NEED FOR LANGUAGE PARITY STRESSED, AS COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION DISCUSSES ENHANCEMENT OF UN WEB SITE

4 May 2001
PI/1344/Rev.1

NEED FOR LANGUAGE PARITY STRESSED, AS COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION DISCUSSES ENHANCEMENT OF UN WEB SITE

04/05/2001
Press ReleasePI/1344/Rev.1

Committee on Information                                    PI/1344/Rev.1*

Twenty-third Session                                        4 May 2001

5th Meeting (AM)

NEED FOR LANGUAGE PARITY STRESSED, AS COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION

DISCUSSES ENHANCEMENT OF UN WEB SITE

The United Nations Web site was like a storefront:  “we put on it whatever we have available”, Mahbub Ahmad, Chief of the Information Technology Section of the Department of Public Information (DPI), told the Committee on Information this morning as it reviewed ways of enhancing the site.

The Committee was continuing its consideration of a number of reports of the Secretary-General that illustrate the innovative ways in which the DPI is providing worldwide outreach for the United Nations system.  Specifically, it took up reports on the further development, maintenance and enhancement of the United Nations Web site and on the activities of the Joint United Nations Information Committee in 2000.

Mr. Ahmad, responding to a series of comments on the lack of language parity on the Web site, recognized that such parity had not been achieved and added that it would necessitate some “hard decisions” and significant expenditure.  The Secretariat estimated that it would cost of $650 million to disseminate information on the web site into all official languages.

He went on to say the site was being regularly accessed by more than 163 countries.  Another landmark had been achieved -- 400 million “hits” had occurred so far this year.  In addition, the link between the optical disk system and the web site should be operational by late summer.  Also forthcoming was the creation of a separate section for information made available by Presidents of the Security Council.

Also today, Thérèse Gastaut, in her capacity as Secretary of the Joint United Nations Information Committee (JUNIC), introduced the 2000 report and provided an update on that body’s annual session, held in Geneva last July. 

Ms. Gastaut said that JUNIC played an important role in ensuring that the United Nations system had a single and harmonious message.  During the session, it had sought to strengthen that unified message.  It adopted the promotional programme “United Nations Works” and emphasized the value of active participation in the implementation of new United Nations information initiatives, namely, the news service and the radio pilot project.

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*     Revised for technical reasons.

Committee on Information - 1a - Press Release

5th Meeting (AM)

The Interim Head of the DPI, Shashi Tharoor, announced that he was making available the narrative of the proposed programme budget.  It was available today in English as a working paper and would soon be distributed in all official languages.

Participants in the question-and-answer session were:  Spain, Netherlands, Syria, India, Republic of Korea, Japan, Russian Federation, United States, Chile, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt.

The Committee will meet again at a date and time to be announced in the Journal.

Background

When the Committee on Information meets this morning, it will continue its consideration of the report of the Secretary-General on the further development, maintenance and enhancement of the United Nations Web site (document A/AC.198/2001/8).  The Committee is also expected to begin its consideration of the last report of the Secretary-General on activities of the Joint United Nations Information Committee in 2000 (document A/AC.198/2001/9).  (For background information on the current session of the Committee and the two reports, see Press Release PI/1336 of 27 April.)

Statements

MILOS ALCALAY (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee on Information, said Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, yesterday spoke to a television station on the issue of the free press and wished the Committee success in its work

RAFAEL DAUSA CESPEDES (Cuba) requested that the Chairman’s statement yesterday on World Press Freedom Day be distributed in all the official languages.

Questions

AGUSTIN GALAN (Spain) said the report had made it clear that the Department of Public Information (DPI) and all other information processing units of the United Nations must adapt themselves to the task of multilingualism.  That was not only a desirable but a definite requirement of the Organization. 

He said that in the report, although there was a clear explanation of the impact of users on the United Nations Web site, in future there should be indications of how many hits were received by each site so that there could be classification by subject, region and language.

PETER MOLLEMA (Netherlands) asked what was the status on the linking of the United Nations Web site with the optical disc system (ODS).  Addressing the publication of press releases that were not generated by the United Nations system, he asked whether provisions could be made for those press releases to be made available on the Web site.

ABDOU AL-MOULA NAKKARI (Syria) said there was need for much more explicit information on the distribution of financial and human resources for the United Nations Web site.  He requested the precise number of staff members working on sites.

He said that in section 111, paragraph 5, of General Assembly resolution on documentation and publication related matters (document A/RES/55/222), it was clearly stated that all official documents should be published on the Internet in all the official languages of the Organization.  Yet, the mandate of that resolution was being violated.  An example of that was the Facilitator’s proposal on the financing for development (document A/AC.257/22) which so far was only available in English.

