Task Force: A Framework for the Development Process for UNEP's Web Sites, UNEP Web (Browsing) Structure, and Web Design Guidelines.
9. The workshop was asked to address the organization of a distributed environmental information system, focusing on how to organize substantive information on the environment and sustainable development to make it more accessible and useful for decision-making. It reviewed what UNEP itself is planning, the contributions of UNEPnet, and related plans of outside partners such as the World Resources Institute proposal for a Global Internet Data Portal for Sustainability. It supported the idea of a distributed system, with links from web pages in Nairobi to both local and remote content. The potential of such systems to deliver early warnings of environmental problems was considered, including the early warning network to which SCOPE will contribute with UNFIP project support.
10. The workshop reviewed what policy guidelines, standards, protocols, and best practices already exist, and proposed processes to complement these where necessary, as a guide to future work. The UN Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC) provided a useful background document: An overview of ISCC Decisions relevant to Web-site design and Information Systems.
11. Participants considered the requirements for effective networking among the many participating partners, including lines of communication and responsibilities, so as to facilitate collaboration and convergence of sites and systems.
12. To focus in more detail on the different agenda items, the workshop formed three working groups, each of which was requested to develop sub-plans for particular areas. These plans were to include: scenarios for the development of the activity, the partners or participants who needed to be involved, the processes to be followed and the tools to be used, the pages that would be required on the web (including both intranet and internet dimensions), the structures or organizations to implement the activity and their responsibilities, and the outputs/deliverables by the end of the year. Not all the groups had time to cover all these dimensions.
13. The working group on technical standards and tools considered the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) Support System (GEOSS) (http://geoss.unep.org/) and its generalization so as to make it available for other uses. It also discussed the Z39.50 standard, Internet Map Server technologies and GISWEB, web design software and tools, search engines and common coding/tagging of information.
14. It agreed on the Z standard as a minimum requirement for the system, with other options such as XML and CORBA also possible. UNEPnet will assist with the rollout of I-Sight. The GEOSS servers will have Z anyway. Targets by the end of the year were to have at least 6 Z-compliant servers operating at UNEP Regional Offices, and at least 3 operating at GRID centres. An unspecified number of GEO collaborating centres (GEOSS) would also be running Z. The UNEPnet Implementation Centre (UIC) was committed to provide ongoing support. The necessary training requirements could be considered within the UNF/UNFIP project.
15. The working group also agreed on the Infoterra ENVOC Multilingual Thesaurus of Environmental Terms as the required control list for common coding and tagging of information in the system. Manual meta tags would need to be generated initially, but automated assistance would be built into GEOSS and UNEPnet. User guides and other capacity development would be needed. The standard vocabulary would be an advantage for AltaVista and other lists and search engines, as well as UNEP's own search mechanisms. The UN Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC) requirement to use UNIVOC was noted, and would be complied with where appropriate. Another recommended requirement was that text be tagged to indicate language to facilitate multilingual searching.
16. With respect to agreed Web design tools, anything that complies with HTML 3.2 would be acceptable. Page developers should be aware of proprietary dependencies, and should limit their use of special features exclusive to specific software, such as Microsoft. The use of Java should also be restricted, and allow for non-Java users, because of browser dependencies. No specific action was required, but developers should be aware of users with limited browser capabilities.
17. The group further agreed on Internet Map Server (IMS) as an option. An inventory/catalogue for interoperability will be required, and data management standards will be needed. Data format standards will also be required. Licensing costs were an issue, which perhaps could be addressed at a meeting with ESRI in April. GRID-Arendal agreed to report on its IMS experiences to the November follow-up meeting. Some of the GRID centres, and UNITAR through the UNFIP project, will target 14 collaborating centres for assistance with the publication of spatial data.
18. Search engines and harvesting were discussed, but there was no clear outcome or action.
19. On the linkages between sites, this must be at lower levels, and not just between home pages. The problem is where volatility occurs as pages are changed and sites restructured. UNEPnet is to build, by the end of year, a link alert system to automatically extract incoming link information and to distribute it to all sites; it also should alert the webmaster to link breaks. A locator page to all UNEP sites should also be maintained (Earthwatch has already created such a page).
20. On the need for multi-lingual sites, bringing other language users to the existing content, ENVOC can be used here. Translation of the home page and some other key pages and materials would be necessary. The participant from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to encourage a working group to form to further review this issue and report in November.
21. To evaluate the use and effectiveness of the system, it will be necessary to have site tracking and statistics. It was recommended that global statistics should be assembled, and that all sites agree on a common toolkit for statistics. This will still leave questions about statistics from mirrors and proxies, and about sites that do not have their own statistics, such as the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).
