|United Nations System-Wide
WORKSHOP ON INFORMATION FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND EARTHWATCH
Geneva, 24 September 1996
1. The Workshop on Information for Sustainable Development and Earthwatch, co-organized by the UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was held on 24 September 1996 at the UNEP offices in Geneva. The purpose of the workshop was to maintain the momentum in implementing Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 on Information for Decision-making, and to follow up the meetings in New York in January 1996 of the Earthwatch Working Party 3 (17-18 January), the DPCSD/UNEP Meeting on Common/compatible Systems of Access to Data (19 January), and the Meeting of the Integrated Environmental Assessment/Global Environmental Outlook (IEA/GEO) Core Data Working Group (22-23 January 1996). There was a need to put the principles adopted in January into practice, and to assemble the best ideas available for the design and implementation of information systems for sustainable development and Earthwatch. The focus was on the Internet and electronic implementation, which allow levels of information integration never before possible, assuming that printed products can be derived from the electronic versions for distribution to those who do not have electronic access.
2. As this was a technical workshop, it was agreed that procedures would be informal, with conclusions reached by consensus. The workshop was chaired jointly by Ms Mary Pat Williams Silveira of DPCSD and Mr Arthur Dahl of UNEP. The list of participants is given in Annex II.
Common and compatible access to UN system information
3. The meeting on Common and Compatible Systems of Access to Data, (New York, January 1996), was convened in response to a decision by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), at its third session in April 1995. As a result of that meeting and of the subsequent decisions by the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development at its seventh session, the Commission on Sustainable Development, at its fourth session in April-May 1996, requested DPCSD, in cooperation with other organizations of the UN system, and within available resources, to establish a Sustainable Development Home Page on the World Wide Web, with "hot links" to relevant data bases throughout the UN system, as a means of facilitating access by countries to sources of information relevant to sustainable development.
4. The discussion in this Workshop (24 September) was concerned with implementing the decision of the Commission on Sustainable Development. This included attention to the following issues: (1) the organization and content of the Sustainable Development Home Page, (2) maintenance of the Home Page and linkages to data sources; and (3) identificationof key words. The January meeting had also agreed upon the principles that should underlie the design of any UN information system (Annex I), and implementing these principles was further discussed at this meeting.
Organization and Content of the Home Page.
5. The Workshop made a number of suggestions for the structure and content of the Sustainable Development Home Page, keeping in mind that the creators of the home page will require a degree of flexibility in their final design.
6. The home page should contain: (i) historical information on sustainable development; (ii) virtual regional and country files, and links to city files elsewhere; (iii) virtual indicator files; (iv) a Youth Corner; (v) key issues, including, among others, Small Island Developing States (SIDS); (vi) relevant documentation (CSD and other); (vii) information on partners in sustainable development; and (viii) sustainable development activities. The page may also contain a section on "new and emerging ideas," and mechanisms for user feedback.
7. With regard to the Regional and Country Files, it was agreed that information would follow the structure of Agenda 21, although some effort should be made to collapse the categories to fewer than forty, perhaps around twenty-five. Country files would also contain other relevant information, such as whether or not the country is a member of the respective UN system organisations and signatory to conventions related to sustainable development.
8. To enhance the relevance of the information for decision-making, Country and Regional Files would also include indicators for which data are available, a synopsis of the content of the file, and "boxes," as relevant, to highlight particular information or examples. Some core information for the country and regional files would be maintained centrally. City files would be linked to information on Chapter 7 of Agenda 21, Human Settlements held elsewhere.
9. All information should be completed with date and source tags, to ensure that it is accurate and up-to-date.
10. It was also agreed that only official information will be posted on the Home Page.
11. In addition to the elements for the structure and content of the Home Page, other related issues were discussed. It was agreed that every attempt should be made to have all material available in all official languages, with particular emphasis on translated text for the "Youth Corner". To the extent possible, "language transparent" data, such as numbers, tables and graphs, should also be used.
12. As at the January meeting, concern was expressed about the small numbers of people globally who have Internet access and would therefore be in a position to make use of the Home Page. It was reiterated that other means of communication would continue to be used, including both print and other electronic means such as gopher and e-mail. It was also agreed that attention should be given to the amount of graphical material, since extensive graphics require extensive computer memory and thus, again, limit use.
13. The Workshop proposed that, should the Home Page contain graphics, it should be designed to provide the alternative to turn the graphics off and still have the essentialinformation on the page.
14. In order to facilitate access in a number of different time zones and to provide users with optional access during peak demand times, it was suggested that mirror sites be established in two to three time zones; for example, in North America, Europe and Japan.
