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Dialogue on the Internet; the social perspective on information technologies May 1997

Introduction

The Division for Social Policy and Development of the United Nations Secretariat organised, on 14 May 1997, a "dialogue" with Ms. Oliva Acosta who was the project officer responsible for design and development of the Internet site established for the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15 September 1995). She also was a principal on the team responsible for developing the post-Beijing interagency "Women's Watch" Internet site (http://www.un.org/womenwatch).

Ms. Ocasta had recently left the Division for the Advancement of Women of the United Nations Secretariat to take up a position with Communications for Development, a private firm with offices in Madrid, Spain(oacosta@jet.es). While in New York she graciously contributed her time to the Division dialogue and to follow up consultations with colleagues.

The group was informed that the "dialogue" would not discuss the technical aspects of the Internet nor would it consider its broad social implications.

The purpose of the "dialogue" was to learn from Ms. Acosta's experiences in using Internet resources to support a major programme of the Organization and to discuss with her issues and implications of that experience to the work of the Division in the field of social policy and development.

Reference was made to discussions with Ms. Acosta about applications of the Internet to promote increased access to the global disability policies programme cluster of the Division, since placing information resources in digital format will make them accessible to an expanded set of constituencies.

Fourth World Conference on Women home page on the Internet: prelude to Women Watch

Ms. Acosta stated that she joined the FWCW secretariat in 1994 to assist with its information activities. The year 1994 was when the World-Wide Web first became widely available to a diverse range of user communities on the Internet. Previously, Web resources, and (text-based) Gopher services, had been chiefly the province of universities and specialized research communities. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had already introduced Gopher and Web services at its New York headquarters, while full Internet connectivity came somewhat later to United Nations Secretariat.

UNDP provided the FWCW secretariat with an opportunity to use its Internet services to develop Gopher and Web-based services to communicate better the complex issues being consider at the Beijing Conference. Some three months before the Beijing Conference was convened (from 4 to 15 September 1995), the FWCW home page was available on Internet. The response was highly positive from both Governments and the non-governmental community (NGOs). More importantly the FWCW home page not only publicized the Conference but provided links to other resources, including a link to the NGO Forum established for FWCW. Data collected by UNDP, which provided Internet services throughout this period, indicate that the FWCW home page was accessed by more than 150,000 users representing 68 countries during the September 1995 Conference.

These access figures should be placed in the context of the relatively limited degree of Internet connectivity world wide in mid to late-1995 and its expotential growth over the past two years. The Women Watch initiative

Briefly stated, Women Watch is an initiative on the part of three UN Secretariat units - the Division for the Advancement of Women of the United Nations Secretariat, the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (Instraw)(Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) - to cooperate in the provision of electronic resources for Beijing follow up.

Questions / points raised

1. Relation of Internet-based services to the work of DAW and FWCW secretariat.

(a) Internet-based services allowed DAW both to communicate its issues better and to amplify its work among a wide range of user communities.

(b) Internet services also allowed DAW to establish and develop a wide range of contacts with others concerned with its substantive issues. This was done by means of   (1) DAW's own research on resources concerned with its substantive issues, and (2) organizing "Internet user forums" and carrying out joint work with Unifem and Instraw. Communicating its strategy for Internet services for comment and feedback among interested constituencies also served to mainstream DAW's substantive issues of concern.

(c) Internet technologies allowed DAW to make "hypertext" links between its issues of substantive concern with other relevant Internet-based resources.

(d) Development and testing of the FWCW home page and the subsequent interagency Women Watch were done "within existing resources". [The FWCW home page was developed initially on a cooperative basis with UNDP.]

2. Efficiencies realized from Internet-based services.

DAW have realized two types of savings through the use of Internet services:

(a) Costs of document reproduction and distribution have declined through use of electronic media.

(b) Political gains have been realized through prompt dissemination of intergovernmental documents electronically.

Internet services have also allowed DAW (and its Women Watch partners) to link (and to be linked with) other relevant information resources, thus providing DAW with an enhanced profile.