SATISH CHAND MEHTA (India) praised the Secretariat for a very good Web site, in particular its “user friendly” nature.  He had been told that it might take some years before all United Nations information centres would have their own Web sites.  That was too long, especially since those with local language content could be very useful.  Was it possible to expedite that process?  Was it also possible to put statements issued by the President of the Security Council on the Web site?

SANG-HWA LEE (Republic of Korea) agreed that the DPI had installed a very good Web site.  He wished to know the current status of the optical system disk linkage, the further development of the Web site, and the upgrade of the library system.  During the general discussion, delegations had stressed that establishment of one central portal and one online catalogue would facilitate retrieval of United Nations materials. 

MASATO KAGAMI (Japan) said his Mission had installed an Internet system yesterday with the United Nations Web site as its home page.  The Mission had brought in some 60 computers.  The representative of Guyana had made an interesting point in her general statement about income generation.  Indeed, the DPI was one of the few United Nations departments that generated income in the United Nations system.  Perhaps more could be generated.  In that context, perhaps the bookstore could have a section on the Web site.

MAURICE MALAKHOV (Russian Federation) said he was impressed by the progress made in the development of the Web site.  That subject was of great interest to his country where Internet use was undergoing rapid development.  Perhaps the United Nations Web site could be expanded through additional resources and staff.  Engaging in a feasibility study on that question was timely.  In that connection, what kinds of problems might be related to carrying out such a study?

DAVID A. TRAYSTMAN (United States) suggested that the Web site should develop an expanded site index similar to the one in the back of the United Nations Yearbook, thereby allowing users to find exactly what they were looking for.  The creation of a CD-ROM containing the first 50 volumes of the United Nations Yearbook would be a very useful and comprehensive tool.

Replies

MAHBUB AHMAD, Chief of the Information Technology Section, DPI, said the Section had started an extensive analysis based on new software to pinpoint which areas and languages were getting more “hits” or accesses, and where they were tapering off or increasing.  That would direct attention to areas for possible enhancement and help determine the origin of the users.  Accesses from more than 163 countries were occurring on a regular basis.  As of 27 April, another landmark had been achieved, namely, 400 million “hits” for the year.  For the month of April, users had viewed 8,890,589 pages of documents.  There had been 955,604 distinct users or hosts that connected to the Web site during the month.  He said he could provide further details of that data.

Regarding the status of linkage of the ODS to the United Nations Web site, he said that the Information Technology Services Division in the Department of Management was maintaining it.  The DPI was in regular contact with them.  The process was well under way, and it was his understanding that sometime, in late summer, the ODS should be on line.  The idea of making parliamentary documentation available on a fee for service basis might need to be revisited.

Regarding Security Council press releases, a discussion was under way with Security Council Affairs on the creation of a separate area on the Web site for presidential press statements, which should be operational soon.

Concerning the distribution of financial and human resources for the various language Web sites, the Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, had provided a detailed answer to that question yesterday.  Since the United Nations Web site and its content was maintained and provided by many parts of the Secretariat, there were people working on the Web site in various languages across other departments.  Regarding the non-working languages, the DPI provided services to the content-providing offices for rendering parts of their site in those languages to the extent possible in the Department, which was limited to one Professional and one General Service staff member per language, except for English.

No official parliamentary document was posted by the Department on the Web site before it was actually cleared and issued on the ODS, he said, in answer to a related question.  There might be situations, however, where other departments had put on the Web site certain documents that might have been of the “L” series with limited circulation.  According to the new guidelines, however, no unofficial document or one in draft form should be put on the Web site except in consultation with the Chairman and Secretary of the body working on that document.

Concerning expediting the use of local Web sites, the United Nations information centres were working as best as they could to provide local language Web sites.  A number of training seminars on the creation of Web sites had been organized; that would be pursued more effectively. 

In terms of presidential and press statements of Security Council Presidents, his team was working on a site for the Council presidency in order to publish whatever that month’s President wanted to be made available.

He said his Section was actively looking into a central Internet portal concept, but there were technological and resource issues associated with the idea.  Nonetheless, the issue was foremost in his mind as a way to enhance the availability of information across the United Nations system.  He would try to move on that quickly.

He thanked the Japanese Mission for making the United Nations homepage the homepage on all computers in the Mission.  Hopefully, the site would be able to provide the information needed.  He welcomed further comments.

To a question on the feasibility study, he said that such a study would look not only at a surface redesign of the site, but also at the possibility of restructuring it and putting it on a much more sound footing with respect to staffing and language, as well as ways to best address its overall structure, maintenance, and design.  The study would contribute much to that process.  The only reason it had not been carried out was because the allocation had not yet been made.