15. A number of other "best practices" for Web Page design were suggested. These included the provision of an overview of the content at the beginning of the Home Page; where links to other pages or sites exist, provision of a brief explanation of what those sites contain; and avoidance of links or pages "under construction". The relative merits of providing long pages or many linked pages were reviewed. It was felt that the best approach is to balance the length of pages and the number of pages to minimize the total time downloading and searching pages and the number of mouse clicks required, or to provide the user with a choice where appropriate.
16. As recommended by the IACSD and decided by the CSD, the Home Page would be created and maintained by the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development. Certain core data, particularly for the Regional and Country files, would also be maintained by DPCSD, based on the country profiles being prepared for the Special Session of the General Assembly in 1997.
17. Consistent with the principles of subsidiarity, efficiency and economy, other information would be accessed through linkages to the Home Pages of the other organisations of the UN System. These organizations would have a responsibility to organize data on their Home Pages consistent with this approach.
Identification of Key Words
18. In the January meeting it was agreed that a Sustainable Development thesaurus would be developed, using, inter alia, standardized country codes, as a basis for creating the virtual country directory and data base, and standardized codes for data related to the indicators of sustainable development, as the basis for creating the virtual indicator directory.
19. This was again discussed in the Workshop, and it was felt that what was needed was not a new thesaurus, since excellent ones already exist, but to identify the key words necessary to search for sustainable development information, to review the UNBIS thesaurus to determine to what extent it includes these key words, and to fill in any gaps. For this purpose the Workshop agreed that the IACSD should request each of the Task Managers for Agenda 21 in the UN System to take responsibility for identifying the key words associated with their respective chapters, within a framework to be provided by DPCSD, and to forward these to DPCSD as Task Manager for Chapter 40. DPCSD would then circulate all of the key words to all Task Managers for their comments and additions. Finally, DPCSD would determine which of those key words already appear in the UNBIS thesaurus, and which might need to be added.
20. It was also suggested that it would be useful to review various World Wide Web sites with search facilities to determine what key words associated with sustainable development are used most in searching for information. Efforts will be made in the future to develop a software package that allows for automatic classification of electronic documentation.
21. The full text of the Principles for a UN information system adopted at the January meeting is contained in Annex I. In general, the Principles state that information systems should be governed by subsidiarity, responsibility, transparency, efficiency, and economy. Data collected and stored within the UN system should be in the public domain, freely available to all users, unless Member States have specifically prohibited open access. As far as possible, data collected and stored within the UN system should be accompanied by an acknowledgement of sources and the metadata necessary to ensure quality, timeliness and appropriateness for different uses. In special cases, data access may be restricted.
22. The Chair of the Information Systems Coordination Committee of the ACC, Mr. John Northcut, noted that these are essentially the same principles that have been accepted by the ISCC Task Force on this topic. It was agreed by the participants in the meeting that, while there appears to be a general consensus across the UN system on these Principles, the issue is to find the means for their dissemination to the appropriate persons.
23. The Workshop therefore invited DPCSD to undertake the task of circulating the Principles to all Task Managers for Agenda 21 within the UN System; it further requested the ISCC to circulate the Principles among all of its members and to bring the Principles to the attention of the ACC. It was also agreed that all participants would try to disseminate the Principles through internal and external newsletters and other means, as appropriate.
Common core data sets
24. Following on the meeting of the working group on common core data sets organized by UNEP and DPCSD in New York 22-23 January 1996, the workshop considered progress made in this area and further actions that may be required. The report of the meeting was available as a background document (UNEP/DEIA/MR.96-3). UNEP indicated that the funding allocated to follow up the meeting recommendations had not been released because of the cash flow problem in the Environment Fund, and little progress had been made. Each agency responsible for specified data sets should therefore try to implement the meeting proposals within existing resources.
25. There were some concerns that information about the data sets needed to be checked and completed. It was suggested that UNEP circulate the list to agencies for their review. It would be useful to know in what forms the data sets were available, and whether there were charges for the data sets. After further review, it would be useful to make the core data set list available on the Internet to encourage wide use of the standard core sets.
Development of the Earthwatch World Wide Web site
26. The UN system-wide Earthwatch Coordination office has surveyed and assessed a wide range of relevant web sites. The experience from this survey was discussed with reference to the Sustainable Development Home Page, and will also be used to make the Earthwatch home page more effective and interactive, providing descriptions of and links to relevant web sites in the UN system and elsewhere. It was agreed that the same design principles adopted for the sustainable development web site could also apply to the Earthwatch site. The sites should be two steps in a nested hierarchy of UN web sites with different levels of coverage and specificity, which should be interconnected to make a coherent information system. The clearing-house mechanism for land-based activitiesaffecting the marine environment, to be designed at a technical meeting immediately following the Workshop, would be another even more specific element in the information system. Experience among the web sites should be shared to encourage best practices.