22. Finally the group requested that a list-server or forum bulletin board be established for web masters.
23. A second working group discussed the web framework and operating procedures based on documents prepared by the UNEP Web Task Force. This included administrative harmonization, procedures and standards, central coordination, review, and follow-up. It also looked at web sites as the outside face of an information system, and considered best practices and models to follow, the need for convergence in appearance and labelling, the requirement for common resources on the web for all of UNEP, and the involvement of partners and their associated web sites. It looked at how the information system could present an environmental tool box of solutions and responses, such as legislation and regulations, clearing-house mechanisms, and information on technologies and organizations. Finally it considered how a products "bazaar" could show off the outputs of the system, including its web sites across all parts of UNEP, as well as publications, on-line services, the results of meetings and activities, and the capacities available. The working group came to the following conclusions.
24. Implementation of the guidelines proposed
by the UNEP Web Task Force in its draft documents is critical to ensure
a coherent and harmonized development, management, and maintenance of
the organization's information and sites. These documents are:
25. Substantive and technical staff should be aware of the UNEP guidelines when developing sites with partner and collaborating agencies. However, it should be noted that the organization's guidelines cannot and should not be imposed on the collaborators/partners. Therefore, a reasonable compromise is required with partners and collaborators, who should be aware of UNEP requirements.
26. The actual process for the migration of the information on various sites to satisfy the new guidelines will take some time as the human resources are scanty at best. However, a two-tier parallel process was proposed. First is the effort to raise all the organization's on-line information to a credible professional level, as required by the Executive Director and the Web Task Force. Second is an initial concentration on biodiversity as a thematic area and on the African context as a geographic focus to respond to UN Foundation and UNEP priorities. The participants who agreed to support the second process are WCMC, CBD, SCOPE and UNEP (including ROAP, ROE, DEIA&EW, and DEC).
27. The coordination and administration of UNEP web sites should be organized as follows:
UNEP Web Task Force:
Communications and Public Information:
Division of Environmental Information,
Assessment & Early Warning:
Substantive Divisions, Units, etc.
28. The working group noted that there needs to be a UNEP-wide Content Manager who would coordinate overall consistency of content, and prepare a map of all the information of the agency, headquarters, regional, and out-posted offices, showing where information fits in the entire organization's navigation structure, etc.
29. The redesigned home page and structure of the new UNEP Web site received technical and aesthetic endorsement from the working group, but they require some modifications to incorporate comments made by the participants (see below). The working group recommended that the site should be launched after a transition period while it is populated with new information by the substantive programme staff. The launch date should be moved to World Environment Day (June 5th). A notification should be added on the old site to that effect. The group emphasized that the success of the site depends on its population with substantive information by UNEP staff.
30. Additional summary comments from the working group were as follows. An information inventory should be undertaken, and gaps in information on the site should be filled. The Web Task Force chair should provide documentation to the end-users to commence population of the site. Because human resources are so scanty, sites will require a transition period to come in line with the requirements in the guidelines. There needs to be a study and negotiation with regional offices, out-posted units, and partner/collaborating organizations to ease access to the distributed information holdings.
31. The third working group focused on substantive environmental information on the state of and trends in the environment. The initial approach to the mock-up of the new Nairobi website was perceived as too institutional in perspective. There was an almost complete absence of basic environmental information, arranged in a hierarchical fashion. Users coming to the site would learn nothing about the environment itself, yet UNEP collected large quantities of environmental information.
32. One new direction identified by the working group was the compilation of a virtual "encyclopedia of environmental knowledge" as part of the web site. UNEP produces a vast array of information products (technical reports, overviews, databases, clearinghouses, maps, websites, press releases, policy papers, etc) many of which are tailored to different user needs, but could easily be adapted. The thematic coverage of these products is equally broad. Providing access to this body of information via multiple pathways will ensure easy retrieval of information by the user community. Access could be organized by environmental compartments, themes, human activities, etc. Environmental information could also be integrated by cross-linking related subjects, using systems models, DPSIR frameworks, etc. The elements to be assembled to make a coherent "encyclopedia" could include summary text sections giving brief overviews and policy analysis, supporting information in the form of basic data and documentation, and graphics, images and maps. The information could be presented with tools such as indicators, spatial information, Geographic Information Systems and customized or animated graphics.
33. The group recognized the need for products designed for multiple users, or multiple sub-products for different audiences. Although UNEP's primary audience should be policy-makers in a broad sense, the audience will increasingly be non-technical, and, because of exposure to the Internet and other information sources, more sophisticated and more demanding.