3. Approaches for linking with other information resources.

Three options were available to DAW for organizing its information linkages:

(a) thematic approach, such as the three priority themes of the "Nairobi Forward-looking strategies";

(b) geographical approach, situation of women in Africa, etc.;

(c) institutional approach, Governments, UN system, NGOS. Ms. Acosta observed that no one approach is best for all applications. The three approaches can all can be linked (or blended) to effect the greatest value-added information resource to interested constituencies.

4. Determination of target groups and target group needs and interests for Internet services.

DAW drew initially upon its experiences with its established constituencies to determine its Internet services. There was also a need to build awareness of the FWCW issues among a wider set of constituencies, so DAW organized as part of its Beijing follow up a technical workshop on "Information technology and women" (see "Women and the Information Revolution", special theme issue of Women 2000 no. 1/1996 (October 1996)).

The decision to develop Women Watch as a "gateway" for UN work on women is a result of the workshop dialogue.

DAW also was able to draw upon the FWCW Web site "hits" data collected by UNDP in the analysis of target group.

5. The Women Watch initiative and development of Internet resources as this relates to the goal of poverty eradication of the Organisation.

There are two basic considerations in the matter:

(a) an institutional decision as to partners and division of labour regarding development of Internet resources on the question of poverty eradication; and

(b) determination of the particular value-added that can be provided by the Division for Social Policy and Development.

Internet technology is neutral as to who should "control" a particular issue.

6. Maintenance and further development of the Women Watch Internet site.

While the FWCW - DAW Web site provided the basic structure for the inter-agency Women Watch, there are three issues related to its further development:

(a) establishment and development of an appropriate institutional framework for the Internet services,

(b) continuing development of technical and managerial personnel, and

(c) periodic monitoring and evaluation of site content, user interests, and emerging issues and trends.

Staff development was a major concern of the DAW Internet initiative, since the Division initially had no in-house resources. Initial work on the FWCW Web site was done on a cooperative basis with the concerned offices of UNDP.

With the migration of the FWCW-DAW site from UNDP to UN, when full Internet connectivity was achieved at the United Nations in 1995, Beijing follow up required expanded training of staff in preparation of documentation for Internet posting, administration and maintenance of the site. The web master of the parent Department of DAW provided a great deal of practical advice and assistance on Web maintenance and development with the migration of the FWCW site to UN Internet services.

One factor that contributed to the success of the FWCW home page and successful development of Women Watch as the "gateway" to United Nations system resources on advancement of women has been development of institutional arrangements for (a) policy-level consultations among senior management of the participating offices - DAW, Instraw and Unifem, (b) technical consultations, and (c) consultations among interested users, NGOs in particular. The Women Watch group liaises closely with activities of UN Department of Public Information.

7. Time reguired to develop an operational presence on the World-Wide Web.

This can take some 10-12 months, although the Women Watch initiative covers more than two years.

The first decision to take relates to the "architecture of the Web site", its logic, structure, content and related resources. This involves an understanding of needs and interests of the concerned user communities, specification of basic performance requirements, and determination of one's own resources to respond to these requirements.

There is also a matter of identification and training of personnel for Web design, development, testing, preparation of media in digital format, and site maintenance.

Finally, there is a need to be clear about one's "strategy" on the role of information resources in programme development and the "tactics" in launching a Web site.

8. Determination of logic, of partnerships and phases of site development.

While technologies are neutral, the matter of logic and determination of priorities in site development involve both institutional and political considerations. Major areas of policy concern deserve priority consideration to the extent that information technologies can make them accessible to constituencies who cannot easily follow the work. It also begs the question of how information technology can support implementation of policy instruments by targeting specialized constituencies.

This introduces consideration of a need to distinguish between dissemination of existing material and the provision of fora (or gateways) - moderated and otherwise - for exchanges of knowledge, for access to information resources and for delivery of digital media to the blind and visually impaired. Internet-based services provide a means to organize and deliver specialized information resources to support the policy development work of the Organization.

Note: For information; the document has not been formally edited.


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