27. The UN System-wide Earthwatch Programme Document that is the basis for the present web site contains information collected in 1994 by the Task Managers for the Secretary-General's report on Chapter 40 to the Commission on Sustainable Development. It should be up-dated prior to the 1997 review of Agenda 21. It was suggested that the Earthwatch Coordination office should send each agency its section by e-mail, to make it easy to introduce modifications and return it. Some agencies and activities that had been missed in the last edition should now be added.
Collaboration with the scientific community and non-governmental organizations
28. A number of participants described their good cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the need to maintain a certain level of quality in selecting NGOs as partners. It is important to maintain the scientific quality and objectivity of the information included in Earthwatch, whether that information comes from official sources or from scientific and expert organizations.
29. The International Institute for Sustainable Development wanted to find the right niche in relation to Earthwatch, although it had a wider mandate covering all aspects of sustainable development, and its resources were limited. It wants to be a major data source for sustainable development, and has a well-developed and innovative home page with many linkages and connections to the UN system. Its calendar of significant events was a useful resource.
30. Collaboration between Earthwatch and the scientific community was also important, in particular with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions of Global Change Programme (IHDP).
Review of the draft UNEP Global Environment Outlook 1 report, and mechanisms for participation in the ongoing Global Environment Outlook process
31. The draft of the first Global Environment Outlook report being prepared by UNEP with the help of various collaborating centres had been circulated to all Earthwatch focal points. UNEP explained that extensive revisions had since been undertaken, and described some of the major conclusions. Most organizations were pleased with the draft and encouraged UNEP in its efforts. Some sections that were still weak or incomplete were commented on, but most of these had already been revised since the draft was circulated, based on the results of regional meetings. ESCAP drew attention to some recent reports and meetings in their region that should also be referred to.
32. There was a general interest on the part of the agencies present to be involved in and contribute to the continuing process of preparing these forward-looking biennial reports. They agreed to provide data early in the report preparation process, and to review chapters as they were drafted. Some offered to help in drafting sections in their areas of expertise.
Closing of the meeting
33. After thanking the participants for their active and constructive participation, the co-chairs closed the workshop.
The following principles to underlie the design of any UN information system were prepared by the Meeting on Common/Compatible Systems of Access to Data (New York, 19 January 1996), and agreed by the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development.
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.
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 sources or to collect at secondary locations where they can go out of date. Data should always be accompanied by meta-data, including date, origin and conditions for access, and should not be alterable except by the responsible parties.
Transparency. To the extent possible, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Information for decision-makers should be of good quality, reliable, timely, relevant and processed. Data products, with value added, should form the basic content. In establishing a system of common access, data should be organized by subject, consistent with the topics covered by the forty chapters of Agenda 21, and the organization reviewed at a later stage on the basis of actual demand. Data that relate to the indicators of sustainable development that are being developed on behalf of the CSD should be included and especially coded in a manner that would facilitate their common retrieval. The design plan should also have as an objective the creation of a virtual country data base. Interaction with the system will be predefined but should move toward transactional queries as soon as feasible. In orderto identify more specifically the information on sustainable development that should be included in a system of common access,
In addition, Principles for a Data Access Policy specifically in relation to high-level processed information on sustainable development include the following:
In principle, data collected by and stored within the UN system should be in the public domain, freely available to all users, unless Member States have specifically prohibited open access.
All data should, as far as possible, be accompanied by an acknowledgment of sources and the metadata necessary to ensure quality, timeliness and appropriateness for different uses.
In special cases, data access may be restricted for any of the following reasons:
a. The data are covered by government-defined restrictions based on strategic, security or sovereignty considerations;
b. The data have commercial significance, would reveal trade secrets, are covered by intellectual property rights, or would give illegitimate holders an unfair commercial or trade advantage;
c. The data are normally sold as part of a data commercialization or cost-recovery programme.
Where data are so restricted, they shall be shared with other parts of the UN system for internal use without charge, provided that the specified restrictions accompany and are not separated from the data, and are respected by the users.
Such data will not be shared outside the UN system except with official partners in UN-sponsored joint activities, where the partner agrees to be bound by and to respect the same conditions and restrictions.
Restricted data may be used to prepare derivative or combined information products, provided that they are so processed as to protect the interests for which they are restricted, and in such a way that the original data cannot be restored or reconstructed from the derivative product.
Where charges are normally levied for data, these charges will be waived for reasonable amounts of internal use by UN system partners on the principle of reciprocity, and with the understanding that such data will not be made available to outside users who would normally purchase such data from the original supplier.
Ms Christina von Scweinichen
Ms Mary Pat Williams Silveira
Ms Monika Luxem
Ms Elizabeth Umlas
Mr William J. Hartnett III
UNITED NATIONS AGENCIES
Ms Merle S. Opelz
Mr Hiko Tamashiro
UNITED NATIONS CONVENTIONS
Convention on Climate Change
Mr Pavel Skoda