Regarding a CD-ROM United Nations Yearbook, he said he would look into it.  There might be a question about it being a sale item, but he would actively pursue it. An enhanced site index was an excellent suggestion.  Certainly, it was constantly being enhanced and efforts would be undertaken to make it more in-depth.  Looking for new ways of making the search engine more user-friendly and more active were also under way; parts of site were already being converted into a database, which would make it easier and faster to pinpoint material.

Questions

Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said it was necessary to have clearer answers than those received so far.  Again, his delegation wished to raise the question of the distribution of documents and the Assembly resolution calling for documents to not be posted before they had been translated and made available in traditional ways.  That resolution had been violated.  Evidence of that, as mentioned previously, was the issuance of the document related to financing for development on 27 April (document A/AC.257/22).  Perhaps Mr. Ahmad could revisit that question and explain.  Specifically, how was that report posted on the Internet before being made available in traditional ways?  Assembly resolution (55/222) must be scrupulously followed, he stressed. 

Also, he continued, his delegation had still received no reply to the question raised on the distribution of financial resources for each Web site.  In addition, he asked for a more specific answer to the question put on human resources on the Web site –- for example, how many people were doing what?

He said that no vision had been presented in the Secretary-General’s report on how parity would be achieved on the Web site among the six official languages.

MASATO KAGAMI (Japan), addressing the issue of income-generation through the Web site asked what problems were anticipated by DPI in trying to make that happen and how would it proceed?

Mr. GALAN (Spain) referred to the proposal in Part V of the report on the creation of working groups to deal with the issue of multilingualism to ensure that information would be available on the Web site in all six official languages.  The DPI officials participating in that group should point out that the basis for achieving that objective was not driven by just staff concerns but financial ones as well.  In addition, it should be borne in mind that in many cases content creators were not from DPI.

He also pointed out that although it had been indicated that the Web site received a million hits every month, those figures did not tell everything.  

CRISTIAN STREETER (Chile), addressing the issue of better access for persons with disabilities on the Web site, wanted to know more about related measures and cost implications to achieve that.

AHMED A.S. ELMESSALLATI (Libya) said his delegation attached particular importance to the question of parity among the official languages of the United Nations in the Web site.  It was also interested in the implementation of Assembly resolution 54/136, which invited the Secretary-General to pursue efforts to consolidate the Web site of the United Nations in all official languages and to present related proposals for consideration by DPI.

His delegation therefore supported the questions raised by representative of Syria this morning and yesterday.  He had hoped for a adequate replies to the questions asked yesterday but unfortunately those replies as he understood them had not really answered the questions.  He expressed concern at that and asked for written responses.

Replies

Mr. AHMAD said he was struck by the continued references to the common theme of language parity.  The Web site was like a storefront:  “We put on it whatever we have available”, he said.  “We cannot put material on it that has not been created.”  Achieving parity would then require that all materials be created in all six official languages.  Unfortunately, while all parliamentary documents were created in the six official languages, the same did not apply to all public information or non-parliamentary documents.

He said a number of delegations had drawn attention to paragraph 7 of the Secretary-General’s report which stated that progress in language parity was slow.  “It has never been our goal to say that there has been parity of languages”, he said.  While it was recognized that there was no parity at present, achieving it would necessitate some hard decisions and also require significant expenditure”.

Replying to Syria’s question on the document on the financing for development, he said that according to the way Web postings were organized, DPI had responsibility for the top layer of pages, the overall design and posting rights.  Individual departments were responsible for the content of their posted material.  While DPI had published guidelines, it was up to departments to oversee what was posted.  As such, DPI was not responsible for the content of documents.  It would, however, take up the issue of multilingualism with the respective departments to ensure that they were aware of the Assembly resolution and prevent such a violation from happening again.

Addressing the question raised on the distribution of human resources, he said a written response would be provided to clarify who exactly was working on the Web site in DPI and how many people there were working in each of the official languages.

On the issue of income-generation, he said that yes, the Web site was being looked at as a means to produce more revenue.

Responding to Spain’s question on the number of “hits”, he said the number of separate users accessing the Web site during April was 955,000.  That meant the number of separate hosts that had accessed the Web sites and not the individual users. In addition, 8.8 million individual documents had been seen last month as well. 

Addressing the desirability of having the Web site in all six languages, he said that was a question left up to the various departments to seek out and ensure.  The DPI provided those departments with the services to do that but it was eventually up to them.

Responding to the question posed on special measures being taken to make the Web site available to persons with disabilities, he said there was special encoding to allow pages to either be printed out in Braille or be voice activated for those with hearing or sight impairment.

