|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)|
By Glen Paoletto
Modern communications technology now knits together the far corners of the globe in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. It is said that no communication medium in history has ever grown as fast as the Internet. Some sense of the speed of growth of the new information technologies can be gathered by one staggering statistic: worldwide, a new web site - or " homepage" - is created every four seconds.
The UNU recently established a Global Environment Information Centre at the Tokyo Headquarters, in cooperation with the Environment Agency of Japan. The facility has its own homepage on the World Wide Web. Known by its acronym GEIC, the site's rationale arises from recommendations of Agenda 21, the Rio Earth Summit call for action. It houses the environment-related materials of some 1,000 organizations, and acts as a centre for (1) global projects (2) networking and (3) public information on environmental issues.
In the following article, Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist of the UNU who has been in charge of developing GEIC, tells of some of the challenges faced in setting up such a facility. His article was prepared specially for Work in Progress. - Editor
Technically, a new homepage is not all that difficult to create. All you need is access to a personal computer (PC) a modem (linking your PC to a telephone line) and some knowledge of html (hyper text markup language). But quantity is no substitute for quality. If you have ever "surfed" the World Wide Web (the now familiar "www"), you will know that there are some "good" and "not-so-good" homepages.
For the unitiated, the World Wide Web is a system that lets the user travel around the world electronically, looking for information. It uses "hypertext," which lets you jump from place to place in a document, using linked, highlighted words. The user follows a trail of linked words - you select a topic that interests you, and view related information that is keyed within your selection.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for creating a homepage - a lot of learning is done through actual hands-on interaction, looking at other peoples' homepages, taking mental note of what is useful and what is not.
The UNU's Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC) opened at the UNU Headquarters building in late 1996 and is still learning the ropes of interaction through the Internet. It is a joint effort with the Environmental Agency of Japan, which has added its widely recognized strengths to the implementation of the GEIC programme.
Developing a good homepage for the sort of diverse, worldwide audience that might be interested in global environmental data has been particularly challenging. Initially the GEIC's homepage has four databases. One - a kind of ecological "Web Master" - provides linkages to other environmental information on the Internet. A second is a global network providing data about natural disaster and risk management. A third includes information from the UNU chemical monitoring project in East Asia, which is analysing hazardous substances from land-based sources. A fourth provides environmental information supplied by UNU's small island network.
Your Face to the World
The best homepages, I have found, always convey elements of human interest to the user. The first step in creating a homepage is to identify your target audience - and then go on to create an information package appealing to that audience. Your homepage is your face to the world. One of the most difficult things to do is to step outside of your homepage, and look at it critically through different eyes.
On a Small Island ...
If you were to open the GEIC homepage and follow the links to the small island network, this is what you might find.
Some general rules: the Web site should be complementary to and reflective of what you are actually doing, and focus on the benefits the user can derive from the site. It should be prepared for requests that can challenge your organizational and geographic limits. The homepage should be stylistically simple. Access should be quick and easy, with information downloadable anywhere, even in places with underpowered equipment, the situation in many developing countries. Keep the number of links, pages and "hops" to get to information to a minimum.
You should include a system to quantify results - who is accessing your homepage and where? Such information can make the homepage better in the future, shaping it more closely to users' needs. Which is to say, don't assume that once the site is up and running you are finished. Homepages are not static; they need time and effort to maintain, and to be kept up-to-date, responding to new needs and suggestions.
GEIC's target users are academics, NGOs, medium to small groups and ordinary citizens who want to do something about sustainable development. To this varied audience, we try to promote and convey information, networking, ideas, models and practices that they all might find useful. Since GEIC is also international, there are activities to promote a more significant role for actors in the global arena - for example, NGOs and their place in international and national processes. During 1996-97, one NGO focus has been on climate change - linking our activities to the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-3) held in Kyoto in December 1997.
As an integral part of the UNU, with its computer terminals and staff working out of the Tokyo Headquarters building, GEIC houses original information on and from the work of the University. The material it has distributed electronically has dealt with a range of ecological concerns - from integrated biosystems to industrial organic carbon sinks to ways to develop waste-free manufacturing processes. It facilitates communication with UNU collaborators, project participants and other interested parties worldwide in the effort to achieve sustainable development.
Finding What You Want
The Internet is an extremely effective and powerful networking tool. We sometimes forget that networking can be a major source for retrieving information. Networking can be particularly useful when you're not sure where to start looking for information, or cannot find what you want. It is not the amount of information that is the problem - the world is overwhelmed with information but being able to put your finger on what you need for a given problem.
Imagine, say, that you are a government official or a scholar in a developing country with poor communications system. Or that you live in a remote island. Either way, you are part of the UNU "audience." You have a problem on which you wish to find out more information, but don't have the books or the people to support you. However, you do have access to e-mail. In these sorts of developing country situations, networking can often prove much more effective than the traditional forms of research which they might be able to carry out.
GEIC is very concerned with networking smaller communities and minority groups - as, for instance, with the Small Islands Network (see example). Providing an interactive homepage on Earth Wrap (the GEIC newsletter) is another way. A homepage need not provide full details on every publication; all you need is a simple description of area of expertise, affiliation, the contact address, perhaps nationality - and, of course, an e-mail address. The speed of e-mail means that if the person contacted is not appropriate, then the right one can generally be found shortly.
The real power of the Internet lies in its potential for interactivity. Any organization that operates on the Web taps into the two-way communication potential. Users want direct database queries, fast transfer of large, multimedia files, and remote access so they can work from home or while travelling. Hardware infrastructures the hubs, routers and switches - will need to change to accommodate this.
Catering to individuals should be the ultimate objective of any homepage. The value of the Internet has already surpassed straight information sharing; it is now in a one-to-one relationship realm. In the case of GEIC, for example, the user - likely to be a small to medium NGO, individual or community group - should eventually be able to customize the site from which he or she can access documents, links and e-mail addresses of interest to him or her. This would also allow GEIC to notify the user of information that may be of individual interest. If the user is interested in, say, energy, then related information, as it becomes available, will be transmitted to the user.
"Thinkbase" - Making the Web Intelligent
At GEIC, we have established "Thinkbase," a concept which aims to make the Web intelligent. Thinkbase is comprised of a number of links and documents that they are extremely useful if a user wants practical and useful up-to-date global environmental information instantly.
The "winners" in the future of the Internet will be the first to maintain dynamic, interactive sites with content tailored to individual users. Organizations need to do much more than post static information and catalogue pages. The Web is not a book. The Web can "add value" to user relations. The user needs to enter the site and leaving with a value-added experience. Increasingly, content needs to be tailored for specific users.
Up to now, the Web has always been seen as an information disseminator. This perception and role will change to one where the Web becomes a place to find information. This change in perception and role means that there must be an accompanying change in how homepages are structured. This is something we have under constant study at the UNU's window on the environmental world - the Global Environment Information Centre.