34. A systematic approach must be taken to identify the user community and the individual needs of different groups. It was assumed that users would turn to UNEP as a first source for global environmental information, and an "encyclopedia" would be a good starting point for entry into the world of UNEP. Subsequently, the group also discussed the need for other products or links to products, such as national environmental data sets and spatial data sets, through UNEP Internet map-servers and data catalogues.
35. It was decided that to the extent possible, existing UNEP products, such as brochures, briefs, GEO sections or whatever, would be made available for the "encyclopedia". While some information would be cut and pasted from other sources, most would be made available through links. Through a coordinated tagging process, using the environmental thesaurus ENVOC as the starting point, materials would be incorporated into the new product. As UNEPís products vary in complexity, a simple set of guidelines is needed to facilitate breaking down large products, such as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports, into discrete components which can stand as products in their own right. This will increase the quality of tagging and subsequent information retrieval. In addition to current products, there is a need for Web enhanced and more accessible environmental information content linking the different sources, and appropriate navigation and presentation tools.
36. Possible future steps included providing access to national level information and data, still using existing data sets and source materials. Interactive tools could be developed, such as online chats and graphics generated on request from existing data sets on the system.
37. In summary, to fill the gap in substantive environmental information, new sections of the UNEP web site should be developed as an "environmental encyclopedia" and a spatial data and map "atlas", assembled from distributed sources with shared responsibilities. The target is to reach new and expanded, more web sophisticated, audiences and to achieve better message delivery of more timely information, with the ultimate goal of raising the environmental awareness at each level of the user audience.
38. The partners in this process would be all agencies involved in existing processes, as well as sample users of existing products such as the GEF Scientific Advisory Committee, SBSTTA, etc. and data suppliers such as IUCN. The process itself would require consultation with all partners and gap filling by developing networks. The tools would include a system for tagging content with key words, Internet Map Server technology, dynamic databases and static pages. The Web pages would be decentralized and managed by individual partners.
39. The working group suggested some guidelines for the development of this process. Initially it should be restricted to UNEP-generated or partner products. It could then be expanded after there was agreement on the needs, and some experience with the pilot products. There was a need for a system of feedback on product impact, monitoring and evaluation of usage, etc. An appropriate user-friendly navigation system would have to be developed within the UNEP and UNEP system web sites.
40. By the end of 2000, the working group
suggested the following deliverables:
41. Tagging of UNEPís information products with appropriate key words to facilitate search and retrieval was identified as a fundamental task to be undertaken by all substantive offices in-house if UNEPís knowledge base is to become easily accessible via the Web. Two important tools need to be provided to enable UNEPís substantive offices to commence work on the tagging exercise: a set of standard key words for tagging, and a system to oversee and manage the tagging process.
42. Efficient tagging requires reference
tools providing a controlled vocabulary. The ENVOC Multilingual Thesaurus
of Environmental Terms is a controlled vocabulary on the environment
available in the six official UN languages. It can be used as a reference
tool for the tagging exercise. ENVOC can supply key words for the following
43. However, ENVOC needs to be supplemented
by a few specialised authority lists for other attributes in order to
facilitate access to products via multiple pathways:
44. An authority list of organizations is available although it is not incorporated in ENVOC. Values for the other four additional attributes need to be compiled as specialised lists so that they are available for the tagging exercise. Some of these attributes (legislative authority, work programme element) are needed for internal reporting. Proper management of content should reduce the reporting burden on staff.
45. To implement the tagging process, the group proposed the establishment of a small task force on content management of the "encyclopedia of environmental knowledge". A number of issues have to addressed by the task force:
- oversight of the tagging process
46. As more substantive environmental information is tagged systematically and placed on the web, the mass of useful information will grow steadily and become accessible in multiple ways for different users, increasing in value and impact.
47. A broad-based methodology is needed to help substantive units assess the information needs of users who require access to their information. The development of this methodology is part of UNEPís 2000-1 programme of work. This tool mst be capable of universal application across different sectors in the area of environmental protection and sustainable development. It will consist of a questionnaire and a set of guidelines for applying the questionnaire. Knowing WHAT information is needed by WHOM in WHICH format should assist with the exercise of assigning the product type and user group tags.
48. The working groups were also asked to consider processes that should become web-mediated, such as the GEO process and other document preparation, early warning mechanisms, emergency response information, administrative reporting, and the design and operation of the environmental information system itself. Many of these would be more efficient if carried out over a UNEP-wide Intranet. However, the time available was insufficient, and this area was left for further consideration later.