He said there would be a written response to the question raised by Libya on the number of people working in different languages on the Web site

LARBI DJACTA (Algeria) said the Assembly had already taken some decisions on multilingualism and the Secretariat should therefore not take a selective approach by giving more importance to one language over another.

HOSSAM ZAKI (Egypt) said the representative of the Secretariat had not responded clearly to Japan’s question on how the Web site could produce more revenue or income.  What did that question mean and how could the United Nations achieve that?  He did not imagine that the United Nations could be interested in making the Web site income productive?  What were the Secretariat’s ideas on that? And could they elaborate on that issue without taking the views of Member States?  Member States must be consulted to find out their views on that issue, he stressed.

Mr. ELMESSALLATI (Libya) said his delegation wanted to know what measures would be taken to deal with the lack of full parity in the official languages of the United Nations.

Mr. AHMAD said that since the question had arisen previously about parity in all official languages, several Secretariat reports before the Committee contained a number of relevant proposals.  The Secretariat had arrived at an approximate cost of $650 million for rendering the Web site into all official languages.  That had not included transforming the databases into all official languages, which was a separate question to be addressed eventually.  Do we create the databases separately and input information six times, or create one database and display results in six languages using machine translation or some other form? 

He said, in response to another question, that it had never been his intent to engage in practices on the Web site such as income generation without consulting Member States.  His response to a question posed earlier by the representative of Japan was concerning making United Nations publications available through the Web site for purchase.  Any other activities would be dealt with separately.

Concerning measures to deal with the question of multi-lingualism, he said guidance was needed from the Member States on his approach, as well as on proposals submitted in previous reports, before a firm plan to achieve total parity could be implemented.  Currently, productivity was being increased through the automation of various tasks.  Hopefully, more would be accomplished in the future within existing resources.  It should be made clear, however, that additional resources would be needed to ensure total parity.

Introduction of Report

Next, Thérèse Gastaut, Secretary, Joint United Nations Information Committee (JUNIC), introduced the 2000 JUNIC report (document A/AC.198/2001/9) (for background information, see Press Release PI/1336 of 27 April).

She said that JUNIC played an important role in ensuring that the United Nations system, while it spoke through many voices, had a single and harmonious message.  The Committee had held its 2000 session at the headquarters of the World Meteorological Organization and had sought to strengthen that unified message. 

Three main features had characterized the session, she said.  Towards coordinating the system, the Committee had adopted the promotional campaign, “UN Works”.  It also had sought active participation in the implementation of new DPI

initiatives, namely, the news service and the radio pilot project.  Also highlighted were the information strategies for the major conferences of 2001 and the three envisaged for 2002.

Secondly, she said, the Committee took up the important subject of the use of modern communications technology and set up an interactive Web board for the exclusive use of its members.  Its operation had begun; hopefully, its scope would expand.  It was also decided to have an in-depth discussion at the Committee’s next session of the Internet, for which today’s comments would be taken into consideration.  The next meeting would be held at the WIPO headquarters in Geneva from 10 to 12 July.  Another important subject of the session would be the promotion of a more interactive dialogue within the system with a view to promoting concerted and quick reactions by the United Nations, when necessary. Announcement

SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the DPI, drew the Committee’s attention to a 1997 General Assembly resolution, which stressed the role of the relevant intergovernmental bodies in the consideration of the narrative of the proposed programme budget in a budget year.  This being such a year –- with the budget due out shortly –- he would like to make the narrative available in the form of a conference room paper.  The challenges of preparing that documentation in a budget year were considerable, and translation into all six languages had not yet been concluded.  Nonetheless, he felt it might be useful for Committee members to have today the text in the form of a working paper in English of what would be distributed in the course of next week as a conference room paper in the six languages.

He said that, in the context of today’s discussion on multi-lingualism, he realized that was not satisfactory.  Obviously, it would have been better to distribute the paper in six languages today.  Hopefully, the language versions would be available soon.  English copies of the paper would be placed at the back of the room today as a working paper.  It would contain the narrative parts of the proposed programme budget, taking into account that the relevant figures would be received by the Fifth Committee.  It presented the strategic priorities of the Department in the context of the reorientation of its activities and of the forthcoming biennial budget exercise.  During the upcoming negotiations in the open-ended working group, members might wish to consider, as part of its draft resolution, taking note of the programme aspects of the proposed programme budget for the next biennium.  Hopefully, this could be introduced more systematically in the future into the Committee’s agenda and the relevant documentation be made available at an earlier stage, so that delegations could review them and present their views.

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For information media. Not an official record.