49. All of the working groups considered the human dimension and capacity-building. This was seen as an essential part of building an information system, in complement to the technical and substantive issues. UNEP needed to undertake an inventory of its expertise in this field scattered across its many units and centres. Efforts were also needed to build awareness of the value of electronic communications and to sell web-based solutions to senior managers and programme officers. Training programmes would be required for each aspect of the system, as well as training resources on the web for self-training and distribution to outposted offices.
50. The planning workshop viewed the prototype of the new UNEP home page and web site structure, and provided its expert comments to the developers. Since these included some useful general guidance for future web site development, they are summarized here.
51. Launch of the new site: The new site should not be launched until there was "sufficient" content to populate it. Launching an empty site where most links go nowhere would damage UNEP's reputation. It was suggested that World Environment Day on 5 June would be a suitable launch date. In the interim, the old and new home pages could run in parallel with a countdown to switch-over ("This site dies in 9-8-7-... days" "This site goes live in 9-8-7... days"). The staff should prepare minimum lists of content that should be available before the new site is launched.
52. Home page: Graphics should
not be too big, and should be intelligible and relevant. There was too
much corporate information, and too little substance. There could be
a single "About UNEP" button, with the rest pushed lower into the hierarchy.
The Executive Director should be more visible. Front page headings must
clearly lead to:
53. Other Pages: The proposed right-hand navigation column took up too much space, and should be made optional or deleted. A sans serif font such as Arial should be used, and font sizes should be consistent.
54. Pilot user interaction test: A group of students, media people, and politicians should be organized to review and comment on the site before its launch. Other forms of feedback should be sought.
55. Accessibility: The site should
be designed to be accessible to users with limited computer capabilities.
Checks and tests should be run for:
56. Other Operational Issues: How can external links to UNEP low level pages be maintained in the transition from the old to the new site? A register of "sub-sites" is okay, but not if old content gets eliminated. How can external sites get understandable URLs rather than ASP code? How can static URL references within text be presented as active links?
57. The participants agreed on a set of actions they will take to produce concrete outputs by the end of the year to demonstrate the improved availability of environmental information. These are summarized in Table 1 below.
58. It was decided that the participants in the Planning Workshop would serve as a strategic group to guide the development of an environmental information system, with leadership in the context of the UNF/UNFIP project by the project director. The Chairman of the UNEP Web Task Force agreed to complete a capabilities matrix survey of Heads of Units, the Web Task Force and the EIS strategy group by 20 March, and to establish a special web site for the Environmental Information System Strategic Group to be online by 31 March. The Web Guidelines would also be finalized and distributed by that date, so that all parts of UNEP can start populating the new web site.
59. The head of Environmental Information Services in DEIA&EW agreed to prepare and circulate proposals for core meta-tag definition and Univoc terminology use by 24 March. The members of the Web Task Force participating in the workshop agreed to take back the comments on the new Web home page design and have Communications and Public Information (CPI) act on them by 20 April. The Earthwatch Coordinator will collect and finalize by 30 April the target list of environmental information system actions and contributions to be completed by the end of the year (see Table 1). Infoterra requested everyone to send them by 31 July all suggestions for the revision of the ENVOC thesaurus of environmental terms that will serve as the standard list for tagging information in the system.
60. The secretariat agreed to prepare a summary report of the workshop conclusions for circulation to all the participants.
Workshop on Environmental Information Systems
Mrs Marion Cheatle
Mr Gerry Cunningham
Mr Ananda Dias
Mr Gerald Mutisya
Mr Richard Ondari
Mr Mick Wilson
Mr Jinhua Zhang
UNEP DEIA&EW outside Nairobi
Mr Arthur Dahl
Mr Eugene Fosnight
Mr Lawrence Hislop
Mr Beat Peter
Mr Surendra Shrestha
Mr Otto Simonett
Mr Ron Witt
Ms Chollada Wiyaporn
Mrs Anne-Marie Fenner
Mr Aniket Ghai
Mr Mario Hernandez
Mr Andrew Isaac
Mr Tim Johnson
Mr Olivier de Munck
Mr Osmany Pereira
Mr Jim Sniffen
Mr Michael Williams
OTHER COLLABORATORS in UNFIP project
Mr Jocelyn Fenard
Mr Ruben Mnatsakanian,
Mrs Veronique Plocq-Fichelet
Ms Sergine Ponsard
Mr Colin Agostini
Mr Jerry Barton
Mr David Larkin
Mr Sam Pickens